GEORGE ELIOT: The Emergent Self by Ruby Redinger

GEORGE ELIOT: The Emergent Self

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Redinger finds much of Marian Evans' adult life and of George Eliot's writing stamped by Mary Ann Evans childhood fears of loss and rejection, which created powerful inhibitions against self-acceptance and self-assertion. She sees the famous crisis of religious faith as a crucial stage of ego-definition; the rejection of the Heavenly Father marks a breakthrough in ""her real emotional struggle"" with the earthly Robert Evans. Her extreme susceptibility as a young woman, her lifelong concern with the idea of duty, her lateness in coming to the writing of fiction are attributed by Redinger to a continuing battle against ""self-despair"" (George Eliot's phrase). She doubts that George Eliot could have mustered the self-confidence to complete a novel or achieved the nobility of personal manner so remarked on by her contemporaries had it not been for the encouragement of the man she called her husband, George Henry Lewes. This is probable or at least reasonable, but Redinger's treatment of the novels themselves is neither. She prefers not to explain but to explain away. The celebrated passage on family likeness in Adam Bede is a piece of ""personal flotsam,"" ""not clearly relevant to the story that she is telling""; Silas Marner's folk-tale elements should point our attention to an allegorical level at which George Eliot is analyzing the material rewards and intangible values of her own art; Gwendolen's morally craven response to Lydia Glasher's revelation in Daniel Deronda make one suspect George Eliot's own guilty ambivalence toward Lewes' real wife. Needless to say, The Mill on the Floss is Redinger's touchstone of emotional involvement, and the qualities that make her treat it as a therapeutic exorcism of personal demons are obvious even to a reader who knows nothing of George Eliot's life. But even the structure of the book falls victim to Redinger's motive-hunting which tells us that George Eliot prolonged the writing of the first two volumes to ""put distance between herself"" and the ""vicarious punishment and reward"" she would mete out to fictional stand-ins for herself and her brother in the subconsciously desired and feared denouement. The biographical approach obviously has a great deal to offer literary criticism, and George Eliot's life has a great deal to offer the biographical approach. But the line between legitimate insight and impudent speculation can be hard to make out. Redinger offers both, but it's the second that sticks in the memory.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1975
Publisher: Knopf