The Realism of George Eliot

One of the most succinct yet poignant statements of realism was made by the major Victorian novelist George Eliot (1819–1880), the latter being the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans. Her novels include Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–1872), and Daniel Deronda (1874–1876). Her early life was spent in Warwickshire where she fell under the spell of a narrow religious evangelicalism inspired by John Wesley’s Methodist movement. Her intellectual and religious horizons were later expanded through various influences. She contributed to, and eventually became assistant editor of, the Westminster Review, a position that gave her access to much liberal thought. She was exposed to the ideas of Carlyle, Emerson, Mill, and Huxley, and more intimately acquainted with figures such as Herbert Spencer, as well as George Henry Lewes, with whom she entered in 1865 into a lifelong partnership outside of marriage. A writer and advocate of realism, Lewes was the first person to bring the positivism of Auguste Comte to the attention of English thinkers. George Eliot’s translation of David Strauss’ controversial work The Life of Jesus appeared in 1846; Strauss had argued that we must reject the literal truth of the gospels and accept them as “myths,” as archetypal constructs of the social imagination. In 1854 she also produced a translation of Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. Nearly all of these thinkers promoted a humanistic and tolerant, as opposed to a rigidly religious, conception of human nature.

george-elliot-5This newer conception is expressed in both the form and content of Adam Bede. One of the features of this novel is that its narrative is self-conscious, with the omniscient narrator often pausing to reflect on the story and to mediate between the story and the reader. The most striking example of this occurs in chapter 17, entitled “In Which the Story Pauses a Little.” Eliot uses this chapter to outline and justify her narrative technique of realism. She imagines the reader exclaiming that her portrayal of a certain character called Mr. Irwine, rector of Broxton, presents him as “little better than a pagan!”1 She retorts that as a novelist she wishes to avoid refashioning “life and character” after her “own liking”; rather, she says, “my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective; the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box narrating my experience on oath” (150). Hence, the first principle of her realism is the artistic pursuit of truth, a truth based on direct experience of the world. She is aware, however, of the difficulty of such an enterprise: “Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult . . . Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings” (151–152). There is an implicit recognition here of the gulf between language and experience, of the inadequacy of words to express our actual psychological states. Indeed, she imagines the reader asking for the “facts” to be improved and idealized, for characters to be portrayed as unproblematically good or bad, so that they can be admired or condemned “at a glance,” and without the “slightest disturbance” of their prepossessions or assumptions (150–151). Eliot’s point is that to indulge in such falsehoods and fictions, to paint life in a neatly categorized manner, is far more easy than expressing life in its actual, untidy, complexity. This, then, is a second principle of her realism, which follows from the pursuit of truth: experience is complex and must not be reduced to expression in preconceived categories; the representation of experience must be authentic, refusing to pander to current prejudices and popular taste.

A third principle of the realism advocated by Eliot is its moral basis: we should accept people in their actual, imperfect, state, rather than holding them up to impossible ideals: “These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people – amongst whom your life is passed – that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love” (151). Hence Eliot’s realism is not the stark realism of a Flaubert or the naturalism of a Zola, which are inspired primarily by a “scientific” zeal for accuracy. Rather, the artistic focus on ordinary people and events has both an epistemological basis – the reliance on one’s own experience – and a moral basis of sympathy or “fellow-feeling” with other human beings. Eliot is reacting of course, in part, against the long tradition of “high” style literature which has treated of “tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions.” She regards this tradition as essentially idealistic, a tradition which has ignored the reality of “cheap common things” and “vulgar details” (152).

A fourth principle of realism, for Eliot, is given in her view of beauty. She effectively redefines, or at least vastly extends, the medieval conception of beauty as pertaining to the form and proportion of an object. Let us, she says, “love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy.” While she does not reject the high style that paints an angel or a Madonna, she states: “but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands . . . those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world . . . It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore let Art always remind us of them,” helping us to “see beauty in these commonplace things” (153). Hence, the obligation of the artist to truth also becomes an obligation to beauty in this revised sense, an obligation to sympathize with, and perceive the beauty in, “ordinary” things and events. Eliot’s comments contain the recognition that literature has often been ideologically motivated, intrinsically connected to philosophies and theologies that have expressed the world views and the experience of the upper classes.

Eliot artfully takes this opportunity to connect the principles of her realism with a certain type of religious attitude. She contrasts her character Mr. Irwine, rector of Broxton, with his successor, the “zealous” Mr. Ryde, who “insisted strongly on the doctrines of the Reformation” (154). While Mr. Irwine may not have been the perfect pastor, people warmed to him, they loved and respected him, and his worldly knowledge enabled him to play a useful role in the lives of his parishioners both inside and outside the church. His preaching was based not on bookish doctrine and “notions” but on feelings, and it is this which actually influenced people to act morally (154). Mr. Ryde, on the other hand, “was severe in rebuking the aberrations of the flesh,” and he is presented by George Eliot and her characters as one of those narrow and petty people who ever “pant after the ideal” (154, 157).

Hence, Eliot cleverly presents her realism not merely as pertaining to literary technique but as encompassing an entire way of looking at the world: the pursuit of truth, the reliance on one’s own experience, the acceptance of people as they are, the perception of beauty in ordinary things were all aspects of this vision; and they were all underlain by a religious disposition which itself was humane and based on human sympathy rather than endless doctrine and the imposition of unrealistic ideals.


1. George Eliot, Adam Bede, ed. John Paterson (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), p. 150. Hereafter page citations are given in the text.

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