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Social Figures

Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History, and Literary Representation

Daniel Cottom
Foreword by Terry Eagleton
Volume: 44
Copyright Date: 1987
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Social Figures
    Book Description:

    Centers on the discourse of the liberal intellectual as exemplified in the novels of George Eliot, whose awareness of her aesthetic and social task was keener than that of most Victorian writers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8250-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Foreward
    (pp. viii-xvii)
    Terry Eagleton

    If “military intelligence” is one of the more striking oxymorons of modern society, the “crisis of the humanities” is perhaps one of its most notable tautologies. To see the humanities as a firmly grounded formation that at a particular point in its historical development enters into difficulty and selfdoubt is to miss the truth that “crisis” and the “humanities” were born at a Stroke. Crisis is permanent and structural to the humanities, not a regrettable confusion or failure of nerve that afflicts them from time to time. If the humanities are taken to be a body of discourses enshrining the...

  2. Chapter 1 “George Eliot” and the Fables of the Liberal Intellectual
    (pp. 3-32)

    When Mary Ann Evans wrote “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” in 1856, she was already an accomplished translator, editor, reviewer, and essayist. Then, as throughout the rest of her life, she was conversant with contemporary developments in theology, philosophy, sociology, historiography, the natural sciences, the arts, and public affairs of all sorts. Her expertise in these matters had helped her make her way in the world, and she identified herself as one whose role in society was devoted to the interpretation and dissemination of knowledge. Having thought herself out of a provincial and sectarian girlhood and into...

  3. Chapter 2 Education and the Transfigurations of Realism
    (pp. 33-58)

    As if in fulfillment of Enlightenment ideology, a new mode of social reproduction was conceived by the English middle classes over the course of the nineteenth century. Surveying their history in relation to other classes, they took their mission to be the creation of education as the matrix of social continuity.¹ They would make human nature the offspring of enlightenment and thus confirm their role in society. Rather than have a social system designed to guarantee the maintenance of order by reproducing itself along class lines, the middle classes found they could turn a blind eye to class differences as...

  4. Chapter 3 Literary Consciousness and the Vacancy of the Individual
    (pp. 59-82)

    Ordinary human life was remarkable to Eliot for the same reason that the gentleman became the subject of vexed debate in her time. This term represented a social change, not a creature that had been kept under wraps until it received its revelation at her hands. For Eliot, this term was the invention of an ignorance she could patronize. It was the sentimental complement to the transfigured gentleman. This is the relation one sees in the narratives of this time when an “ordinary” human being collides with the traditional figure of the gentleman and, through the impact, becomes a part...

  5. Chapter 4 Genteel Image and Democratic Example
    (pp. 83-102)

    In the beginning of “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” Eliot brushes against a social situation that would prove crucial to the design of all her fiction. When describing Shepperton Church, she notes that “in certain less eligible corners, less directly under the fire of the clergyman’s eye, there are pews reserved for the Shepperton gentility” (“AB,” 3). The crucial question is whether the gentility deserves its greater freedom from religious supervision. This question becomes more pronounced when one learns that the Reverend Barton’s teaching is controversial because it is provocatively “‘familiar,’” as Mr. Pilgrim says (“AB,” 12),...

  6. Chapter 5 Imperfection and Compensation
    (pp. 103-124)

    Eliot’s discourse demands that the character of artists always be implicated in work, and she made the assertion of this demand a systematic feature of her style of representation. Therefore, the moral commitment represented within Eliot’s writing is also a linguistic key. It can be used to translate representations of social life into a theory of representation and vice-versa. No wonder Eliot wrote to some of her friends, “Talking about my books, I find, has much the same malign effect on me as talking of my feelings or my religion” (L, 3: 99). The nineteenth-century custom of sprinkling allusions to...

  7. Chapter 6 Realism and Romance
    (pp. 125-140)

    In all its features, Eliot’s fiction is a commentary on an art antithetical to her own. At times this art is evoked through literary allusions, at other times Eliot makes reference to it through her reflections on the work she has in hand, and occasionally her characters’ actions, attitudes, words, and thoughts suggest they would be happier in the world of this antithetical art than they are in hers.

    This other art may be called romance to distinguish it from Eliot’s realism. In thus distinguishing them, though, one should also note that each seems necessary to the articulation of the...

  8. Chapter 7 The Supervision of Art and the Culture of the Sickroom
    (pp. 141-160)

    Eliot’s society is made to be seamless and all-encompassing, so it appears natural that her individuals can find a private space for themselves only in an image of romance that is nothing but an empty reflection of themselves. It is “no wonder,” Eliot would write, that the supervision of this situation should find its image in the scene of suffering. Given an aesthetics so deeply implicated in the mode of representation it opposes, a realism that takes the antithetical power of romance to be universal and unavoidable, and a writer who must forever find herself at a rhetorical impasse in...

  9. Chapter 8 Private Fragments and Public Monuments
    (pp. 161-182)

    In all the volumes of Eliot’s collected correspondence, one letter appears radically different in style from the rest. Perhaps there were others as different that are now lost. In any case, in reading the volumes one is impressed by the uniformity of Eliot’s style from the time when she was a young woman until the time of her death. Discounting relatively trifling variations, all her correspondence has the formal rigidity of a public monument burdened with that kind of heroic self-consciousness commonly found in park statuary. This aspect of her work might well call to mind J. Bronowski’s description of...

  10. Chapter 9 Domesticity and Teratology
    (pp. 183-200)

    Among the adjectives most frequently associated with “sympathy” in Eliot’s writing are “growing” and “enlarged.” These words are meant to indicate the progressive nature of the human spirit and the corresponding moral structure of Eliot’s works. Thus, inThe Mill on the FlossEliot opposes “formulas,” or opinions, to “the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy” (MF, 531). Similarly, there is the example of Philip Wakem, who writes a sympathetic letter to Maggie Tulliver when she appears to have been disgraced by her disappearance with Stephen Guest. He writes of “‘that enlarged life which grows...

  11. Conclusion: Reproduction/Quotation/Criticism
    (pp. 201-218)

    In their passage from a handwritten to a typed page, words may seem to acquire a transcendent quality. We may see this quality even in the most banal circumstances, such as those of the classroom. Consider the explanations some teachers offer when requiring students to type their papers. In addition to the advantage in neatness, students are told, typing enables them to look at their work more objectively. They can view their words as text independent of them, open to revision and correction. According to this argument, in giving writing something of the quality of the printed page, typing is...