Reflection by Rachel Hollander
Among the many strengths of Thomas Albrecht’s monograph is its deep and highly focused attention to a single author and a single element of that author’s work. In contrast to many of the studies he cites Albrecht is not enlisting George Eliot’s novels in service of a larger argument about Victorian literature and morality. Instead, in a gesture that echoes elements of the ethical imperatives of “communion” and “difference” that are his subject, he immerses himself in Eliot’s writing, analyzing her theories and representations of ethics over three decades. Resisting the dangers of egoism that he so astutely diagnoses in the novels’ central characters and even in Eliot herself, he allows his argument to be shaped by Eliot’s body of work, and is thus able to inhabit, explore, and reveal the subtle intricacies of her ethical thought in new ways. While this is by no means a “surface reading,” it does engage in a kind of radical empathy that refuses skeptical and paranoid methodologies in its goal of making visible the complexity and development of Eliot’s moral framework.
Albrecht’s method is especially valuable in his close reading of Eliot’s last two novels. Even as he takes up some of the best known episodes in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, he patiently draws from each one the distinct features at stake in the relations between self and other, elucidating multiple levels of ethical intention and failure. In Deronda’s climactic meeting with his mother, for example, Albrecht analyzes not only the narrator’s critique of Leonora’s performance of emotion, but also the more rarely noticed fact that Daniel himself misreads her character. Putting pressure on this space between Daniel’s perspective and the narrator’s, Albrecht complicates both character’s and novel’s ethical orientation, revealing a depth of otherness in this scene that Daniel will not fully acknowledge until the novel’s end. Albrecht argues that both novels progress from an ethics based on (supposed) knowledge of the other to one based on trust, a distinction that brings productive new perspective to the critique of Victorian sympathy, and highlights Eliot’s ultimate embrace of an ethics of uncertainty and difference.
Given the close attention to interpersonal encounters and difference in this study, the constant recognition of the danger of presuming to understand the other, I was surprised by the ways in which Albrecht treated the representation of Judaism, immigrants, and women in the final chapters on Impressions of Theophrastus Such. This is a study that prioritizes Eliot’s thought over any particular historical or theoretical agenda, an approach that sheds new light on her novels, but that may not provide the needed context for the reading of her non-fiction works. In contrast to the readings of the fiction, the assertion that this late text outlines an ethics of difference within the self, and moves to a more absolute idea of unknowability, seems to downplay the complexity of the relationship between Theophrastus’s voice and Eliot’s at just the moment when the stakes of the ethical argument are highest, on the subjects of immigration, sexuality, and cultural purity. The method of inhabiting Eliot’s thought may have made it difficult to explore fully the tension that emerges between her most radical ethical aspirations and the conservative conventionalities in which they are couched. While I appreciate the attention to this rarely treated collection of essays, it is a difficult text in which to find the same range and depth of ethical reflection as in the novels, and it is a strange note on which to end this subtle and sophisticated elucidation of The Ethical Vision of George Eliot.
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