Incarnation, Inwardness, and Imagination: George Eliot's Early Fiction

By Orr, Marilyn | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Incarnation, Inwardness, and Imagination: George Eliot's Early Fiction


Orr, Marilyn, Christianity and Literature


The secret of our emotions never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relations to our own past: no wonder the secret escapes the unsympathising observer, who might as well put on spectacles to discern odours.

--George Eliot, Adam Bede

Is there not a spiritual existence that belongs to individuals?

--Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition

"I can't help laughing at the imbecility of that pious dictum--that if Shelley had lived till now he would have been a Christian--that is, he would have been old woman enough for it by this time" (Haight, Letters II: 126). This biting comment from Marian Evans to her friend Sara Sophia Hennell in 1853 stands as a warning to anyone wanting to reopen the question of George Eliot's attitude towards religion. Yet, as several recent publications suggest--notably Peter Hodgson's book, The Mystery Beneath the Real: Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot; Barry Qualls's chapter on religion in the Cambridge Companion to George Eliot; and Michael Davis's chapter on religion in Daniel Deronda in George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Psychology--it is time for a reappraisal of George Eliot's understanding of faith and for a more comprehensive analysis of the deep and inextricable interrelation of faith and imagination that informs her aesthetic. In the great age of religious questioning, which U. C. Knoepflmacher notes was "obsessed with epistemology" (160), Eliot's importance was such that Lord Acton can call her "the emblem of a generation distracted between the intense need of believing and the difficulty of belief" (Carroll, George Eliot: The Critical Heritage 463). In the conflict of interpretations that David Carroll rightly sees as central to her narrative situations, (George Eliot and the Conflict of Interpretations), Eliot's fiction reveals, I will argue, her own exploration of faith and imagination and her discovery of their inseparable connection as hermeneutical mindsets.

It is impossible to read Eliot's novels without thinking about religion, one would think, since, even when they do not directly concern religious clerics, they focus on characters engaged in deeply religious struggles. Eliot's work is rich enough that astute readers can find material for almost any sophisticated reading, and it is perhaps not surprising that while critics in a secular culture have tended to follow the standard view that Marian Evans "lost her faith" as a young woman, there is increasing interest in the necessary complexities of any such trajectory. While there have always been critics and readers speaking against the tide, the pervasive tendency has been to acknowledge her early piety and reiterate the "conventional wisdom" (Hodgson 1) that after her encounter with higher criticism, firstly through Charles Hennell and then Strauss and Feuerbach, and with the Comte school, her Christian beliefs were replaced by a Feuerbachian version of the religion of humanity. While the crucial influence of all of these is undeniable, I agree with Peter Hodgson when he argues that George Eliot never became a disciple of any system or ideology. (1) Instead, rather like one of the mollusks which were the subject of her husband's study, she accreted these beliefs like so many layers, each new level of knowledge adding to and adapting, rather than displacing, her earlier views. While it is easy enough to find comments in her letters declaring her rejection of conventional forms of Christianity, it is not much harder to find as many comments that modify and complicate these declarations of unbelief. (2)

In his book, Hodgson briefly analyzes each of Eliot's novels for their Christian content, and extrapolates from that the principles of what he calls George Eliot's "future religion" (13), a form of "revisionist postmodern" theology (152) which he aligns with various theologians from Schleiermacher to Ricouer. Hodgson's idea that George Eliot practiced a "faith, which kept the reality of God in suspense" (2), echoes ideas of philosopher Richard Kearney, himself a student of Ricouer. …

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