Reflection by Beth Bevis Gallick

With The Ethical Vision of George Eliot, Thomas Albrecht joins a growing group of Victorianists who have recently turned attention to the importance of otherness in Victorian literature and ethical thought. Whereas other critics have treated the role of alterity in Victorian literature more broadly,[1] Albrecht’s exclusive focus on the works of George Eliot turns out to be a no-less ambitious undertaking, yielding some surprisingly fresh ways of thinking about Eliot’s ethical commitments. I’m referring here not only to the book’s explicit argument about the trajectory (and dialectical interplay) of Eliot’s ethical vision: from advocating sympathy and “communion” to prioritizing the recognition of “difference.” I’m also referring to the ways in which Albrecht’s discussion implicitly draws out the centrality of—for lack of a better term—the individual soul to that ethical vision.

In particular, I was repeatedly struck by the impression that Albrecht’s readings of Eliot downplay the question of outward actions or effects, instead framing ethical value in inward terms: as a matter of egoism and its negation. Ethical improvement involves “becom[ing] conscious of” the limitations of one’s knowledge (97). While someone practicing the communion imperative “presume[s]” knowledge of the other (11), a person practicing the difference imperative “recognizes” the other’s separateness and “acknowledges” the impossibility of fully knowing him or her.[2] All of these words for describing the ethically significant act—presume, acknowledge, recognize, become conscious of—suggest that the ethical lies in an act of cognition, in the way I think about the other.[3] This inward way of conceiving of ethical value is even reflected in the language Albrecht uses to describe Eliot’s ethical project—that is, as one of improving the awareness of the reader. For example, after discussing several characters in Middlemarch who fail to “fully become conscious” of their separateness from other persons, Albrecht writes that “Eliot, for her part, is conscious of these things… and works by means of the scenes to make them intelligible to us” (97).

This emphasis on the ethical value that inheres in inward thought struck me not just because it ironically relies on the same terms (knowledge, recognition, intelligibility) that Eliot critiques on ethical grounds, but because it runs counter to how I usually view Victorian ethics: as outwardly and socially oriented. Accustomed to thinking in this way, I found myself continually wanting to ask: to what ethical end is this consciousness of difference directed? But Albrecht would say that for Eliot, awareness itself is the ethical aim, “insofar as it counteracts… infantile egoism” (10). Although Albrecht acknowledges the ways in which consciousness of the other’s separateness can strengthen relationships and lead to other ethical acts (as when Gwendolyn finally releases Daniel from any obligations to her in Daniel Deronda; see discussion on 135), elsewhere he stresses the ethical value of “separateness as such” (3)—that is, not just the separateness of others from oneself, but a more absolute sense of not-knowing that defines one’s relationship to the world and even to oneself. And it seems to me that in such cases, with only one ego involved, the ethical value of recognizing and respecting difference can only be self-referential—a matter of countering or correcting one’s own egoism and knowingness.

Framed in this way, the difference imperative almost resembles the vision of personal transformation put forward by the—I won’t say egoistic, but certainly inward-focused—evangelical Christianity that Eliot ultimately left behind. While no divine consciousness attends to the inner transformations of Eliot’s characters, there are certain scenes that, in Albrecht’s readings, almost take on echoes of an ego-dismantling religious conversion. In his account of Gwendolyn and Daniel’s parting scene, for example, Albrecht describes Gwendolyn’s ego as “diminished and swept away by her startled recognition of a vast, previously unrecognized sphere of existence, one whose vastness wholly transcends herself” (132)—and it is this moment of perception, this “shock or thrust,” he says, that “jolt[s] her…  into a new self-awareness and self-diminishment” (133). Perhaps this observation speaks more to my idiosyncratic literary interests than to anything else, but I was reminded here of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, which similarly build toward climactic moments of perception in which characters are stunned, often violently, out of their egoism, knowingness, or self-righteousness. (Recall the philosophy PhD Hulga, robbed of her artificial leg, or the sanctimonious grandmother, turned good woman only at gunpoint.) While the scenes of moral awakening that Albrecht highlights are (obviously) much subtler than O’Connor’s grotesque ones, they suggest a similar investment on Eliot’s part in something like the reformation of individual souls. As Albrecht puts it, “the overcoming of one’s own egoism… is the central moral demand that Eliot makes on her characters, her narrators, her readers, and herself” (133). Something very similar could have been written about O’Connor, and while I’m quite sure Albrecht never intended such a comparison, I have The Ethical Vision of George Eliot to thank for making it intelligible to me.

[1] See especially Rachel Hollander, Narrative Hospitality and Rebecca Mitchell, Victorian Lessons in Empathy and Difference, both discussed in Albrecht’s introduction and throughout the book.

[2] I have not cited particular page numbers since the quoted words here are frequently used.

[3] Sympathy studies has certainly established the important role that thinking about others plays in Victorian ethical thought. Rae Greiner’s Sympathetic Realism comes to mind in particular.

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