Analysis of George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil

This story by George Eliot was first published in the July 1859 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine. Latimer, its protagonist and narrator, begins his tale near the end of his life, when he is suffering from acute angina pectoris— a heart disease that functions as a metaphor for his emotional unhealthiness. Able to “foresee when [he] shall die, and everything that will happen in [his] last moments,” Latimer hopes to employ his “last hours of ease and strength in telling

the strange story of [his] experience.” In childhood he was happy, though he suffered from “a complaint of the eyes that made [him] blind for a little while.” This first in a lifelong series of bodily and mental disorders draws our attention not only to Latimer’s feeble constitution but also to the importance of vision—both physical and metaphysical—in his life story. After his mother dies, Latimer’s distant father has him examined by the phrenologist Mr. Letherall. By pronouncing the boy weak in the faculty of analysis but strong in that of fancy, this gentleman invites us to question Latimer’s trustworthiness as a narrator.

When Latimer turns 16 he is sent to finish his schooling in Geneva, where he meets and befriends Charles Meunier, a brilliant but uncouth student of medicine who later becomes a celebrated expert in the field. Latimer’s “happier life at Geneva” is ended abruptly by a severe illness. During his convalescence, he experiences his first precognitive vision. Although Latimer has “seen no picture of Prague” and the city is to him “a mere name,” he envisions crossing a bridge there in startling detail—and, as he later realizes, with absolute accuracy. He likens the “gradual breaking-in of the vision upon [him]” to “the growing distinctness of the landscape as the sun lifts up the veil of the morning mist,” and this image of the lifted veil recurs in the remainder of his narrative. At the same time he sees Prague in the future, Latimer also becomes aware of his father’s present activities in another part of the house. At first, the boy is pleased by his gifts of precognition and clairvoyance. Believing that he possesses “the poet’s sensibility without his voice,” he wonders whether his second sight is “the poet’s nature in [him], hitherto only a troubled yearning sensibility, now manifesting itself suddenly as spontaneous creation.” Soon, however, Latimer experiences a second vision of the future and begins to fear that his newfound ability might be not a power but a disease. Furthermore, he comes “to taste something of the horror that belongs to the lot of a human being whose nature is not adjusted to simple human conditions.” The boy discovers that he has, in addition to his other faculties, the gift of telepathy, so that “the vagrant, frivolous ideas and emotions” of one individual after another “force themselves” upon his mind. While Latimer is merely annoyed by his insights into the minds of acquaintances, he suffers “intense pain and grief” when his vision reveals the egoism, pettiness, and darkness of “the souls of those who [are] in a close relation to [him].”

The only character whose thoughts are closed to Latimer is Bertha Grace, his elder brother Alfred’s intended fiancée, and her inaccessibility enthralls him. Eventually, Latimer comes to believe that Bertha will wed not his brother but himself—for he envisions the two of them trapped in an unhappy marriage. After gazing on a painting of the notorious 15th-century femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia until he experiences “a strange poisoned sensation,” Latimer feels Bertha touch him. At this instant he succumbs to an “intoxicating numbness,” a poisoned feeling “like the continuance or climax of the sensation” brought on by the painting— and he sees Bertha as his wife, “every hateful thought within her present to [him].” This glimpse of the future horrifies him, yet still he feels “a wild hell-braving joy that Bertha [is] to be [his].” Latimer’s anticipation of their eventual union is realized after Alfred is killed in a riding accident. Bertha and Latimer wed, and during the first phase of their marriage her mind remains a mystery to him. On the night his father dies, however, “the veil which had shrouded Bertha’s soul from [him]” is withdrawn, and “from that evening forth, through the sickening years which followed,” he sees “all round the narrow room of this woman’s soul.” After relations with her husband deteriorate into mutual antipathy, Bertha hires Mrs. Archer as a maid and adopts her as a confidant. Mrs. Archer disturbs Latimer, for he sees “in Bertha’s mind towards this woman a mingled feeling of fear and dependence.” Mrs. Archer falls ill and dies during a visit by Latimer’s childhood friend Charles. Immediately after her death, the doctor performs an experimental transfusion on the maid that revives her long enough that she can confess her role in Bertha’s Borgia-like plot to poison her husband.

After this scene, Latimer and his wife live apart. He keeps wandering to avoid becoming familiar with others and seeing into their minds, and in his isolation he is metaphysically linked only “with the one Unknown Presence revealed and yet hidden by the moving curtain of the earth and sky.” When disease at last forces Latimer to stop traveling, he comes to know not only the secrets of his servants but also precisely how and why they will leave him alone to die. His last words end the tale where it began: “I know these figures I have just written, as if they were a long familiar inscription. I have seen them on this page in my desk unnumbered times, when the scene of my dying struggle has opened upon me.” The story’s gothic elements include its potentially unreliable narrator, its paranoid tone, and its interest in the pursuit of forbidden knowledge.

Eagleton, Terry. “Power and Knowledge in ‘The Lifted Veil,’ ” Literature and History 9, no. 1 (1983): 52–61.
Eliot, George. “The Lifted Veil.” In “The Lifted Veil” and “Brother Jacob.” Edited by Helen Small, 1–43. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Wilt, Judith. Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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