The Honest Genius of George Eliot

Bernadette Waterman Ward shares a concise overview of George Eliot’s interaction with Girard’s mimetic desire and the honest realism within Eliot’s novels.


George Eliot’s biographers and critics usually present her as a heroic champion of feminism and humanism, supported by her longtime lover in her radical lifestyle. Yet careful chronological reading of all her work, including journalism and translations, evidences considerable dissonance with this image. Her sometimes anguished, and always complex, relation to radical ideas is significant for her subtle and morally insightful novels in ways that can best be described by using the mimetic theory of Rene Girard.

Mimetic desire is a spiritual yearning, not satisfied by objects, prestige or social stability. Imitation and envy destabilize cultures; unsatisfactory stabilizers include scapegoating, caste systems and warlike aggression. Christianity opposes such violence; Girard points out that only a transcendent spiritual model can satisfy our need to imitate and share in communal sentiment. Because of her youthful conversion to an aberrant form of Christianity, Eliot identified Christians as people who scapegoat others. She crusaded in her journalism for many progressive contemporary philosophies after rejecting Christianity, but it was hard for her to define that progress.

It was her lover, George Henry Lewes, who encouraged her to seek a wider audience for their ideas through the softer medium of fiction. Her novels, “experiments in life,” test various ideologies by imaginative thought experiments; the attempts at progress seemed to end in condemnation of outsiders, re-creating the scapegoat mechanisms that she identified at first as exclusively Christian. The novels’ self-defeating heroes, “Mimetic Angels,” seem to be attempts to demonstrate that giving up hope for any infinite good will better serve human progress.

Meanwhile, the lover who encouraged her writing was exploiting her income and prestige. George Henry Lewes sincerely thought he was doing her a favor as he controlled her contracts, censored her mail and policed her reading. Amidst the turbulence of her personal life, Eliot concentrated on literary work that richly delineated exploitative relationships, competition and scapegoating in various and complex forms—along with love, heroism, and the desire to escape the machinery of competition and self-subjugation to rivals. Much of the richness and sympathy that colors her novels emerges from her honest recognition that she has been unable to extract herself from those destructive patterns. She had no illusions about herself as a feminist hero—and she deliberately curbed the power of her heroines. Despite the painful results of her attempts to live out her radical opinions, the honesty of her art is a towering achievement; she looks with clear eyes at the twisted imitative desires that she sees intertwined with all human attempts at virtue.

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