The Construction and Deconstruction of Science in Middlemarch

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The Construction and Deconstruction of Science in Middlemarch
Though this essay's title may at first the strike reader as an anachronistic

conceit of contemporary theory, as Michael York Mason has observed,

"Constructions,' theory,' acquired knowledge,' demonstration,' evidence,'

perception of facts,' probabilities,'--this is part of the language of the

moral life in Middlemarch" (Mason, 166). Indeed, the scientific language of

Middlemarch, its construction in relation to scientific theory, the science of

its form as well as its content, have been observed by a growing body of

criticism.{1} As J. Hillis Miller observes, the subtitle of the novel itself, A

Study of Provincial Life, alludes strongly to "scientific study" (66). The

very first lines of the novel are limned with scientific rhetoric, which serve

to frame it within a specific, historical and discursive referencing. This

discursive referencing is maintained throughout. The predominance of

attention given to Lydgate, the importance of optic metaphor, and the

obvious evidence' of Darwinistic and other evolutionary theory having

made their mark on Eliot, are but a few of the suggestions in Middlemarch

signaling the importance of science in its making, both within and around

the novel.

For the contemporary reader of Middlemarch, the conspicuousness of

this scientific language has been greatly vitiated by such language's

permeation into modern social discourse (Beer, 149). Likewise, its marks

were more greatly sensed by Eliot's contemporaries. Eliot's introduction of

scientific allusion jolted her first critics, and she may be regarded as a

forerunner in incorporating what was then specialized scientific language

into fictional (and other cultural) usage.

As Nancy L. Paxton has commented in George Eliot and Herbert Spencer:

Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Reconstruction of Gender, much

contemporary discussion of George Eliot in relation to science has been in

fact largely a study of her influences (Paxton, 3-4). This criticism has

effectively colonized a consideration of Eliot's writing in relation to science,

using it as a kind of linchpin on which to hang the controversies of her

day.{2} Though these critics do well to elucidate the scientific underpinnings

of Eliot's thought, they tend to view her work as syncretic rather than

seeing her as a theorist in her own right. Even George Levine, who is

generally more appreciative of Eliot's own scientific understanding, states

in reference to her grasp of determinism, "that at best she was an amateur

philosopher" (268).

Paxton's own work rescues Eliot in terms of her challenges to Spencer

and Darwin in the course of her novels and other works. This Paxton does

with specific reference to their implications and assertions regarding sex

and gender (passim). At the very least, these challenges, discussed briefly

below, mark a metonymic reinsertion of Eliot into the crux of scientific

discourse, positioning her as a hopeful Lydgate, resisting her relegation to

the status of an interloping Mrs. Cadwallader. At the most, they suggest

that Eliot's challenges to science were far-reaching. Yet Eliot works within

scientific theory, using many of its own assumptions as tools to interrogate


The fictionalizing' of science happens to be a meta-theme in

Middlemarch, and one which, I will argue, Eliot sets out consciously and

masterfully to interrogate. In the process, I hope to show that Eliot's use of

science is far from naive or merely syncretizing.{3} To the contrary, I will

venture to argue that in Middlemarch Eliot actually anticipates a greater

discursive shift in scientific theory of which Thomas Kuhn's The Structure

of Scientific Revolutions (l962) is the watermark in science itself, and

which Michel Foucault marks and notes in his various archaeologies of

knowledge.{4} She does so only to the extent possible within later

nineteenth-century thought, but in writing the first novel to appropriate

and interrogate scientific discourse "as an explicit theme" (Shuttleworth,

143),{5} she assumes a distinctively advantageous historical and critical

position. Undertaking a peculiar investigation of science within fiction, Eliot

destablizes both, blurring the border between them. By placing the events

of Middlemarch some forty years earlier than the time of narration, the

historical and subjective contingency of science is exposed. Cures' once

taken for granted already appear ludicrous in light of Lydgate's methods,

and the doubt cast on Middlemarch's medical establishment is heightened

by the narrative interval, during which further changes are assumed to

have taken place. The same scrutiny is levied against scientific theory. The

effect is an implicit questioning of the authority that science holds in the

time of Eliot's contemporaries, as well as in that of Middlemarch's

subsequent readers.

On the other hand, the serious consideration given in a cultural medium

to science extends the reach and currency of its theories. The novel lends

itself to a wider dissemination of ideas than that available to pure'

scientific texts. Eliot probably exposed to evolutionary and other

materialistic theory some unwary readers who might not have seen it

elsewhere. That she did not hold to a strict Spencerian or Darwinian model,

especially as applied to the social, may have mattered less to many readers

than the very fact that she negotiated with determinism and evolutionism

at all. Such ideas were quite unsettling to many Victorians, and Eliot was

far more comfortable with them than most of her contemporaries. As K.M.

Newton remarks, "George Eliot's attitude to Darwinism is of especial

interest because she tried to oppose some of its dangerous consequences

from an interesting standpoint while accepting the theory itself as valid"

(Newton, 278-9). Whether she actually "accepted" or worked within the

theory as a culturally-contingent medium, is a question I will explore.

The construction and deconstruction' of science in Middlemarch comes

by way of imagery, allusion, metaphor, analogy and parable in her

passages, the relations of which to science are sometimes best illustrated

when compared to the work and thought of pure' scientists, if such a

category exists in the nineteenth-century. Of course, George Eliot has her

debts--like any other man of science,' she stands (sometimes precariously)

on the shoulders of others: Bichat (Lydgate's mentor), Lyley, Claude

Bernard, T.H. Huxley, John Stuart Mill, Comte, Whewell, Herbert Spencer,

and of course, G.H. Lewes. She drew from all of them, most especially

Herbert and Lewes. She did, however, like all of them, go beyond mere

appropriation. Her effort has its own merit in relation to the corpus of

Middlemarch initially appears to reveal a bias towards what Michael

Mason has identified as the Whewellian view of scientific theory (159).

According to Whewell, scientific laws were concepts superinduced' onto

the facts.' In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences , Whewell asserted

that these originary concepts were a priori, natural tendencies in the mind.

John Stuart Mill opposed Whewell's inductive' theory with a strict


For empiricists, scientific theory is derived from strict observation, and

law is only found through the discovery of repetitive natural phenomena.

For Whewellians, on the other hand, experience (or observation) has no

meaning without guiding, innate ideas which organ-ize and make them

accessible, and in effect, sensible' (Mason, 158-69). Empiricism in science

is homologous to the naive realism' in fiction that may be thought to

characterize Eliot's earlier work, such as Adam Bede and Mill on the Floss.

Later, Eliot tends towards Whewellian theory, although, as I will discuss

below, she eventually collapses the two perspectives into one another. Her

collapsing of this dichotomy has epistemological and cultural implications,

as well as structural ones for the novel itself, as the experiment struggles

with its own containment.

Middlemarch begins by establishing itself within the superinduced,'

experimental framework of science: "Who that cares much to know the

history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under varying

experiments in Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint

Theresa...?" (Prelude, 1).{6} Not only is science invoked, but a particular kind of science is indicated. It is historical and experimental. To the scientific mixture' is already added an anachronism in the figure of Saint Theresa. Saint Theresa is superinduced' onto an otherwise strictly contemporary,

scientific jargon. The willfulness involved in the juxtaposition suggests that

the work will be more than mere observation, but rather an experiment'

conducted by the narrator.{7} We have from the outset a peculiar blend of

science and history.

As Sally Shuttleworth implies, the strict techniques of realistic

observation--homologous to natural history and empiricism-- in Eliot's

early works, in Middlemarch are complicated with what H.G. Lewes, a

scientist and close associate of George Eliot's, called "Ideal Construction."

Lewes believed that science moved ahead by imaginative leaps rather than

by empirical plodding alone (143-49). He considered imagination the most

important requirement for any scientific discovery.

Middlemarch does not abandon observation for experiment, but rather

involves experiment in order to discover the underlying principles which

animate phenomena. In order for connections to be made, the imagination

must be involved. From Middlemarch and other of Eliot's writing, as

compared to those of scientific theorists, we can see this distinction

illustrated. After beginning to read Darwin's The Origin of the Species,

George Eliot writes to her friend and feminist activist, Barbara Bodichon:
We have just been reading Darwin's book on the Origin of Species' just now: it makes an epoch, as the expression of his thorough adhesion, after long years of study, to the Doctrine of Development--and not the adhesion of an anonym like the author of the Vestiges', but of a long-celebrated naturalist. The book is ill-written and sadly wanting in illustrative facts--of which he has collected a vast number, but reserves them for a future book...So the world gets on step by step towards clearness and honesty! But to me the Development theory and all other explanations of processes by which things came to be, produce a feeble impression compared with the mystery that lies under the processes (Letters, qtd. in Newton, 278).
This passage at once confirms the relative value of observation for Eliot, of "illustrative facts," while simultaneously criticizing the "adhesion" to

"explanations of processes" of a "long-celebrated naturalist" who misses

"the mystery" "underlying the processes."

Eliot elaborates this view in Middlemarch passages, the most

impressive of which is the description of Lydgate's developing theory:
Many men have been praised as vividly imaginative on the strength of their

profuseness in indifferent drawing or cheap narration:--...But these kinds of

inspiration Lydgate regarded as vulgar and vinous compared with the imagination

that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space. (ch. 16, 147).

Here the scientist probes the mystery underlying the processes, and the

methodology involves an imagination which connects phenomena which

are inaccessible to observation alone, and at best, merely inferred by the

senses. Consonant with Whewellian scientific theory, the discovery of

"ethereal atoms" is the provenance of the imagination in the construction

of "ideally illuminated space." "Cheap narration," plain empiricism (or bad

realistic fiction), is "vulgar" and limited in scope by comparison. As

Foucault articulates in terms strikingly relevant to the passage at hand:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, doctors described what for centuries

had remained below the threshold of the visible and the expressible, but this did not mean that, after over-indulging in speculation, they had begun to perceive once again, or that they listened to reason rather than to imagination; it meant that the relation of between the visible and invisible--which is necessary to all concrete knowledge--changed its structure, revealing through gaze and language what had previously been below and beyond their domain (xii, emphasis mine). The imagery recalls a passage of John Tyndall's important enough to G.H. Lewes for the latter to quote it in his Problems of Life and Mind:

Knowledge once gained casts a light beyond its own immediate boundaries. There is no discovery so limited as not to illuminate something beyond itself. The force of intellectual penetration into this penumbral region which surrounds outward knowledge is not, as some seem to think, dependent upon method, but upon the genius of the investigator (Tyndell, qtd. by Lewes in Foundations of a Creed, I, 32).{8}
In the terms established by the narrator of Middlemarch, scientific

theory and image always contain the seeds of their own undoing. Another

view lies "beyond" or "below," as the association of these passages suggests.

Empiricism is limited by its transience. Likewise, we may expect the

scientific images presented to infer a continuum of sub-version or meta-

version, as the image of the variable lens of the microscope illustrates:

Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making

interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom. (ch. 6, 50).

This passage suggests an endless possibility of revision, which is, of course,

analogous to science's own history. Furthermore, not only are

interpretations tentative, but they involve an active projection on the part

of the viewing subject, as seeming to "see an active voracity," "so many

animated tax-pennies," and "victims," are finally metaphorical descriptions

dependent upon the subject's "interpretations."

In Middlemarch passages regarding science, there is almost always a

connection or correlation drawn between science and narration or fiction.

Science is invoked to discuss the unfolding of character and plot, and vice

versa. The microscope image above, for example, is drawn to illustrate Mrs.

Cadwallader's matchmaking, "producing what may be called thought and

speech vortices to bring her the sort of food she needed" (ch. 6, 50). The

connection of language to the material of science is telling here, because in

Middlemarch, science finally depends on metaphor. As J. Hillis Miller notes

in this context, "if for Eliot all seeing is falsified by the limitations of point of view, it is an even more inevitable law, for her, that we make things

what they are by naming them" (79). Likewise, Eliot is able to establish a

connection between science and fiction in the form of language, and fiction

and science make their way into one another.

In the above passage about Lydgate's scientific theory, a connection is

putatively drawn between science and fiction by way of the inapposite

appearance of the word "narration," in connection with the "long pathways

of necessary sequence." Fiction (narration and necessary sequence) is held

intact, it is implied, by the same experimental and imaginative sequences

as scientific discovery. The image of "outer darkness through long

pathways," also reverberates with the "labyrinth of petty courses" (3, 22)

through which Dorothea must travel (as well as with the other, numerous

references to the labyrinth in Middlemarch). Guided also by a "light," "[h]er

flame," which, "fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction,"

(Prelude, 1), Dorothea's project is similar to Lydgate's. As a "later-born"

Theresa, living on the crest of nineteenth-century materialist science and

philosophy, she is "helped by no coherent social faith and order which

could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul"

(Prelude, 1). The novel is an experiment' in providing for this lack by

means of science and philosophy which substitute for "faith and order."

As remarked by Ronald Schleifer in Rhetoric and Death: The Language

of Modernism and Postmodern Discourse Theory, it is "[t]he very success of

positive science in the nineteenth century [which] conditioned this failure"

or "breakdown of what Steiner perceives as the centrality' of our Western

inheritance' which provided touchstones of order and of that unbroken

continuum'" (Schleifer,10; Steiner qtd. in Schleifer, 10). Likewise, the novel

is "an experiment in time" in terms of its own historical moment, as well as

intrinsically, as narration. It is also an experiment for its protagonists, who

must, like the narrator, seek unifying principles--a scientific' search, made

necessary, in part, by science itself, or by the conditions which permitted

science its expansion into matters human. This paradoxical realization in

Middlemarch accounts, in part, for its ambiguous treatment of science.

Science is both problem and tool, as an early exchange, during which

Chettam hopes to impress Dorothea but is interrupted, suggests:

"I am reading the Agricultural Chemistry," said this excellent baronet [Chettam], "because I am going to take one of the farms into my own hands, and see if something cannot be done in setting a good pattern of farming among my tenants. Do you approve of that, Miss Brooke?"

"A great mistake, Chettam," interposed Mr. Brooke, "going into electrifying your land and that sort of thing, and making a parlor of your cow-house. It won't do. I went into science a great deal myself at one time; but I saw it would not do. It leads to everything; you can let nothing alone" (ch. 2, 12).

Mr. Brooke is as shallow and frivolous a character as Middlemarch

presents, yet his statement is largely borne out in the novel. In science as

well as other scholarship, leading to everything,' is often the equivalent to

leading nowhere. As Dorothea senses regarding the "Key to all Mythologies"

during her honeymoon, "the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had

dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by anterooms

and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither" (ch. 20, 176).

Casaubon "can let nothing alone" in his search for a generalizing theory of

mythology, and thus his mind is described as a "labyrinthine"

cul de sac. Dorothea's desire to "learn everything" (ch. 3, 23) leads her to

the "ungauged reservoir" of Casaubon's mind where she sees "reflected

there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought"

(ch. 3, 18). With these characters, Eliot subtly undermines any totalizing

view offered by generalizing theories, whether of life, culture, or science.

Lydgate's future is subtly presaged in the continuation of the above

description of his scientific quest in search of the "Primitive Tissue":

He for his part had tossed away all cheap inventions where ignorance finds itself able and at ease: he was enamoured of that arduous invention which is the very eyes of research, provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exact relation; he wanted to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness. (ch. 16, 147).

While Rosamond is generally thought of as having been the impediment

to Lydgate's research, she may have actually provided the laboratory. It is,

after all, through his marriage to Rosamond that Lydgate finds "the first

lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime." Middlemarch itself may in a

sense be his Primitive Tissue' that "counted on swallowing Lydgate and

assimilating him very comfortably" (ch. 15, 137). It did just this, proffering

its finest allurements. As Nancy Paxton observes:

Lydgate's determination to take a more strictly scientific view of woman' after his disastrous affair with Madame Laure becomes doubly ironic when we recognize not only that Lydgate succumbs, in spite of himself, to Rosamond's similarly superficial charms, but also that he marries a woman, who, according to the most advanced scientific principles of evolutionary theory in the 1870s, is the perfect mate. (176).
Paxton's argument--that Eliot's use of Rosamond to baffle a progressive

scientist such as Lydgate is intended to undercut Herbert Spencer's

evolutionary theory of sex selection--is clearly demonstrable (171-97).

Rosamond (unlike George Eliot herself{9}) meets all of Spencer's evolutionary

criteria for natural selection' as a wife. Yet she fails posterity (her egoism

in "personal beauty" causing her to lose a child). (According to Spencer, the

beauty of women was their primary worth with respect to the future of

the species--see note 9). Rosamond was also, to Lydgate's early

satisfaction, "instructed to the true womanly limit and not one hair's

breadth beyond," which met Spencer's requisite qualifications as well.

Having read and personally argued with Herbert's conclusions, Eliot

obviously set out consciously to refute them in Middlemarch. The

miserable marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond brings forth no issue in

terms of children, science, or the general welfare of the two. The marriage

serves to undermine the altruism that Spencer ascribed to women and


By Lydgate's failure in perception, science itself, at least incidentally,

may be implicated. The theory of evolution doesn't hold in his social case.

The metaphor is subverted by its failure in application. It is significant

that Eliot uses a scientist with which to test Herbert's theory of sex

selection. Not only is a theory provisionally framed' and debunked, but a

scientist is also frustrated. This sacrifice of a scientist to the ramifications

of a scientific theory, "presents," as Paxton argues, "a cautionary tale about

the revenge that history takes on pioneers of science like Lydgate or--for

that matter--like Herbert Spencer himself" (174). Of all the characters,

Lydgate is the one who should be expected to see "below and beyond" the

"feeble impression" of a Rosamond, to discover "what lies under the

processes." He lacks the very vision he espouses and may stand for the

provisionally framed' and historically contingent scientific fiction.'

Yet these samples may not necessarily serve as metonymic

representatives for the whole vision of science in the novel. Rather, it may

be that they are specious samples of subjective "selection" offered to the

voracious appetite of scientific evolution, rendered unfit by their lack of

"adaptation" to the cultural environment.

One of Eliot's most celebrated passages, which begins with a reference

to Spencer himself,{10} complicates the question of subjectivity and science

in an apparent overriding of our earlier observations. Its centrality to this

discussion merits extended quotation:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly

furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has show me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a center of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent--of Miss

Vincy, for example. Rosamond had a Providence of her own who had kindly made her

more charming than other girls, and who seemed to have arranged Fred's illness and Mr. Wrench's mistake in order to bring her and Lydgate within effective proximity (ch. 27, 237-8, emphasis mine).

This passage is indeed, as J. Hillis Miller has observed, "more complicated

than it at first appears" (76), and I should like to take it a bit further than

I believe he has. Without, for the moment, commenting on the initial tone

and language, I will go directly to the central image of the candle and the

lamp. The first order of the signified appears to be egoism and subjectivity;

the "arrangement" of "events" according to one's own "flattering" design.

The world appears to conform to the wishes of the egoist by the projection

of the same from the subjective light. The image is applied most directly to

Rosamond, "for example," though it does not exclude others, such as

Bulstrode, who obviously had a Providence of his own.'

This perspective of the subject can hardly be a scientific vantage point,

since "[i]t is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere

impartially." Rather, it would appear that science or the "objective"

observer is given a transcendent power of vision which disqualifies, in

some sense, that of the relative subject. If there is any critique of science

going on at all, Eliot would seem to inveigh against the "Ideal Construction"

theory in favor of an extended empiricism: with further observation "[i]t is

demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially." Yet

such a demonstration is only possible by removing the observer (the

candle or light)-- "The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of

any person now absent" (my emphasis). But the question then becomes--

when the lamp is removed, who is left there to witness the "events?"

In this case it is inferred that someone is present for the impartial

view; "an eminent philosopher," the narrator, the scientist. The question

here is a central one for the novel and for its view of science. Throughout

the novel, there has been every suggestion of the possibility of an over-

arching scientific view, of an omniscient philosophic narrator. "A systole

and diastole in all inquiry" has aimed at "continually expanding and

shrinking between the whole human horizon and the horizon of an object-

glass" (ch. 63, 576); from wide-angle, to telescopic, to microscopic, to that

view "inaccessible by a any sort of lens." As J. Hillis Miller has brilliantly

argued, however, in this particular sample, "[t]his objective vision, such is

the logic of Eliot's parable, shows that what is really there' has no order

whatsoever, but is merely random scratches without pattern or meaning"


The problem with this reading, Miller argues, is that it is at odds with

the other prevalent, structuring metaphors in the novel--the web, the

channel, the labyrinth, the optics--which aim at metaphoric organization

of experience by the narrator. These metaphors offer means of ordering

experience (67-81). The question then becomes whether "an implication...

has by accident, as it were, slipped in along with implications which are

intended'" (78),--chaos has invaded the novel--or whether Eliot has

constructed' this very deconstruction intentionally.' By constructed the

deconstruction,' I mean that she has built up a metaphor designed to fall

apart, with the aim of demonstrating its instability and therefore the

instability of what it might represent.

What should be pointed out here is that which has been quite

overlooked in this line of inquiry. The very first image is that of placing an

object of inquiry ("your ugly furniture") "into the serene light of science."

The parable is circular and self-referential, implicating its own "serene

light" in the lesson it gives. Yet, in hastening the reader towards its

illustration, it manages to slip' the candle in below the "serene light of

science" making the candle that "which produces the flattering illusion."

The philosopher's "pregnant" fact gives birth. It reproduces its own truth'

in the form of the candle's projection, thereby having its own projection

escape notice. The light of science "produces the flattering illusion" of

objectivity that orders the parable, just as the candle orders the scratches.

The resonance of these images is unavoidable once noticed, and "the

serene light of science" becomes implicated in the "light falling with an

exclusive optical selection." If light produces a flattering effect inside the

parable, it must also do so from the outset, from the light that illuminates

the lesson itself, "the serene light of science." The word parable means to

set aside or along side. As I read it, in the reproduction of "serene light" in

the form of the candle, science is set aside, pretending to disengage itself

from its own viewing subject. Thus the passage becomes a parable about

science itself as it attempts to construct its objectivity by means of eliding

its own subjective participation in observation. It also a passage about the

objective realist narrator,' which Eliot has by this time long rejected.

The novel is too skeptical of absolute points of view to allow this kind

of image without subverting it in the process. Numerous suggestions

throughout the novel of alternate points of view support this skepticism.

Even the over-arching view of narration, which would propose to collect

and balance subjective interpretations, is undermined by the narrator's

own statement: "all the light I can command must be concentrated on this

particular web" (ch. 15, 126, emphasis mine). "The lights and shadows

must always fall with a certain difference" (ch. 10). Thus, the narrator,

homologous to the model of objective scientist prevalent in the nineteenth-

century, would appear to be creating the same kinds of patterns as the

candle on the lamp. The narration, which, like scientific observation, only

presents "the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an

even web" (Finale, 746). The use of the word, "selection" as a direct result

of the candle's action, as an obvious reference to evolutionary theory,

further implicates science in this subjectivity.

This interpretation is further supported by the fact the above passage

echoes strongly a similar, earlier passage of Spencer's in The Principles of

Psychology (1871) in which he describes the failure of "class reasoning."

According to Spencer, "the very act of predication' brings into prominence

those members of the class which fulfill the predication' and leaves in the

background those members of the class which do not fulfill it,' just as a

candle before a mirror creates the illusion of arcs of circles having the

light as its center'" (Spencer, Psychology, qtd. in Paxton). Eliot's passage

mirrors' Spencer's, and as Paxton observes, "raises much larger questions

about contemporary scientific methods as well" (174). "Class reasoning" is

what Spencer's theory of sex selection itself is guilty of. In this way, the

scientist's own imagery and methodology is applied to the scientist himself.

Like Bultrode's, the scientist's subjectivity contaminates' his view

as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and trees. The successive events inward and outward were there in one view: though each might be dwelt on in turn, the rest still kept their hold in the consciousness (Ch. 61, 554-5, emphasis mine).

Eliot's notion of subjectivity is not that pertaining to an autonomous,

independent individual whose relation to the whole is one of participation,

contribution and exchange. Middlemarch, written at the same time as

Lewes' Foundation of a Creed, accords with the latter's theory of the social

medium's importance in the construction of subjectivity, as differentiated

from the view of "[t]he psychologist, [who is] accustomed to consider the

Mind as something apart from the Organism, individual and collective, [and

who] is peculiarly liable to this error of overlooking that all mental

manifestations are simply the resultants of the conditions external and

internal" (Lewes, Foundations of a Creed, I 128). Furthermore, these

conditions are not merely the present circumstances of society, but "the

collective accumulations of centuries, condensed in knowledge, beliefs,

prejudices, institutions, and tendencies" (Lewes, Foundations of a Creed, I,

124). Bichat's physiological "conception that living bodies, fundamentally

considered, are not associations of organs which can be understood by

studying them first apart, and then as it were federally; but must be

regarded as consisting of certain primary webs or tissues" (ch. 15, 131-2),

is by implication to be extended to the social organism, which Eliot also

describes in terms of a web.' Thus the individual is not to be studied apart

and then as against or within a social framework. Rather, "the events

inward and outward are there in one view." As Shuttleworth deftly puts it,

Eliot's works "do not simply explore the relationship between an

autonomous individual and an external society: social values and

conceptions are actually inscribed within the personality itself" (19).

Thus George Eliot collapses subjectivity into the cultural, while at the

same time resolving the empiricism-induction dichotomy. The historical

imbrication of the observer accounts for the experience upon which

empiricism depends. Just as Bulstrode, as in attempting to look through the

window from a lighted room, is unable to eradicate a vision of his past, so

the scientist, in looking at observable objects, is caught in his own

historical and cultural reflexivity. Since history is essentially the

"accumulations" of experience, however, the connection to empiricism is

not thereby breached. Likewise, superinduced' theory does not run

counter to empiricism, but is really of the same substance, having been

derived from "accumulations of centuries, condensed in knowledge." Of

course, this rings of a kind of higher-order Spencerian or Darwinian

adaptation model of knowledge, in which theories are fitted for or by

experience in a long process of evolution. But this does in no way reverse

or undermine the deconstructive tendency in such a view of science. What

Foucault says about his own work, can be applied to Middlemarch: "It is a

structural study that sets out to disentangle the conditions of its own

history from the density of discourse" (xix). Or, as the narrator of

Middlemarch puts, it: "I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain

human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the

light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web" (ch 15,

126). Interestingly, both of these statements are made to distinguish the

historical method of the respective writer from that of a different kind of

historian. Theirs is the kind of history that aims at what produces

discourses and "how they were woven and interwoven," rather than which

statements were true or false or what action caused what result. Likewise,

Middlemarch does not necessarily attempt to disestablish the validity of

rationality within its given parameters, but rather to interrogate the

cultural and historical conditions that account for those parameters in the

first place. For "[w]hat counts in the things said by men is not so much

what they may have thought or the extent to which these things represent

their thoughts, as that which systemizes them from the outset" (Foucault,


In Middlemarch, Eliot not only considers the discourse of "men" of

science, but examines that which conditions the discourse. At the same

time, she examines that which conditions the discourse of fiction as well,

with the narrator's "double change of self and beholder"(11, 83) . Parallel

to the rationality that was developing in science, nineteenth-century

fiction attempted a totalizing view, both of which Eliot at once constructs

and destablizes in Middlemarch. The implications of these challenges are

great, for not only was the hegemonic impulse represented in science and

fiction, but in economics as well.
Works Cited
Beer, Gillian, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot

and Nineteenth-century Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,

1983). .

Collins, K.K., "G.H. Lewes Revisited: George Eliot and the Moral Sense" in

Victorian Studies 21 (1978): 464-83.

Eliot, George, Middlemarch, The Works of George Eliot (New York: The

University Society Publishers, 1893).

Foucault, Michel, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaelogy of Medical

Perception, A.M. Sheridan Smith, trans. (New York: Vintage Books,


Levine, George, Darwin And the Novelists: Patterns of Science in

Victorian Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, l988).

Levine, George, "Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George

Eliot" in PMLA 77 (1962).

Lewes, George Henry, The Foundations of a Creed, vol. 1 (London: 1874).

Mason, Michael York, "Middlemarch and Science: Problems of Life and

Mind" in Review of English Studies 22 (1971).

Miller, J. Hillis, "Optic and Semiotic in Middlemarch" in New Casebooks:

Middlemarch, John Peck, ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992)

Newton, K.M., "George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, and Darwinism," in

Durham University Journal 66 (1974)

Paxton, Nancy, George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, Evolutionism

and the Construction of Gender (Princeton: Princeton University Press,


Schleifer, Ronald, Rhetoric and Death: The Language of Modernism and

Postmodern Discourse Theory (Urbana and Chicago: University of

Illinois Press, 1990).

Shuttleworth, Sally, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The

Make-Believe of a Beginning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,


{1} Remarks regarding the predominance of scientific language and ideas in the writing of Eliot in general, and Middlemarch in particular, date from her earliest critics and reviewers. Sidney Colvin, Fortnightly Review, N.S. 13 (1873): 142-7; Henry James, Galaxy, 15 (1873): 424-8; Edward Dowden, Contemporary Review, 29 (1877): 348-69; are among the first commentators on her scientific allusions. More recent (and thoroughgoing) criticism begins with Bernard Paris, Experiments in Life (London, l965). See note 2 for a partial listing of contemporary criticism regarding Eliot's use of science.
{2} See especially, K.M. Newton, "George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, and Darwinism," Durham University Journal 66 (l974): 278-93; K.K. Collins, "G.H. Lewes Revisited: George Eliot and the Moral Sense," Victorian Studies 21 (1978): 464-83; and Michael York Mason, "Middlemarch and Science," Review of English Studies 22 (1971): 154-65. George Levine, in "Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George Eliot," PMLA 77 (1962): 268-79; Sally Shuttleworth in "Middlemarch, An experiment in time," George Eliot and Nineteenth-

Century Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, l984); Gillian Beer in Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, l983), all present more Eliot-centered analyses.

{3} In making this statement I do not wish to inscribe Eliot as a token of feminine scientific individualism. My main argument runs counter to such an individualistic interpretation of scientific thought.
{4} The basic challenge to the realm of scientific discourse offered by this shift may be summarized by the notion of science's bounded-ness within culture. In George Levine's Darwin and the Novelists, Levine draws on the work of Gerald Holton to explicate the ramifications of this challenge to the otherwise transparent rationality of science (5-7). What is brought into

question is not the rationality of science within its own parameters, but the arbitrariness of the starting points, or the very preconceptions of inquiry, which are culturally contingent. Holton calls these preconceptions "themata," which are not in themselves "verifiable or falsifiable" (qtd. in Levine, 6). Scientific inquiry, this position argues, follows from theoretical

propositions which are themselves subject to "constraints of culture" which limit and condition their range and interest.

In the grossest sense, themata may be discerned when science is suspected of projecting cultural values onto "nature," as Marx claimed that Darwinism had done with respect to Victorian, capitalist values. Diversification, competition, adaptation, all have their analogs in Victorian society.

{5} As George Levine observes in Darwin Among the Novelists, "[s]cience enters most Victorian fiction not so much in the shape of ideas, as quite literally, in the shape of its shape, its form" (13, emphasis mine). In Middlemarch, science enters as shape, form, and idea.
{6} All Middlemarch page and chapter citations refer to Middlemarch, The Works of George Eliot (New York: The University Society Publishers, 1893).
{7} See Sally Shuttleworth's "Middlemarch, An Experiment in time" for an evocative, thoroughgoing analysis of the notion of the Middlemarch "experiment in time."
{8} As K.K. Collins notes, George Eliot not only lived with and read Lewes, she also edited and compiled his final work, Foundations of a Creed, which she brought to completion after his death. Eliot completed for Lewes the task which Dorothea would not for Casaubon, the execution of his will' in the completion of his great work.' "The Shadow of old Casaubon hangs over me and I fear my Key to all Psychologies' will have to be left to Dorothea!" (The George Eliot

Letters, V, 291, qtd. in Collins, 463), G.H. Lewes wrote in 1872. "For six wearing months George Eliot pursued her sacred task' (Letters, VII, 115), organizing and correcting sheaves of rough, wordy manuscript; within a year she prepared and published the two final volumes comprising the third series of Problems of Life and Mind" (463).

{9} See Nancy Paxton's fascinating discussion, in "Feminism, Evolutionism, Gender" in George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Construction of Gender (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991): 15-42, of the relationship between Herbert Spencer and George Eliot in connection with his evolutionary theory as applied to the human sexes. As Paxton observes, Spencer's earlier agreement with the principles of nineteenth- century feminists is eventually supplanted by his evolutionist theories. Spencer's theoretical

tendencies are mirrored by his practical relationship with George Eliot (or vice versa) in which he rejects her as a lover on the grounds of her lack of "Personal Beauty" (the title of a Spencer essay, 1854). In a subsequent essay, "Physical Training," Spencer argues that "of the many elements uniting in various proportions to produce in a man's breast that complex emotion which we call love, the strongest are those produced by the physical attractions; the

weakest are those produced by intellectual attractions; and even those are dependent much less upon acquired knowledge than on natural facility--quickness, wit, of Nature's ends, or rather her Supreme end, is the welfare of far as posterity is concerned, a cultivated intelligence based upon a bad physique is of little worth, seeing that its descendants will die out in a generation or two ("Physical Training, 395, qtd. in Paxton, 33). Spencer's

own rejection of Eliot as a "cultivated intelligence based upon a bad physique" underscores the cultural contingency of his scientific theory. The question is not whether Herbert's theory ‘benefited' from his personal experience with Eliot, but rather that his treatment of gender in both were mediated by his own cultural biases.

{10} Nancy Paxton in "Theories of Origin and Knowledge" in George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Reconstruction of Gender (Princeton: Princeton UP: 1991), claims that this passage is very similar to an earlier Spencer passage in his Principles of Psychology. (See my text, below). I would think that this settles the question raised by J. Hillis Miller in his "Optic and Semiotic in Middlemarch" New Casebooks: Middlemarch, John Peck, ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992): 82, footnote 9., as to the identity of the

"eminent philosopher"

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