“Janet’s Repentance” is part of a trio of stories by George Eliot that was first serialized as Scenes of Clerical Life in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. The other two stories in the group are “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” and “Mr. Gilfil’s Love- Story.” This story focuses on Janet Dempster, whose alcoholic husband verbally and physically abuses her. Janet herself turns to alcohol. Though she has friends and a mother, Janet initially refuses their gentle offers of assistance. After Dempster comes home drunk and in so fierce a mood that he throws Janet out in her nightdress, Janet turns to her friend Mrs. Pettifer for help and shelter. After this she accepts the help of an Evangelical minister, Mr. Tryan, whom she had earlier reviled since her religious loyalties were to her pastor, Mr. Crewe.
When Janet’s husband has an accident, she takes care of him, but he dies of his injuries. After her husband’s death, more friends rally around Janet. Though she is tempted to take up drinking again, Janet manages, with the help of Mr. Tryan, to stay sober. Unfortunately Mr. Tryan is ill with consumption (tuberculosis); Janet does her best to see that he is comfortable and accepts the help of others before he dies of the disease. The end of the narrative speaks of Janet as a living memorial to Tryan.
The help Janet receives from Mr. Tryan is an instance of the working out of Eliot’s humanism. Eliot handles even the character of the drunken, violent Robert Dempster with compassion in this story. The events of the story go beyond church factional bickering and exposure of alcoholism to offer insights into the human condition. Eliot’s omniscient narrator often takes a compassionate stance and offers broad understanding of everyday struggles and suffering: “Yet surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him—which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion” (229). The narrator also clearly expresses the idea that people need one another in order to be fully human and alive. One of the ways the reader sees Janet’s transformation is through Janet’s renewed need to help others and to reestablish friendships she had neglected while she was bound to Dempster. Critics also cite the story as an example of realism, as Thomas Noble points out, however, realism is not a word Eliot used, but she wrote of trying to honestly portray real people and their struggles (viii). Human experience in Eliot’s fictional world always involves trials and personal challenges that her main characters learn to meet and work through with the help of others. Her characters often have changes of heart brought about by circumstances that are at least initially beyond their control. Eliot sees that the human soul is “full of unspoken evil and unacted good” (252).
Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie. “George Eliot’s ‘Janet’s Repentance’: The First Literary Portrait of a Woman Addict and Her Recovery,” Midwest Quarterly 35, no. 1 (1993): 95–108.
Eliot, George. Scenes of Clerical Life. Edited by Thomas Noble. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Hertz, Neil. George Eliot’s Pulse. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.