The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy

By Judith Mitchell | Go to book overview

3
GEORGE ELIOT

Feminist critics have always had trouble with George Eliot, largely because of her seemingly scornful attitude toward the women's movement of her day, but also because of a perceived patriarchal stance in her work. Recently, however, feminists have attempted to reclaim George Eliot as their own, with interesting results. Dorothea Barrett, for instance, disagrees with previous analyses of the "sublime resignation" of Eliot's heroines and with "the tendency amongst modern critics . . . to attribute to [the sexual] a naïve or at best maternal cast" (22) in Eliot's work. Barrett, whose project is "to reclaim the canonical writers, to point out the radicalism that has been obscured by generations of conservative interpretation" (xi), claims that although Eliot "clearly intends" to recommend submissiveness, "the texts themselves" subvert this intention (42), and that her novels display "the belief that a woman's sexual need is actually the means of her oppression, [and] that in order to overcome male domination from without she must first overcome the domination of sexual desire within her" (68).

This is an interesting argument from my point of view, particularly as Barrett bases her contentions to an extent on a psychosexual analysis, claiming that "the rebelliousness and iconoclasm of [ Eliot's] work is closely related to its erotic content" (x). Briefly, although her argument is well worked out and persuasive at many points, I have to differ slightly with Barrett's basic contention: my search for a female subject of desire in George Eliot's work revealed (disappointingly) a much lesser degree of "rebelliousness and iconoclasm," at least in the area of gender issues. Eliot's endorsement of feminine submissiveness is inescapable (although not necessarily a weakness; Christine Sutphin, who also wishes to claim Eliot as a feminist, makes a convincing case for the notion of "willed submission" as a particular strength of Eliot's heroines). Also, I was able to discover no such battle

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