Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

George Eliot and the Ambiguity of Murder

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

George Eliot and the Ambiguity of Murder

Article excerpt

Violent or shocking death is omnipresent in George Eliot's fiction, and if one were to create a line-up of all her agents and victims of murderous intrigue, the result would be a large gallery of characters whose untimely ends form principal denouements in the majority of her work. Twenty years ago, Walter Allen, in sustaining a general critical view which was then twenty years old. wrote, "V.S. Pritchett has said, |There is no real madness in George Eliot,' meaning by madness the sense of the forces of the irrational, the daimonic, the incomprehensible in men's lives."(1) Subsequent criticism, however, has not only refuted this long-standing image--alive, perhaps, since Leslie Stephen--of George Eliot, the great spokesperson for middling life and emotions, but has also shown how her formidable narrators, presumably unshakable in their sagacity, are frequently contradictory, baffling, and Dantesque in their absorption with the daimonic and demonic.(2) Her portrait of the homicidal mind certainly rivals that of Dickens', but, particularly in the distant past, readers have been less inclined to examine it, because her large verbal systems celebrate nurturance, growth, and sympathetic communality, and also because her methods of characterization are specifically designed to hypnotize readers into forgetting that they have just crossed into dangerous territory, that they have just left Dorothea and have again met Bulstrode, that they have just left Middlemarch and entered the private prison house or insane asylum.

Hetty Sorrel, Baldassarre Calvo, Nicholas Bulstrode, and Gwendolen Harleth are decidedly not isolated studies in pathological behavior within great normative constructs, because their motives are made accessible to the reader, on a plane continuous with those of their more conventional counterparts. Just as importantly, the special burdening pressure of their crimes leads them and their narrators into areas of poetic vision which lie at the very center of Eliot's large linguistic doubts. In this sense, the novels could be considered "polyphonic" in the way that Bakhtin uses the term.(3) The murderers hear the roar on the other side of silence, which is not only the cumulative effect of unacknowledged tragedy but also the unacknowledged and frightening inextricability of guilt and innocence. The murderers are the four subversives of the novels; they are in collusion with the narrator to undercut stated purposes. In an easily missed moment in Romola, Baldassarre, mad with vengeance, has just entered Florence in slavery; it is Piero the artist who comes up and cuts his bonds, finishing what began as a schoolboy prank.

Hetty, the major social and artistic problem of Adam Bede, has been hotly debated vis-a-vis the protagonist, the narrator, and the author, who, according to some critics, was also guilty of murder when it came to doing justice to her unmanageable creation.(4) Such discussions are usually confined to the end of the novel, but the difficulties of reader and narrator response to Hetty are there almost from the very beginning. In Chapter 15, "The Two Bed-Chambers," we are presumably given a paradigm which, as Barbara Hardy has shown. fascinated Marian Evans from her youth, that of the seer versus the narcissist.(5) But although this contrast is a major structure, the narrator, thinking he(6) has put Hetty's beauty into proper perspective, writes:

How pretty the little puss looks in that odd dress! It would be the easiest

folly in the world to fall in love with her: there is such a sweet baby-like

roundness about her face and figure: the delicate dark rings of hair lie so

charmingly about her ears and neck; her great dark eyes with their long

eyelashes touch one so strangely, as if an imprisoned frisky sprite looked

out of them.(7) The reader must be led to ask, here, who has the greater attractiveness. Hetty or the narrator? On the surface, it would seem that the egoist has been exposed to us in all her follies and that the didactic tone has scored a great victory for the morally concerned storyteller. …

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