From precepts to people: A study of characterisation in the novels of George Eliot (1979)
AuthorsNeutze, Dianashow all
George Eliot is undoubtedly one of our most intellectual authors. A study of her methods of characterisation, of the kinds of choices her characters confront, and of the solutions offered for the various moral dilemmas discussed in the novels, reveals the basic moral and psychological assumptions she shared with her contemporaries. Thus, the tensions generated by her attempt to reconcile a belief in universal causality with a belief in the possibility of exercising the will and therefore of being morally responsible require her to emphasise the inexorability of the laws of antecedent and consequent and at the same time to retain for her characters a slight measure of freedom of choice.
As nineteenth century psychology gradually freed itself of its philosophical origins, it incorporated elements from biology, neurophysiology, and sociology. George Eliot's knowledge of association psychology is revealed by her use of the theory of psychological determinism which governs the way in which her characters exhibit moral ascendancy or decline. Similarly, her emphasis on the "medium" in which a character lives relates to the mid-nineteenth century biological and sociological stress on environment and the interdependence of an organism with its medium. Lastly, the emergent evolutionary psychology which held that ancestral tendencies, once established in the nervous system, were transmittable from generation to generation, becomes a factor in two of her later works.
George Eliott’s concern for the moral development of her readers and the enlargement of their sympathies is well documented in her letters. Because she believes in the possibilities of individual moral growth, the novels are concerned with moral development and decline. Characters can be placed along a moral axis according as they display or reject such qualities as sympathy, or allegiance to the past, or acceptance of duty. Unmistakably throughout all George Eliot's moral conflicts and solutions is a hierarchy of absolute values.
To bridge the gap between description and evaluation, however, it is necessary to examine more specifically the aesthetic implications of George Eliot's framework of belief. Her concept of self, the tragic implications of a framework of universal causality and irreversible laws, constitute important limitations on the manipulation of plot and theme, and on the development of characters and the choices they confront.