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About this book

This New Casebook explores the enduring significance of George Eliot's novels The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861). Eliot's radical cultural politics and the arrestingly original fictional strategies that characterise two of her most popular novels are explored from a variety of perspectives - feminist, historicist, structuralist and psychoanalytic.

Table of Contents


The rise, fall and resurgence of George Eliot’s literary reputation represents many of the changes and fluctuations in literary taste that have taken place over the last 150 years. In her own day Eliot was widely regarded as an iconic sage, a sibyl, and moral teacher — roles which she herself seemed to take very seriously.1 Through her work, the English novel was seen to reach new heights of social and philosophical concern. Justin McCarthy described the reading public’s adulation of Eliot as ‘a kind of cult, a kind of worship’.2 Yet in the years following her death, attacks on a morality that came to be regarded as quintessentially Victorian rapidly displaced Eliot as a literary idol and she was transformed into a figure of ridicule: ‘Pallas with prejudices and a corset’, as W. E. Henley labelled her in 1895.3
Nahem Yousaf, Andrew Maunder

1. The Mill on the Floss, the Critics, and the Bildungsroman

Critics of The Mill on the Floss, no less than Maggie herself, have been troubled by the questionable appeal of Stephen Guest. Alongside the more famous debate between those who favour the pictorial charms of Adam Bede and those who prefer the philosophical challenges of Middlemarch, readers of Eliot have continued to ask: Is the handsome heir to Guest and Co. really, as Leslie Stephen would have it, ‘a mere hair-dresser’s block’? F. R. Leavis’s contribution in The Great Tradition (1948) was arguably not only to recuperate the later novels and Eliot’s reputation in general but also to raise the stakes in discussions of Maggie’s lover by claiming that Eliot herself, identifying with her heroine, ‘shares to the full the sense of Stephen’s irresistibleness’.1 Eliot’s own blind weakness for Stephen constitutes, according to Leavis, a lapse from ‘the impersonality of genius’ into an embarrassing mode of ‘personal need’.2 Gordon Haight, on the other hand, in his 1961 introduction to the Riverside Edition, spent several pages defending Stephen. Noting Eliot’s interest in the theory of evolution, he characterised Philip and Stephen as rivals in a Darwinian process of sexual selection and observed that ‘in simple biological terms Stephen is a better mate’.3
Susan Fraiman

2. The Two Rhetorics: George Eliot’s Bestiary

In an essay published in 1983, ‘Composition and Decomposition: Deconstruction and the Teaching of Writing’,1 I argued that all good readers as well as all good writers have always been ‘deconstructionists’. Deconstruction was defined as presupposing a methodical awareness of the disruptive power that figures of speech exert over the plain construable ‘grammatical’ sense of language, on the one hand, and over the apparent rigour of logical argumentation on the other. I concluded from this that rhetoric in the sense of knowledge of the intricacies of tropes should be taught in courses in composition, along with grammar and rhetoric in the sense of persuasion. Knowledge of figures of speech should also be taught in courses in reading. In the process of arguing that more attention should be given in courses both in reading and in writing to knowledge of figures of speech and their disruptive power, I discussed briefly (as examples of the way the great writers are all ‘deconstructionists’ before the fact) a passage from Plato and one from George Eliot. I propose here to analyse those passages in more detail in an attempt to identify their deconstructive rigour. It should be remembered that ‘deconstruction’ is not something that the reader does to a text; it is something that the text does to itself. The text then does something to the reader as she or he is led to recognise the possibility of two or more rigorously defensible, equally justifiable, but logically incompatible readings of the text in question.
J. Hillis Miller

3. The Chains of Semiosis: Semiotics, Marxism, and the Female Stereotypes in The Mill on the Floss

A semiotic-ideological aesthetics will include a typology of material forms of expression in order to understand the way ideologies arise. This typology is a historical one. In the case of literature, it includes the study of the kinds of contact available between writer and public: the existence of the printed press, of periodicals which publish instalments of novels, the extension of literacy to a wider reading public, the relationship between literacy (or kinds of literacy) and social role, etc. But it also includes a study of which is the repertory of types, conventions, genres, themes available to a writer. Once this repertory is understood to be ideological, and in no simple way ‘natural’, we might as well speak of ‘forms of production’. Literary production is determined by an enormous range of factors: the existence of a privileged literary tradition, the nature of the division between the cultural elite and mass culture, the commercial, cultural, and other links between countries which allow the influence of foreign literatures, etc.
José Angel García Landa

4. Men of Maxims and The Mill on the Floss

To rephrase the question: Can there be (a politics of) women’s writing? What does it mean to say that women can analyse their exploitation only ‘within an order prescribed by the masculine’? And what theory of sexual difference can we turn to when we speak, as feminist critics are wont to do, of a specifically ‘feminine’ practice in writing? Questions like these mark a current impasse in contemporary feminist criticism. Utopian attempts to define the specificity of women’s writing — desired or hypothetical, but rarely empirically observed — either founder on the rock of essentialism (the text as body), gesture toward an avant-garde practice which turns out not to be specific to women, or, like Hélène Cixous in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, do both.2 If anatomy is not destiny, still less can it be language.
Mary Jacobus

5. Nationhood, Adulthood, and the Ruptures of Bildung: Arresting Development in The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss has always stood out among Eliot’s works as an unusual case — prickly, undigested, ‘immature’, but the terms of its difference have not always been satisfactorily articulated. My argument holds that the novel’s intractability — what Susan Fraiman calls its ‘portion of radical discontent’1 — is fuelled by its resistance to historical, generic and psychological conventions of development. Specifically, The Mill on the Floss throws into question the most typical modern narrative of social identity — nationalism — and, in a tightly coordinated allegorical logic, undermines the most typical modern narrative of individual progress — the Bildungsroman. Eliot does not simply cast doubt on the idea that societies or individuals improve over time, but asks the more radical question of whether societies or individuals can be said to possess any kind of continuous identity over time. A careful look at the novel reveals a doubly anti-teleological stance whereby both national and individual histories unfold as sequences of rupture and loss, of separate and disjunctive states.
Joshua D. Esty

6. Narcissistic Rage in The Mill on the Floss

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver’s unresolved childhood rage, which results from her sense that she is devalued by her family and society, is transformed into her adult misuse of sexual power in her relationships with Philip, Stephen, and Dr Kenn. Her creator, George Eliot, rationalises Maggie’s behaviour with men and even turns her into an idealised heroine in the last section of the book. Eliot’s apparent inability to see the aggression in her heroine’s actions seems to derive in part from the autobiographical nature of the novel and possibly reflects the patterns of her own relationships with men in her young adult life.
Peggy R. F. Johnstone

7. ‘Light enough to trusten by’: Structure and Experience in Silas Marner

Silas Marner (1861), always a favourite with readers, was until recently considered too obvious and too lightweight to merit serious critical discussion. In 1949, F. R. Leavis echoed the views of many when he described it as ‘that charming minor masterpiece’, an evident ‘moral fable’.1 In only one respect was the work seen as unusual: it appeared to have no direct bearing on its author’s life.2 Ever since the mid-1950s, however, it has gradually gathered advocates who have shown that it is not only as rich in ideas but also as firmly rooted in George Eliot’s personal concerns as any of her other works and, somewhat surprisingly, these two issues have been increasingly seen as one.3 In 1975, Ruby Redinger explored the theme of hoarding and concluded that ‘the transformation of gold into Eppie justified George Eliot seeking and accepting money for her writing’.4 Lawrence Jay Dessner looked at a wide range of parallels between the events of the novel and the author’s circumstances at the time of writing, and noted that ‘fear of being abandoned, fear of having one’s secret revealed, antagonism towards a brother, love for a lost sister, concern for moral reputation [are all] common to the fact and the fiction’.5
Terence Dawson

8. The Miser’s Two Bodies: Silas Marner and the Sexual Possibilities of the Commodity

What could be simpler than Silas Marner’s support for family values? Forsaking her customary tact, Eliot fills the story with simple maxims and paeans promoting a life with wives and children, and emphatic caveats about a life without them. A faith in the family she is elsewhere content confiding to the implications of her narrative is here urged, and urged again, as conspicuous doctrine. Pulling out the stops, Eliot pours her formidable but usually discreet didactic energy into a straightforward channel of simple exhortation: ‘the Squire’s wife had died long ago, and the Red House was without that presence of the wife and mother which is the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen’;1 men without women inhabit houses ‘destitute of any hallowing charm’ (p. 73) and filled instead with the ‘scent of flat ale’ (p. 73); men without women live in a region barren of the ‘sweet flowers of courtesy’ (p. 121); men without women dwell in a twilight zone of tedium vitae whose only source of light is the memory of what is lost to them:
pass[ing] their days in the half-listless gratification of senses dulled by monotony … perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting; but the maiden was lost, and the vision passed away, and then what was left to them, especially when they had become too heavy for the hunt …?
(p. 79)
Jeff Nunokawa

9. ‘A report of unknown objects’: Silas Marner

Describing Silas Marner to Blackwood during its composition in 1861 Eliot commented that ‘it sets in strong light the remedial influences of pure, natural human relations’.1 Many natural things set in strong light are merely seen to wither, but let that pass. She could not have addressed a more pertinent issue nor undertaken a more urgent literary task. A great topic in British letters for at least the preceding two decades had been the contemporary extirpation of precisely the ‘pure, natural human relations’ that Silas is, in this statement at least, intended to assert. Dombey and Son2 is a thwarted Silas Marner in which the emotionally enervated Mr Dombey, unlike Eliot’s protagonist, tragically misses his opportunity for redemption through a relationship with a loving daughter. In line with this crucial negation, the novel poses the issues of ‘pure, natural human relations’ more sceptically. ‘Was Mr Dombey’s master-vice, that ruled him so inexorably, an unnatural characteristic? It might be worthwhile, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural.’3 Here is the great question posed by Dickens’s oeuvre, and one which could not be more relevant to nineteenth-century experience: whether it is not now ‘natural to be unnatural’. Silas Marner poses a comparable question on its opening page as the inhabitants of Raveloe ponder ‘how was a man to be explained’ and the novel constitutes Eliot’s answer.
Jim Reilly

10. Silas Marner: A Divided Eden

In her ‘legendary tale’, Silas Marner, George Eliot again addresses the issue of historical continuity. Like the earlier Adam Bede, however, the novel seems to evade the challenge of social change and disruption. Against the flow of history, the plot moves backward in time: the dweller from the industrial city is finally incorporated into the world of ‘Merry England’, ‘never reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion’.1 Just as Dinah left the harsh world of Stoniton for Hayslope, so Silas leaves the industrial life of Lantern Yard for the rural village of Raveloe which, like Hayslope, stands ‘aloof from the currents of industrial energy and Puritan earnestness’ (p. 33). In Adam Bede George Eliot emphasised the continuity of this process of change: Dinah seemed to evolve, without undue stress, into her natural form of matron. In Silas Marner, however, following the pattern of The Mill on the Floss, she dramatises the conflict and discontinuity of the historical process. Maggie experienced the ‘clash of opposing elements’ and was forced into temporary exile; Silas is abruptly cast out from his friends, work, and home.
Sally Shuttleworth
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