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Patterns of temptation in George Eliot's novels Raff, Walter S.

Abstract

Shakespeare clearly found a congenial medium of expression in kings and kingship; Pope tells us that from early childhood he ". . . lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." Similarly, George Eliot evinces an insistent tendency to image her view of human life in a battle of temptation. The plain facts of the novels—from Janet’s Repentance to Daniel Deronda—confirm the truth of this assertion. At least I would think so. But the extant criticism of George Eliot does not validate the supposition. My thesis originated in bewilderment at this discrepancy between expectation and fact. It seeks to deduce George Eliot's concept of temptation from her creative work, to elucidate its characteristic manifestations in the defeats or victories of individual temptees, to test its value in a detailed study of Maggie Tulliver and of Middlemarch, Book 7, to distinguish two concentric spheres of its cogency, showing how the more intense and more technical inner sphere lies embedded in a wider one reflecting George Eliot's moral philosophy, beliefs, and aims as a literary artist, and finally to intimate that the characteristic flavour of the novels stems in large measure from the felicitous interaction between these two mutually complementary spheres. A little reflection, grounded on some acquaintance with life and with literature, soon discloses temptation as a relational concept, composed of certain interacting elements: a strong desire, an opportunity to fulfill the desire, and a standard of conduct that prohibits fulfillment. The well-known temptation in the Garden of Eden, for example, clearly unveils all three. George Eliot accepts this traditional pattern, associated primarily with Biblical and medieval ways of thought, but substitutes humanistic for theological consequences, and thus helps to resuscitate its timeless truth. Desire, opportunity, and ethical ideal burgeon into counterbalancing forces of hitherto unsuspected mightiness, chiefly because the author sees good and evil as qualities within us rather than without. Her uncanny psychological penetration into the moral nature of man overwhelms readers with the shock of recognition. After listing the principal temptees in each of the novels, and pointing to their pivotal role in a Manichean battle, I examine the conduct of five in detail. Mr. Farebrother of Middlemarch eminently exemplifies the pattern of success, whereas Arthur Donnithorne, Bulstrode, and Gwendolen, despite vast individual differences, unite in illustrating the opposite pattern, which of course varies too. Nevertheless, the dividing line between the two contrasted camps remains clear; in fact, the recognizable bonds between the protagonists on the two sides help to throw it into sharper focus. Human weakness and propensity to evil may make the attainment of victory a hard struggle, or they may precipitate defeat; human strength and goodness account not only for victory, but also for the gnawing torture of remorse after defeat. Throughout, George Eliot unmistakably proffers one pearl of precious advice: A vow to oneself alone never suffices for victory; one must immediately and deliberately relinquish the means of breaking it, usually by taking others into one's confidence. Following these relatively straight-forward object lessons, I use the concept of temptation in an analysis of The Mill on the Floss, with emphasis on its principal temptee, Maggie Tulliver; and of Middlemarch, Book 7, whose title requires the reader to account for two temptations. In both instances I conclude that lack of my critical tool had hitherto prevented a satisfying reconciliation of all pertinent facts. Watching the reverberations of victory or of defeat spreading in ever-widening circles from the inner to the outer sphere of temptation, we realize, as do many temptees after losing their battles, that "No man is an island, sufficient unto himself"; that "Our echoes roll from soul to soul,/And grow for ever and for ever."

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