English, Department of



Henry Alley

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 30 (1999) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (30)


Eliot's ultimate goal- morally, aesthetically - was to free the individual ego from the suffering of reflecting upon itself. Her fiction, which she saw as a series of evolving psychological phases, achieves this liberation through strongly argued models of balance and through the kinds of recognition linked to anonymous heroism. Mental anguish is to be escaped through the contemplation of others, and it would follow that Eliot's cumulative effort would clarify what it means to acquire achievements on the level of quiet and anonymous bequeathal, rather than self-aggrandizing glory.

Eliot discovered that a broad perspective beyond ego may be developed by slowing or speeding up time in her fiction. As we readers are, we can only live in the 'present', and therefore can only suffer from the imprisonment of believing that what we do is limited by our birth and death. As we read Eliot, however, her novels become a large means of entering such a timeframe which shows how what we might do today might bear tenable and communal fruit sometime beyond our interment in an uninvited tomb. This is one of the major comforts of anonymity, such as Eliot saw it. Coordinately, her books are our major means of making us an additional gender, giving us more scope, through an identification with a Dorothea, a Lydgate, or both.

The escape from pain and the subsequent experience of anonymity, then, constitute a paradoxical and healing process. On the one hand, one's ego shrinks; on the other, it expands. Just as one loses by becoming a reader, so does one gain. When the reader becomes Dorothea, he becomes both larger and smaller by becoming the woman he never could be; when she becomes Lydgate, she becomes both larger and smaller in the same way. Similarly, the moment we become the larger consciousness of Middlemarch, our ego both expands and contracts. We are bound by a short period of eighteen months; yet we are led to see our lives and the lives of others within the entire Western tradition. Applied to Eliot's characters, the paradox can be seen in the various tragic and epic states of Adam, Maggie, Romola, Tom, Mr. Irwine, Felix, Esther, Lydgate, Dorothea, Gwendolen, Daniel. There is a fall from mental euphoria, frequently derived from a secure and private world of study or reflection; there is a subsequent littleness which 'crowds' in and enlarges the dimensions of their souls. Therefore, one need not, in Eliot, suffer from a sense of insignificance or even loss, since the larger view is always at hand.