Chapter Four: Beyond the Veils of Consciousness: Individual and Collective Awareness in the Novels of George Eliot

By Grace, Daphne M. | Consciousness, Literature & the Arts, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Chapter Four: Beyond the Veils of Consciousness: Individual and Collective Awareness in the Novels of George Eliot


Grace, Daphne M., Consciousness, Literature & the Arts


For the latter part of the nineteenth century, female novelists explored how far women dare go socially and spiritually, and what it meant to be a member of the female subculture. Elaine Sho waiter explains, "women novelists' awareness of each other and of their female audience showed a kind of covert solidarity that sometimes amounted to a genteel conspiracy" (1977: 16). Through writing, women were to embark on a journey of self-discovery that was to have shattering consequences for both culture and consciousness. Yet while craving and striving for outer recognition in the literary world, and improved social rights in the political world, it was the nature of consciousness itself that underpinned all the debates on the nature of women's positioning in the definition of patriarchal humanity.

George Eliot and the exploration of female consciousness

Certain works of literature address the realm of consciousness as their main theme. George Eliot's novels have long been regarded as the great realist novels of the nineteenth century, chronicling the connections between individual experience and the rapidly changing social landscapes of Victorian England, yet they also engage with the subject of human consciousness and its possible expansion into "higher" capability of expression. Her work taps into the interest at the time in scientific approaches to the mysteries of the human mind: What was the unknown life force that creates consciousness, what is the one underlying substance that connects all living matter; what was the connection between the brain size and intelligence, morality, or social status? Eliot kept up with the rapid developments in the pseudo-sciences- such as phrenology-and techniques such as mesmerism to explore in her fiction the problems of free will, and the vital interconnectivity between individual consciousness and group consciousness.

In this chapter, I shall examine two widely divergent works by George Eliot, and argue how they both examine different aspects of human consciousness and confront the "hard" problems that this entails. Much of Eliot's work asks us: in what ways can the self be reconstituted, or developed, to live a more fulfilled and worthwhile life? Middlemarch depicts the development of higher states of consciousness in a woman, and presents the hypothesis that the interior life of the individual can, and must, influence society. This theme that the individual spiritual life entails transcending ego is further developed in Daniel Deronda, where Eliot directly confronts the interconnections between mysticism, moral choice and social responsibility. In this novel, she also challenges society's rigid classifications of class and race, extolling the inner reality of selflessness and empathy as opposed to the adulation of social status gained through ruthless materialism. Eliot destabilizes gender expectations here too, since the qualities of care and compassion are the characteristics of Daniel, while Gwendolyn Harleth embodies the heart-less and egodriven social climber.

The second text discussed in detail here, The Lifted Veil, suggests what can happen to a person who denies-or misinterprets-that the powers of developed consciousness should be used for the betterment of society, not personal gain. This dichotomy between self-worth and the reward of human love as opposed to alienation and self-hatred can be explained in terms of the various stages of development available to human consciousness.

Middlemarch: the world is as we are

The insight of reality having many different levels within the dimensions of experiencing and of perception, like the multiple overlaid universes described by today's leading physicists (see for example, Greene 2012), is one of the main themes of Middlemarch. The multiple story lines and characters weave a web that is both complex and interconnecting: and it is here that the difference between reality-and the misconceptions or misperceptions of it by the several charactersis elucidated. …

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