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George Eliot’s work has been praised for its realistic approach to character and skillful plot development. Staged against the backdrop of rural England, Eliot’s novels explore moral and philosophical issues associated with the growing agnosticism and spiritual despair of nineteenth-century English society. Middlemarch is considered unsurpassed among novels of the period in intellectual depth, and it remains the work on which Eliot’s reputation most firmly rests.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Deep Relationships with Father and Brother
Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was the youngest child of Robert Evans, agent for the estate of Sir Francis Newdigate, and Christiana Pearson Evans, his second wife. She grew up in the red-brick-and-ivy Griff House, overlooking the fields and canals of Warwickshire. She began school at five years old, and, like her brothers and sisters (two of the four half-siblings from her father’s first marriage), she was a boarding student at an Evangelical school. Her fiction suggests that the most important relationships of her childhood were with her full brother Isaac, prototype of the difficult-to-please Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (1860), and her father, often described as a model for Adam Bede and Caleb Garth as well as for Mr. Tulliver, who is always willing to take his daughter’s part in her emotional struggles.
By the time she was twenty-one, Evans’s mother had died and her brothers and sisters were married and scattered. She left Griff and moved with her father into a house on the Foleshill Road in Coventry. Partly because of her friendship with Charles Bray, who had bought the paper in June 1846, Evans wrote some short reviews and essays for the Herald the following winter, pieces that would become her first publications.
A Nurse First and a Journalist Second
Evans wrote little prose during the next few years, which she spent keeping house and nursing her father as he endured his last illness. Until she began writing for the Westminster Review in 1851, apparently her only publication was a rave review of James Anthony Froude’s The Nemesis of Faith (1849). The review was so enthusiastic that it prompted mutual friends to set up a romantic—albeit fruitless—matchmaking scheme. The plan backfired when Froude failed to show up at the rendezvous point, and announced his engagement to another in his note of regret.
Having spent the winter after her father’s death in 1850 alone in Geneva, Evans returned to England alone. She soon after made the move to leave behind the provinces permanently, except as settings for her fiction. Recruited by John Chapman to edit his newly acquired pet project, the Westminster Review, she moved into his publishing, bookselling, and lodging establishment at 142 Strand and became a member of London’s lively literary and intellectual set. Among her new acquaintances was George Henry Lewes, who contributed articles on philosophical, scientific, and literary topics to the Westminster Review and other London periodicals. Despite Lewes’s thoroughly failed—but still legal—marriage to Agnes Jervis, Lewes and Evans began in 1853 a mutually supportive intellectual, romantic, and emotional partnership that endured until his death in 1878.
A Life in Motion
In eloping first to Germany in 1854, Evans and Lewes set a lifelong pattern by which they interspersed periods of hard work in London with travel that was part vacation, part field trip. on the initial trip to Weimar and Berlin, Lewes was completing a biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe while Evans gathered material and background for articles. Her need to supplement the small income from her father’s legacy resulted in the following two years of intense journalistic productivity. During this time, she wrote dozens of reviews, most of them for the Westminster Review and the Leader. In Germany, this was a period of intense upheaval. The Prussia-led unification of Germany into a modern nation state would not occur until France’s final defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1871. And the French revolution of 1848 had sparked a series of revolutions in the German states, whose aftermath was far from resolved when Evans and Lewes first traveled there. Evans’s German travel, together with the extensive religious reading of the Evangelical days of her youth, equipped her to write especially rapidly and well on books pertaining both to German history and culture and to religion.
Forsaking the Lying Truth for the True Lie
Evans gave up journalism almost completely when she began writing fiction in the fall of 1856, and soon, for fear of finding negative comments on her own work, she stopped even reading book reviews. The excellent income from the novels freed her from financial need, and, unlike her journalism, her fiction could conveniently be written away from London. During the next twenty years, despite their permanent residence at The Priory near Regent’s Park beginning in 1863, she and Lewes often fled the fog, the noise, and the sooty air of London. Eliot (who had assumed her pseudonym in 1857) wrote much of her fiction while traveling on the Continent or on holiday at the seaside. She chose a male pen name, although female authors published freely during that time, to distinguish herself from what American author Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to as that ”damned mob of scribbling women,” the female authors of popular romances. At home she and Lewes were occupied with settling his three growing sons in suitable professions, taking care of each other’s feeble health, and maintaining the literary social life that they developed as the fame of the novels increased. By the late 1870s Eliot’s success as a novelist had brought her not only wealth and fame but also the simple social acceptance denied her since she and Lewes had begun living together openly. At the Priory they entertained friends and fans on Sunday afternoons, and they began a series of regular visits to the universities at Oxford and Cambridge.
After Lewes died in 1878, Eliot struggled with her grief for more than a year, then astonished her friends and her public by marrying John Walter Cross, a banker twenty years younger than she. They honeymooned on the continent and leased a new house in London, but only seven months after her wedding Eliot died suddenly—in December of 1880. The beloved novelist was buried in Highgate Cemetery on the north edge of London, a city she seldom represented in her novels but evoked consistently in her nonfiction prose.
Works in Literary Context
Science as Metaphor for Life
The use of scientific metaphor is characteristic of George Eliot’s work, and bespeaks a dominant tendency of her period. Eliot was associated with Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, and other ”scientific philosophers,” and their influence upon her was great. Counterbalancing this, however, was a conservative tendency arising from her early acquaintance with rural life in the Midlands and Evangelical background. In her short story ”Amos Barton,” that conflict is apparent in the alternating condescension and tenderness of her attitude toward her subject. But in the Scenes of Clerical Life, for example, her originality and insight are still obscured by conventional forms of expression, corresponding to conventional modes of feeling and thought. In general, Eliot’s work may be described as psychological realism, a genre dependent on the application of scientific ways of seeing to the understanding of human relations, and one that included such greats as Jane Austen and, later, Henry James. Eliot’s progress as an artist mirrored, then, the intellectual and social movement of her period toward scientific rationality—with all of its advantages and flaws.
Selflessness, Morality, and the Novel
One common theme found in many of Eliot’s works is selflessness. Silas Marner, the main character in her novel of the same name, experiences only misfortune when he works for his own wealth and happiness. However, when he takes in a young child whose opium-addicted mother has died, his life—and his place as a member of the community—is transformed. In Daniel Deronda, the title character lives his life as selflessly as possible, which serves as an example to the self-involved Gwendolen Harleth, who shows signs of maturity by the end of the novel. In these and other works, Eliot is still negotiating the historical legacy of the novel as an art form. Particularly in England, the development of the novel was regarded with skepticism by many, and was often called on to justify its existence by providing solid moral instruction for readers. Insofar as her work does offer some moral instruction—though not without a degree of skepticism—Eliot follows in the footsteps of such British authors as Samuel Richardson, whose eighteenth-century bestseller Pamela (1740) has delighted and infuriated critics and moralists alike for centuries.
Works in Critical Context
While Eliot was regarded as the leading English novelist during the last years of her life, it was common at that time to differentiate between her early and late work and to prefer the former. Reviewers almost unanimously agreed that Eliot s later novels were overly philosophic and didactic, lacking the spontaneity and charm of her early autobiographical works. Consequently, the esteem in which she was held was already in decline at the time of her death in 1885, and was further diminished by the late-Victorian revolt against “the-novel-with-a-purpose” or ”novel of conduct.” It was not until the 1940s that her novels, particularly the later ones, returned to favor, generating a resurgence of interest in her work and a body of criticism that rivals dedicated to her fellow Victorian, Charles Dickens. The variety and quantity of current critical response is perhaps the best measure of Eliot’s complex genius. She continues to inspire analysis for her psychological insight, broad vision, and mastery of a realistic style.
”There can be no mistake about Adam Bede,” wrote one reviewer for the London Times. ”It is a first-rate novel, and its author takes rank at once among the masters of the art. The novel was first published in three volumes in February of 1859. A year later it had gone through four editions with four printings of the last edition; had been translated into French, German, Dutch, and Hungarian; had spawned a sequel; and had brought forward a Warwickshire eccentric named Joseph Liggins who claimed to be the real George Eliot (since the true author had concealed herself behind a pseudonym). Adam Bede sold sixteen thousand copies in a year and earned Eliot a great deal of money. ”In its influence, the probably partial Lewes wrote to his son Charles, ”and in obtaining the suffrages of the highest and wisest as well as of the ordinary novel reader, nothing equals Adam Bede.
The Mill on the Floss
Eliot’s next novel, The Mill on the Floss, was published in 1860, and was subjected to scathing criticism: The main character Maggie is not of ”the smallest importance to anybody in the world but herself, said philosopher and critic John Ruskin. Ruskin’s reaction was symptomatic of that of most critics of the novel: The Mill on the Floss affected them where they were weakest. They felt that Maggie s free will was unfairly overcome in a moment of crisis. Their simple categories of right and wrong were undermined by what later critics have described as a ”complex web of heredity, physiology, and environment. Consequently, as David Carroll remarks, ”The Victorian reader s sympathies have been turned against his moral judgment and he feels aggrieved.
Middlemarch, says A. S. Byatt, ”is a novel, above all, about intelligence and its triumphs, failures, distractions, fallings-short, compromises and doggedness. The greatness of Middlemarch was immediately acknowledged; the novel was a classic in its own time. In The Millon the Floss Eliot had written a tragedy; in Middlemarch she wrote an epic. And Middlemarch could be accorded too much praise, claims Geoffrey Tollotson, only ”by saying that it was easily the best of the half-dozen best novels in the world.
- Byatt, A. S. George Eliot 1819-1880. New York: Penguin, 1980.
- Carroll, David R., ed. George Eliot: The Critical Heritage. New York, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
- Dodd, Valerie. George Eliot: An Intellectual Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
- Fulmer, Constance M. George Eliot: A Reference Guide, 1858-1971. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
- ”Introduction” in Introduction to Essays of George Eliot, Ed. Pinney, Thomas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963; London: Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1963.
- Paris, Bernard J. Experiments in Life: George Eliot’s Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State University Press,1965.
- Redinger, Ruby V. George Eliot: The Emergent Self. New York: Knopf, 1975.
- Taylor, Ina. A Woman of Contradictions: The Life of George Eliot. New York: Morrow, 1990.
- Wiesenfarth, Joseph. George Eliot’s Mythmaking. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1977.
- Rust, James D. ”The Art of Fiction in George Eliot’s Reviews.” Review of English Studies, new series 7 (1956): 164-72.
- Stange, G. Robert. ”The Voices ofthe Essayist.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (December 1980):312-30.
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