Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 44 (2013)
As early as 1856 with the publication of the essay, 'The Antigone and Its Moral' ,1 George Eliot turned her literary attention to the Sophoclean figure of Antigone. Scholars such as Gerhard Joseph' and David Moldstad' have enumerated Eliot's multiple references to Antigone, and they have argued that Eliot makes Antigone a relevant figure for '"modern" life' (Joseph, 27) and an example of 'the continuity of man's elemental self, concerned in all ages with similar needs and problems, though moral codes have come and gone' (Moldstad, 531). Where Joseph traces the specific Antigone references in Eliot's fiction - especially in Middlemarch (1871-1872),' Romo/a (1863),5 and Daniel Deronda (1876),6 Moldstad argues that The Mill on the Floss (1860)' is Eliot's Victorian reenactment of the Antigone conflict. This essay furthers Joseph's and Moldstad's arguments by suggesting that Eliot's novels challenge the patriarchal assumptions of the Antigone tragedy endorsed by Hegel and upheld within Eliot's midVictorian milieu. Judith Butler's feminist reading of the Antigone as she outlines it in Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (2000)' similarly disputes such paternalistic Antigonean conclusions. Where Hegel famously cites the figure of Antigone as the archetypal representative of the familial sphere (with Creon operating as the exemplum of the political),' Butler argues instead that Antigone is anything but a paragon of normative familiality 'steeped as she is in incestuous legacies that confound her position within kinship' (2). Butler situates Antigone not at the threshold between family and politics but rather as a catachretic emblem of the inherent elision between the two. Butler's claim, as I shall argue, parallels Eliot's emphasis on a 'new Antigone' (Middlemarch, p. 838); indeed, Eliot's reconfigured Antigone is a heroine who challenges and confounds the conventional assumptions of kinship and gender iterated within the Hegelian philosophical system. Rather than perpetuating the traditional division between the sexes where the man operates in the political sphere and the woman functions primarily in the domestic, Eliot's Antigonean characters serve as examples of the constitutive relationality between the political and the familial and between the genders. Eliot thereby projects her 'new Antigone' into the future as a precursor to Butler's 'aberrant, unprecedented' (82) Antigone figure. What follows is a three-part essay that examines (1) Hegel's reading of Antigone; (2) Eliot's divergence from Hegel's gendered and binary interpretation of Sophocles' tragedy; and finally (3) Eliot's insistence on the expansive nature of kinship and appeals against a Hegelian paternalistic determinism not unlike Butler's Antigonean arguments.