Sam Tett responds to Beth Bevis Gallick
As Gallick points out, Albrecht’s reassessment of Eliot’s ethics “downplay[s] the question of outward actions or effects.” When Daniel Deronda rescues Mirah from drowning, for instance, Albrecht dwells—or considers Eliot’s ethics to dwell—not upon the life-saving act, but rather upon the egoism that motivated it. This is a surprising move, Gallick says, in that it “runs counter to how [we] usually view Victorian ethics: as outwardly and socially oriented.” As I pondered this observation, it struck me that Eliot’s ethical vision, as articulated by Albrecht, feels no less surprising in the context of the twenty-first century. After the scourge of 2020, characterized all too often by toxic individualism, wouldn’t many of us treasure the “infantile egoism” that might save us from drowning (10)?
The anachronism of this comparison notwithstanding, it highlights a consideration that felt curiously absent from the book: the immense privilege involved in de-prioritizing outward effects in favor of a higher ethical vision. On the night of January 6 2021, for instance, after a Trumpist mob attempted to seize the Capitol, far-right politicians suddenly dropped efforts to overturn the election and seemed to champion instead Eliot’s difference imperative: “I’m not with you,” said Senator Lindsay Graham, “but I will fight to my death for you.” Did this sudden change of heart spring from an ethical revelation? Does it mark a genuine respect for human difference? Almost certainly not, but how many of us are in a position to depreciate the outcome of an act like this based on its motivation? The superficial appearance of unity on January 6 manifested better consequences than we have been used to see in the current political climate: a certified election, a repudiation of authoritarianism and white supremacy, and a renewed commitment to democratic principles. Despite the passage of a century and a half since Eliot theorized her ethics, outward effects seem to have become more (and not less) valuable, particularly for those in situations of precarity. One’s ability to practice late-Eliotic ethics—or to stipulate that others do so—is thus a powerful reflection of one’s social and historical position, putting Albrecht’s argument in conversation with Victorian class, race, sexuality, disability, and other indices of identity. While these intersections are not addressed in the book, I hope that it will inspire future research in these areas.
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