restricted access Discerning Syntax: George Eliot’s Relative Clauses

George Eliot’s Middlemarch exhorts its readers to develop an intelligent sympathy towards others. The novel’s depiction of the gravest threat to this ideal--the difficulty of perceiving other people--is embedded in the narrative syntax itself. This article traces a peculiar grammatical pattern through Middlemarch: clauses that shift from a narrating past to a universalizing presence by means of the relative pronoun “which.” These clauses integrate reflection into narrative presentation. Much contemporary criticism around the ethical work novels do considers reading as a relation between the reader and either the characters or narrator; I propose that there is also an ethics of syntax operating at the level of the clause. Instead of promoting specific values, this “commentative clause” inscribes a process of making judgments, and aims to educate the reader in methods of taking perspective on other people. In terms of the Middlemarch narrative voice, commentative clauses have little to do with the “all-knowing, all-understanding, and all-forgiving” mother figure invoked by D.A. Miller in his description of Eliot’s narrative voice. Rather, they reveal a pattern of sharp conceptual discrimination in Middlemarch that is at odds with the larger trajectory toward sympathy that critics have long understood to shape its plot.