Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 44 (2013)
As his sub-title indicates, J. Hillis Miller is returning in his latest book to the study of George Eliot, bringing to bear on Adam Bede and Middlemarch the insight and erudition acquired in a long and distinguished career as a scholar and critic. He pursues a similar line to his wellknown articles from the 1970s on 'Narrative and History' and 'Optic and Semiotic in Middlemarch', subjecting that novel to a close and tenacious deconstructive reading that brings out the sophisticated self-qualifying nature of George Eliot's fiction. This is preceded by a shorter discussion of Adam Bede which shows how its celebrated commitment to realism and a mimetic theory of fictional language is accompanied by a contrasting insight into the way that language creates its own meanings, so that the novel is seen to turn back on itself and question its own assumptions.
Hillis Miller's close reading of both novels deliberately eschews the technical rhetorical terms of narratology on the attractive principle that 'it may be best to keep inside a given work, to try as much as possible to follow its own lines of self-interpretation or of selfcontradiction' (p. 2); and with Adam Bede he is subtle and carefully incisive in his tracing of recurrent patterns of imagery that relate the human to the natural, and in his illuminating juxtaposition of four widely spaced but clearly related passages about falling in love - an experience that is related to the appreciation of natural beauty and the beauty of art and music, all of which create an oceanic sense of transcendence. The passages are examined in Miller's characteristically deconstructive fashion: just as Adam's falling in love with Hetty is based on a misunderstanding of her feelings for him, all these experiences reveal the fictional nature of the emotions involved. These moments of transcendence are all fictions, all human constructions and projections onto objects and events of values they do not themselves possess; and, extrapolating from that, all the faithful mirroring undertaken in the novel is equally ungrounded and fictitious.
If the conclusion here may seem too comprehensively dismissive - falling in love, after all, has an emotional reality that is independent of whether the love is reciprocated - Miller's deconstruction reveals the ubiquity of fiction only to insist at the same time on its necessity, following the Nietzschean principle that we have art lest we perish from the truth - the truth that is represented in this novel by the dark pool which confronts the desperate Hetty and stands for all that exceeds human comprehension. Human imagination may be prone to destructive excess, like Hetty's fatally silly fantasizing, but it is also benignly constructive, creating the basis of culture in the shared illusions that hold a community like Hayslope together.