Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 34 (2003)
George Eliot's famous digression on the nature of literary realism in chapter 17 of Adam Bede has long been understood as a kind of aesthetic manifesto for the Victorian novel. Much has been written on Eliot's insistence that a faithful narrative representation of reality must take account of low and middle life, much as Dutch genre painting seeks to imitate quotidian life in all its prosaic detail. What has attracted virtually no attention in discussions of Eliot's ideas on realism, however, is the central importance of comic theory to her realist aesthetic.' Indeed, Eliot's comic theory deeply informs and shapes her well known positivism and insistent faith in the power of sympathetic intersubjective relations to regenerate individual and social life.
Robert Martin's classic critique of Victorian comic theory briefly discusses Eliot's views on humour and wit, but fails to link them to broader issues of realism and aesthetics. Martin classes Eliot with the 'wit and intellect' wing of Victorian comic theory, epitomized by George Meredith, arguing that she seeks to recover the importance of wit and 'ratiocinative intellect' to true comedy at the expense of boorish, sentimental, uncultured comedy.' While he is right to recognize Eliot's contribution to Victorian comic theory, Martin overdetermines Eliot's thesis in terms of his own bias toward the 'triumph of wit' and his dichotomous approach to wit and humour. In fact, a closer study of Eliot's primary treatise on the comic reveals a much more complex understanding of the comic and its formative role in structuring, through the realist narrative, human consciousness for the better.
In her 1856 essay entitled 'German Wit: Heinrich Heine', Eliot boldly analogizes the development of true comedy to the progressive development of human civilization. She opens the essay with a quotation from chapter 4 of Goethe's Elective Affinities: "'Nothing," says Goethe, "is more significant of men's character than what they find laughable''':
The truth of this observation would perhaps have been more apparent if he had said culture instead of character. The last thing in which the cultivated man can have community with the vulgar is their jocularity; and we can hardly exhibit more strikingly the wide gulf which separates him from them, than by comparing the object which shakes the diaphragm of a coal-heaver with the highly complex pleasure derived from a real witticism. That any high order of wit is exceedingly complex, and demands a ripe and strong mental development, has one evidence in the fact that we do not find it in boys at all in proportion to their manifestation of other powers. Clever boys generally aspire to the heroic and poetic rather than the comic, and the crudest of all their efforts are their jokes. Many a witty man will remember how in his school days a practical joke, more or less Rabelaisian, was for him the ne plus ultra of the ludicrous. (193)