Analysis of George Meredith’s Novels

In the late nineteenth century, George Meredith (12 February 1828 – 18 May 1909) achieved the status of a literary dictator or arbiter of taste. The path toward this recognition was, however, a long and arduous one. For years, Meredith received little to no recognition, and he had to wait for the publication of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel before he enjoyed the limited appreciation of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and others among the pre-Raphaelites. Not until the appearance of The Egoist in 1879 did Meredith’s literary reputation reach its zenith.


During his last years, Meredith received many awards and honors, including the succession of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as the president of the Society of British Authors and election as one of the original members of the Order of Merit. Within twenty years after Meredith’s death in 1909, nevertheless, his literary reputation began to suffer a partial eclipse, from which it began to recover in the 1970’s. One explanation for Meredith’s decline in reputation is simple: His turgid style and complex plots demand more from the average reader than he or she is often willing to give. C. L. Cline’s three-volume edition of The Letters of George Meredith, which appeared in 1970, and Phyllis B. Bartlett’s two-volume collection of The Poems of George Meredith (1978) have done much to reawaken interest in Meredith’s work, particularly in his poetry, which seems to appeal to modern readers much more markedly than it had to those of his own time. Even so, the influence of Meredith the novelist on such younger writers as Thomas Hardy was decisive, and Meredith’s theory of the Comic Spirit as the civilizing force of all thoughtful men speaks to all cultures of all times.

Although George Meredith’s works all emphasize the corrective, civilizing influences of the Comic Spirit, his novels, as well as his poems, forcefully work out a sort of theodicy which is consistently informed by the Near Eastern religion Zoroastrianism. This philosophy that treats the being and government of God and the immortality of the soul displays the theme of the struggle between good and evil in the early work Farina.

Farina and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

In the novel, surrounded by the trappings of medieval Germany, Farina, the hero of the tale, is left to contend with the evil effects of a bout between a monk and Satan. The monk represents the Zoroastrian god of light or good, Ormuzd, and Satan, the god of darkness or evil, Ahriman. In the later, much more successful novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, this dialectic is seen in the sixth chapter, “The Magian Conflict” (the magi were ancient priests of Zoroaster). In this case, Meredith assigns the roles of the two opposing parties of the struggle to a Tinker and a Yeoman; the witness to this debate is the adolescent Richard Feverel, whose father, Sir Austin, has attempted unsuccessfully to shield him from any introduction to the world’s forces of good and evil.

The Tinker, who appears to be a faithful follower of Zoroaster, the ancient prophet of the faith, asserts that the Good Spirit reigns supreme. The Yeoman, whomMeredith playfully calls Speed-the-Plough, protests, because of his recent misfortune of having lost several jobs, that the Evil Spirit dominates. The Yeoman is particularly hostile to Farmer Blaize, with whom Richard and a companion have also had an unpleasant encounter. Farmer Blaize is responsible for the beginning of the Yeoman’s misfortunes. Tinker and Yeoman discuss the universal strife between good and evil in Zoroastrian terms, wherein the Good Spirit is supposed to hold dominion for a two-thousand-year period and the Evil Spirit is believed to assume dominion for a like period of two thousand years. Clearly, then, this debate challenges the young Richard to side with Ahriman (darkness) or to join the legions of Ormuzd (light).

Richard later relates the details of this encounter to Adrian Harley, a sort of tutor and confidant of the young Mr. Feverel, who is actually a disciple of the Comic Spirit and whom the narrator addresses as the Wise Youth. Adrian explains to Richard that “I’m perfectly aware that Zoroaster is not dead. You have been listening to a common creed. Drink the Fire-worshippers, if you will.” Adrian recognizes the nature of the timeless controversy and applies to it the synecdoche, “Zoroaster,” to point out the age of the struggle. Adrian also emphasizes that this struggle is a universal one, the result of a “common creed,” regardless of Sir Austin’s refusal to acknowledge it.

Adrian’s comic toast to the Fire-worshippers is also ironic in that Richard and Tom Bakewell, the ploughman, have plotted to burn Farmer Blaize’s hayracks. That night, Richard and his friend Ripton Thompson watch the fiery destruction resulting from the match of Tom Bakewell, whose last name is comically appropriate to his role. This “Bakewell Comedy,” however, has serious overtones when seen in the light of the Zoroastrian metaphor. The fire of the boys’ vision is not a pure one, for there are “dense masses of smoke” amid the flames which leap into the darkness like “snakes of fire.” In Zoroastrianism, Ahriman (Evil) is responsible for this corruption of the pure flame.

The chapter’s title, “Arson,” which initiates the Bakewell Comedy, effectively points out the boys’ error. The boys are, like Tom Bakewell, not good Zoroastrians because the fire they are worshiping reflects the evil nature of their revenge. Adrian sees through their conspiracy; however, he does not expose the boys. Rather, in the true manner of the Zoroastrians, he believes that the most effective punishment would be a spiritual, inner conflict. “The farmer’s whip had reduced them to bodily contortions; these were decorous compared with the spiritual writhings they had to perform under Adrian’s skillful manipulation.” Adrian knows the true value of fire to the Zoroastrians: it is a symbol of the inner light of the soul, which glows brightest when fired by Ormuzd. If the soul is possessed by the evil Ahriman, the spiritual light is contaminated and burns, if at all, with a dim, impure glimmer.

Richard’s next crucial encounter intensifies the glow of the purer fire burning within him. He meets Lucy Desborough, destined to be his wife. The imagery used to describe this encounter is filled with references to light. Nature herself has provided “a Temple for the flame” of love. From a boat, Richard first sees Lucy pictured in an idyllic scene of radiant sunshine reflecting from the “green-flashing plunges of a weir.” Lucy’s face is shaded from the sun’s illumination mysteriously but compellingly “by a broad straw hat with a flexible brim that left her lips and chin in the sun, and sometimes nodding, sent forth a light of promising eyes.” Her hair was “golden where the ray touched” it. Even her name is derived from the Latin word for light: lux. Richard’s soul is filled with the light of passionate love, but he has another journey to the vision of the celestial light of the Zoroastrians.

Other references to Zoroastrianism abound in the novel. For example, at a later point, Sir Austin yields to the dark force of Ahriman when he chooses to “do nothing” at a time when his son needs his counsel most. Consequently, he turns his son away from him, perhaps forever, thus proving that a father with a “system” for child rearing cannot meet that system on its own terms.

Viewed within the bounds of the magian conflict, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is seen as a novel about the inevitability of the human strife between good and evil, both of which are inextricably mixed within the soul of every human being. Some measure of hope is given the novel, however, when the reader learns that, finally, Richard does view, if but for a moment, the celestial light of Ormuzd through the aid of a truly devoted wife.

It is this hope that raises The Ordeal of Richard Feverel to the level of true tragedy, which must in some measure be positive. Although Sir Austin falls victim to Ahriman, his son, Richard, has seen the vision of Ormuzd. By the use of Zoroastrian imagery, Meredith has greatly intensified his conviction that the ultimate destiny of humankind is unity with the light of the spirit or, more realistically for Meredith, unity with the great “Over Reason” of the universe. This unity directs man along the path of spiritual evolution and is the apex of Meredith’s developing doctrine about man: blood (perfection of the body), brain (perfection of the mind), and spirit (perfection of the needs of man’s spiritual consciousness by means of realizing his intrinsic independence and freedom).

The tone of the first half of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is predominantly one of comic irony; the latter half of the novel, however, assumes tragic dimensions. Meredith’s later novels display a much greater reliance upon the comic mood. Even so, the essence of “The Magian Conflict” is never lost; rather, Meredith wields the forces of darkness against those of light to accentuate the balancing, equalizing role of his emerging Comic Spirit, whose seeds have been planted in the wise youth, Adrian Harley. The struggle to reach the evolutionary apex, the light of the spirit, assumes a background role in the novels following The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and is treated later most directly in the poetry. In his novels, Meredith becomes increasingly more concerned with the question of how one should meet the vicissitudes of everyday life.

Meredith published his essay “The Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit” in 1877. Beauchamp’s Career appeared the year before; quite naturally the novel portrays many of the theories Meredith proposed in his essay. In 1879, Meredith completed The Egoist, which the author named “a comedy in narrative.” Meredith’s last great achievement in the novel genre appeared in 1885 and was entitled Diana of the Crossways. The novels provide interesting examples of the working out of Meredith’s theories centered in the Comic Spirit, and they demonstrate some degree of the use of Zoroastrian imagery. Beauchamp’s Career employs the Zoroastrian contrast of light and dark to a much greater extent than the other two novels. Meredith draws from Zoroastrianism to a noticeable degree, however, in each of these three novels in order to make the instructive character of his Comic Spirit more emphatic.

Beauchamp’s Career

Meredith makes repeated references to fire, sun, and light throughout Beauchamp’s Career, which undoubtedly reflects his prior use of Zoroastrianism in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. Meredith’s dependence upon Zoroastrianism is most pronounced, however, in his characterization of Dr. Shrapnel. Nevil Beauchamp is ambitious and wants to be a politician; he plans to exercise his philanthropic desire to “save the world.” He joins a radical political party in order to battle the more conservative Tory Party and to oppose the vehement objections of his Uncle Everard Romfrey, a hater of radicals. After Nevil loses an election for a seat in Parliament, he comes under the tutelage of Dr. Shrapnel, a professed Fire-worshipper.

Since “Fire-worshippers” is a name that Zoroastrians were often mistakenly called, when Dr. Shrapnel testifies “I am a Fire-worshipper,” the reader perceives already an element of Meredith’s comedy. Dr. Shrapnel, whose name calls to mind a number of images, all of which indicate either potential destruction or active destruction, has obviously become enamored of the mystic, esoteric nature of the religion and hence has adopted certain of its tenets to his own philosophy. Basically Shrapnel’s personal doctrine is, in his own words: “That is our republic: each one to his work; all in union! There’s the motto for us! Then you have music, harmony, the highest, fullest, finest!”

Admittedly, Shrapnel’s philosophy is good, or superior in its idealism, and it represents a direct restatement of Meredith’s own philosophy (expressed in many of his poems). At this point in the novel, however, the philosophy is stated by an extremist; hence, there is a touch of the comic which becomes more apparent as the novel progresses. Meredith’s infrequent use of the exclamation point and his almost negative use of italics make this particular passage stand out as the radical view of an extremist.

Rosamund Culling, the future wife of Nevil’s uncle, thinks of Shrapnel as “a black malignant . . . with his . . . talk of flying to the sun.” As may be expected from Rosamund’s tone, Dr. Shrapnel has at some time in her company been overzealous in the expression of his republican sentiments. News of Dr. Shrapnel’s inflammatory radicalism soon reaches Nevil’s Uncle Romfrey, who proceeds to horsewhip Shrapnel to the point of severe injury. Lack of understanding by his fellowman appears to be Shrapnel’s failing and provides the occasion for comment from the Comic Spirit, who judges that Shrapnel must suffer for his intemperance, for his imbalance. Compromise should be man’s objective.

Both in The Egoist and in Diana of the Crossways, the part played by Zoroastrian imagery is greatly reduced from that which it played in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and Beauchamp’s Career. Meredith’s Comic Spirit, however, comes to the front in full array; the increased subordination of Zoroastrian imagery to Meredith’s portrayal of his Comic Spirit indicates that Meredith’s theories and understanding of the purpose of his literary art were expanding and maturing. In the later novels, Meredith’s Zoroastrian and classical images become frequently and inseparably fused, a combination which further exemplifies Meredith’s artistry and more significantly indicates that Meredith’s philosophy was progressively becoming more distinct. His thinking was beginning to become a cultivated doctrine.

The Egoist

The Egoist characterizes the egocentric element in Meredith’s theory of high comedy. Sir Willoughby Patterne, who thinks himself the epitome of goodness and excellence in the world, surrounds himself with admirers and sycophants who satisfy his compulsion to be adored. In creating Patterne, Meredith has taken the next logical step from his production of Beauchamp. Patterne does not merely aspire to goodness and excellence; he actually believes himself to be the embodiment of these qualities.

Patterne attempts to satisfy his ego chiefly by involving himself with three women whom he manipulates with promises of marriage. His first “pretender,” Constance Durham, sees through Patterne’s facade of greatness with some degree of alacrity and leaves him. The lovely Clara Middleton, however, is not so insightful. She experiences a great deal of emotional turmoil, first in ascertaining the truth of Patterne’s pose and then in distinguishing the light of “her sun” from that of Patterne’s less self-assured cousin, Vernon Whitford, “a Phoebus Apollo turned Fasting Friar.”

Here, Meredith gives more attention to extravagances so that he may better revealthe necessity for the corrective influence of his Comic Spirit. Sir Willoughby Patterne burns; he does not merely reflect. His fire is the product of his own egotism, which burns with an outer brilliance but promises no inner flame. Meredith may well be recalling satirically the Western world’s traditional misconception of the importance of fire to the Zoroastrians, who do not worship fire for itself but only as a symbol of the light of the inner spirit.

The character of Vernon presents a striking contrast to that of Patterne. His light is the light of Apollo, who is not only the Greek god of poetry but also the classical god of the sun. Meredith has fused classical allusion with the Zoroastrian importance placed upon fire. Vernon’s flame is one of inner strength, for he burns with the light of poetic truth as well as with physical fire. He is also a Fasting Friar, however, a characteristic that raises doubt about the nature of his fire, since Meredith was not an ascetic. In effect, he has achieved in the characterization of Vernon the moderation that Dr. Shrapnel’s explosive goals denied him, since Vernon’s flame is tempered with some degree of asceticism. Vernon has measured life for what it is, but he has not given up the light of hope for what life can become. Meredith has achieved in his image of the contrast of the two fires the blending of Zoroastrian, classical, and Christian elements.

Laetitia Dale, the third of Patterne’s “adorers,” presents an interesting foil to Patterne’s character. At the beginning of the novel, she is described as a delicate, misled woman, a “soft cherishable Parsee.” The Zoroastrian connection is obvious: The Parsees are a modern sect of the Zoroastrians. Indeed, within Meredith’s comic framework, Laetitia worships “her sun” much as the Parsees were reputed to worship a “god of fire.”

Laetitia gradually becomes a strong, practical Parsee, however, as she, like the other two women in Patterne’s egotistic design, begins to see that the source of Patterne’s fire is not from within. Patterne is left in the end with Laetitia and is forced to accept her on her own terms. No reader of The Egoist can claim its conclusion as romantic or condemn it as pessimistic; rather, Meredith has achieved a noble expression of the corrective power of his Comic Spirit.

Diana of the Crossways

Meredith creates in Diana of the Crossways a character who faces decisions similar to those of the women in The Egoist. Even Diana’s superior wit and intellect do not prevent her from battling the forces of darkness. Meredith prepares the reader for Diana’s struggle in the introductory chapter of the novel. He develops a light image, “rose pink,” which “is rebuked by hideous revelations of filthy foul,” a likeness of darkness. Meredith opens this novel with a discussion of the same subject he had treated in his other novels. For man to think himself already a part of the celestial light at his present step on the evolutionary ladder is surreptitious folly. The future holds for him only “hideous revelations of filthy foul.” The narrator further asserts that it is not within the capacity of man to suppress completely the evil forces of darkness. The duality of good and evil inevitably creeps into life.

Having established an atmosphere of foreboding, the narrator sets out to explore Diana’s mental processes. Diana quickly becomes disillusioned by a mismatched marriage. Her husband, Warwick, is a man of limited intelligence. As a consequence, Diana becomes drawn to ideas outside the rigid, Victorian system of mores. Her desires strongly urge her to take leave of her witless, insensitive husband, who has accused her of infidelity. She experiences a night of conflict in which she fights like “the Diana of the pride in her power of fencing with evil.”

Meredith’s presentation of the strife between good and evil by his mixing of classical mythology with overtones of the Zoroastrian duality creates a sense of the universal nature of Diana’s struggle. Diana must decide whether to remain loyal to her marriage vows or to strike out on her own and obey her inner compulsions. She finds the impetus for her escape in Dacier, a character who is associated with devil imagery. Indeed, Dacier is the embodiment of Meredith’s assertion that there is “an active Devil about the world.”

Dacier is a lure to Diana in her desire to escape. His devilish character, however, is ironically exposed by his sanctimonious friend, Sir Lukin. Lukin declares that no man should be fooled by masks of goodness that seem to cover the bad in the world. Dacier, who presents every indication of virtuous conduct, is compared to the old Jewish Prince of Devils, Asmodeus, who spurs on appetite and uproarious activities of all sorts. Although the name Asmodeus appears in the Apocrypha, it also bears connotations to Eshina-Dewa, a wicked spirit of ancient Persian mythology. This is one of Meredith’s clearest fusions of Zoroastrianism with Christianity.

Dacier is thwarted in his evil intentions to seduce Diana. An acceptable guide appears for Diana in Thomas Redworth, a character capable of controlling Diana’s energetic impulses. Dacier does obtain a prize, however, in the lovely but naïve Constance Asper. Constance is “all for symbols, harps, effigies, what not” and believes that brains in women are “devilish.” Constance is perhaps the ideal mate for The Egoist’s Sir Willoughby Patterne, and she presents no problems for Dacier’s devious motivations. Constance, along with Dr. Shrapnel and Patterne, has failed to see the smoke for the fire. All three are so enamored of the physical brilliance of the flames that they cannot see the subtle glow of spiritual truth within the heart of the blaze.

In Diana of the Crossways, Meredith suggests that the endurance of life is perhaps more replete with task than with play. The individual is forced to make a distinction between good and bad, which life seldom presents in a clear-cut fashion. Constance and Dacier somewhat ironically indulge each other in their ostensibly opposing forces. The subtle comment of the Comic Spirit is that both approach life with attitudes of excess; hence, both have lost contact with the steady movement toward self-improvement. Diana and Redworth offer hope to the reader, however, because they have accepted the moderation that the Comic Spirit has taught them and that is necessary for the future success of the human spirit.

These novels present Meredith’s concern with the inevitability of “The Magian Conflict” in the life of each man. They also present Meredith’s keen observation that this conflict is never one from which one emerges successfully with ease. The struggle makes man’s attempt to choose an acceptable path—a way which is acceptable both to him and to his society—extremely difficult. The conflict is presented in terms of Zoroastrian, Christian, and classical myth; Meredith borrows from each in order to make his presentation of this undeniable, unavoidable battle assume universal dimensions. Meredith’s Comic Spirit attempts to aid man in his struggle, but it is not always successful in exposing man’s shortcomings, excesses, and refusal to see himself in a true light. In the fullest meaning of Meredith’s doctrine, however, the individual is also instrumental in the greater, universal struggle of humankind to move up the evolutionary ladder.

Meredith demonstrates in his attitude toward humankind and nature the belief that humans can achieve their evolutionary destiny by conforming to the lessons and demands of nature. His philosophy is universal in scope and implies a comprehensive fusion of nearly all the ethical ideals that people have gathered from the beginning of many religious philosophies he studied, he does select with careful scrutiny those elements that he feels contribute to his own doctrines. Indeed, he demonstrates that he is vitally affected by all the religious thought known to him.

Principal long fiction
The Shaving of Shagpat, 1855; Farina, 1857; The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, 1859; Evan Harrington, 1861; Emilia in England, 1864 (as Sandra Belloni: Or, Emilia in England, 1886); Rhoda Fleming, 1865; Vittoria, 1867; The Adventures of Harry Richmond, 1871; Beauchamp’s Career, 1874-1875 (serial), 1876 (book); The Egoist, 1879; The Tragic Comedians, 1880; Diana of the Crossways, 1885; One of Our Conquerors, 1891; Lord Ormont and His Aminta, 1894; The Amazing Marriage, 1895; Celt and Saxon, 1910 (unfinished).

Other major works
Short Fiction: The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper, 1890; The Tale of Chloe, 1890.
Poetry: Poems, 1851; Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside, 1862; Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, 1883; Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life, 1887; A Reading of Earth, 1888; Selected Poems, 1897; A Reading of Life, with Other Poems, 1901; Last Poems, 1909; The Poems of George Meredith, 1978 (2 volumes; Phyllis B. Bartlett, editor).
Nonfiction: On the Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, 1877; The Letters of George Meredith, 1970 (3 volumes; C. L. Cline, editor).

Beer, Gillian. Meredith: A Change of Masks. London: Athlone Press, 1970.
Muendel, Renate. George Meredith. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Pritchett, V. S. George Meredith and English Comedy. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1970.
Roberts, Neil. Meredith and the Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Shaheen, Mohammad. George Meredith: A Re-appraisal of the Novels. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.
Stevenson, Lionel. The Ordeal of George Meredith. London: Peter Owen, 1954.
Williams, Ioan, ed. Meredith: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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