English, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 35 (2004)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


While he was still writing his doctoral thesis, which became his influential Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Questfor Values (1965), Paris fully accepted the rhetoric in Eliot's fiction that is designed to shape our moral and intellectual responses to her characters. By rhetoric Paris means not just Eliot's 'authorial commentary but titles, chapter headings, epigraphs, characters' observations about one another, the use of foils and juxtapositions, and a wide variety of stylistic and tonal devices ... ' (p.15). All of these combine to persuade us to see her characters maturing, becoming wiser, more often than not through painful bouts of self-resignation. The title of Paris's earlier book, Experiments in Life, alludes to Eliot's letter of January 1876 to Joseph Frank Payne, in which she said,

My writing is simply a set of experiments in life - an endeavour to see what our thought and emotion may be capable of - what stores of motive, actual or hinted as possible, give promise of a better after which we may strive to keep hold of as something more sure than shifting theory. I become more and more timid - with less daring to adopt any formula which does not get itself clothed for me in some human figure and individual experience, and perhaps that is a sign that if I help others to see at all it must be through that medium of art. (Letters, VI, 216-7)

In Experiments in Life, Paris adopted that view entirely; however, since then he has frequently reread and taught Eliot - and has changed his mind.

Paris's altered - still altering - response to Eliot's fiction began shortly after his psychotherapy, which sought to address the extreme difficulties he had writing his dissertation. His deepening interest in psychology allowed him to find an acceptable humanistic value system that he had been searching for - but one that also exposed for him flaws in Eliot's religion of humanity. Increasingly, he felt that her emphasis on moral growth fails 'to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy needs and values' (p. 11). The immediate result was that he lost his enthusiasm for her art. However, after still more thought and reflection, he came to see that her characters are, in fact, highly developed, their behaviour inwardly intelligible. 'Creations inside a creation', Eliot's mimetic portraits, consist 'of detailed, often dramatized renderings of thoughts, feelings, speeches, actions, and interactions' (pp. 13-15). But although they are brilliantly conceived, Paris says, they are not always fully understood by Eliot. In fact, her characters often contradict or otherwise subvert what their creator would have us believe about them.