George Eliot’s Realism

About George Eliot:

George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. Eliot was a Victorian novelist and she also had a career in journalism. Besides working for the journal The Westminster Review, she also wrote some poetry. She is, however, mainly remembered for her novels. She is associated with the movement of Literary Realism. Her essay Silly Novels by Lady Novelists and a chapter in her novel Adam Bede explain Eliot’s brand of Realism.

Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

This essay was published in 1856 in the journal that Eliot had been working for. In this essay, Eliot argued that the novels written by female authors were dismissed as ‘silly’ because they were unrealistic. She criticised the novels that represented only high-class women in balls or parties. She was repulsed by such romanticized depictions, which she believed were not the true reflections of the world.

The target of Eliot’s criticism were the heroines of such novels who epitomised virtue, beauty and perfection. These protagonists were occupied with trivial concerns like dance balls, riding expeditions or flower-shows. The plots of such novels involved these beautiful and virtuous heroines making their way up on the social ladder through marriage. They had ample of suitors who attempted to court them unsuccessfully until the perfect heroines settled for the perfect men. 

The protagonists of Eliot’s own novels are ordinary humans with problems rooted in their social lives. Eliot was opposed to literature that contained perfect characters with all the goodness. For her, heroines with superb intellect who were always well-dressed and perfectly religious, were unreal. Reality, for Eliot, was far from such depictions. She held that fiction should be rooted in reality

Chapter 17 in Adam Bede

In Chapter 17 of her first full-length novel, Eliot clearly stated her intention as a novelist. She wrote,

“ strongest effort is to avoid any such (unrealistic) arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind.”

George Eliot

She believed that literature should be concerned with “faithful representing of commonplace things”. She likened herself as a writer to a person standing “in the witness-box, narrating my experience on oath”. Eliot thus favoured so ardent a realism that she went as far as to say that a novelist should be bound by the rule of truthfulness to the actual world. 

George Eliot’s Realism

The social and political life of provincial England found place in the works of George Eliot. She began with Adam Bede and her very first novel contained an ordinary carpenter as the eponymous hero. This was a classic example of an ordinary character in a realist novel. A realist should not attempt to present characters as flawless and should not try to “straighten their noses”, “brighten their wit” or rectify their dispositions”. She believed that humans in real are imperfect and literature should depict them as such. Similarly, the eponymous protagonist of her 1861 novel Silas Marner was a weaver. 

In her most popular novel Middlemarch, Eliot addressed themes of nature of marriage and status of women. This regard for realism is observable in the depiction of the rural England in her novels. Eliot also asserted that the plots should be unexaggerated. Eliot’s fondness for Dutch paintings further shows that she preferred art which contained “faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence” over art that presented glossier pictures.

Eliot focussed not only on depicting the realities of the outer world but also the realities of minds of her characters. In this regard, D.H. Lawrence remarked about George Eliot that “it was she who put the action on the inside”. This prioritisation of the psychological depths of the characters was later popularised by Virginia Woolf in her psychological novels.

Eliot’s Realism Summed Up

The tendency in Eliot’s novels to reflect the society and political state of the Victorian period make her a true realist. Eliot advocated serious writing as opposed to unreal, romanticised narratives. It is significant to remember that George Eliot was not proposing a complete objectivity in representing the world because this was an unattainable feat. In fact, she herself admitted that such an attempt would be too ambitious and was beyond the scope of literature, or any art.

She knew that the attempts of literature to hold a mirror to society were bound to be defective. She acknowledged that in such an attempt, “the outlines will sometimes be disturbed”. Reality when reproduced in novels will be faint and not as clear as the real world. But she emphasized that it is nonetheless the responsibility of a novelist to keep the plot, characters and themes as close to the real world as possible