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ELH 67.2 (2000) 617-653

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Fiction as Vivisection: G. H. Lewes and George Eliot

Richard Menke *

Years after his transition from man of letters to man of science, George Henry Lewes brought his experience with neurophysiology to bear on contemporary fiction. In his 1872 essay "Dickens in Relation to Criticism," Lewes tries to provide a balanced assessment of the strengths and shortcomings of the novelist, who had died two years before. Largely because of two unusual scientific comparisons, however, many readers regarded his article as an attack on Dickens, with whom Lewes had in fact been friendly--despite their public feud over the scientific verisimilitude of Mr. Krook's spontaneous combustion in Bleak House (1852-53). First Lewes compares the "vividness of imagination" in the novelist's work to the intensity of "hallucinations," a trait Lewes has found in "no other perfectly sane mind." 1 Later, Lewes considers the problem of character and caricature in Dickens and produces an even more peculiar--and to many friends of Dickens peculiarly offensive--comparison:

When one thinks of Micawber always presenting himself in the same situation, moved with the same springs, and uttering the same sounds, always confident on something turning up, always crushed and rebounding, always making punch . . . one is reminded of the frogs whose brains have been taken out for physiological purposes, and whose actions henceforth want the distinctive peculiarity of organic action, that of fluctuating spontaneity. Place one of these brainless frogs on his back, and he will at once recover the sitting posture; draw a leg from under him, and he will draw it back again; tickle or prick him and he will push away the object, or take one hop out of the way; stroke his back, and he will utter one croak. All these things resemble the actions of the unmutilated frog, but they differ in being isolated actions, and always the same: they are as uniform and calculable as the movements of a machine. The uninjured frog may or may not croak, may or may not hop away; the result is never calculable, and is rarely a single croak or a single hop. It is this complexity of the organism which Dickens wholly fails to conceive; his characters have nothing flexible and incalculable in them . . . (D, 148-49)

With what seems to be a scientific revision of The Pickwick Papers's (1836-37) "Ode to an Expiring Frog," Lewes castigates Dickens for [End Page 617] producing characters who, like frogs whose brains have been removed by vivisecting physiologists, display the basic operations of a living organism without its inherent intricacy and contingency. 2 In part, perhaps, because of the uproar created by the scientific comparisons in the essay, in part because absorption in his Problems of Life and Mind (1874-79) left Lewes little time for writing about literature in his final years, "Dickens in Relation to Criticism" would be the last original work of literary criticism by a man who had first made his reputation as a critic, editor, and belletrist.

A few pages after Lewes makes his analogy between Micawber and the vivisected frog, the unspoken literary touchstone for his assessment of Dickens becomes clearer. Dickens, claims Lewes, represented "perceptions" with brilliance and with an intensity that approached the hallucinatory, but "[t]hought is strangely absent from his work"; Lewes doubts that "a single thoughtful remark on life or character could be found throughout the twenty volumes" (D, 151). Not altogether surprisingly, the implicit counterpoint to Dickens's phantasmagorical rendering of sensation and supposedly inflexible, calculable treatment of character seems to be the fiction of Lewes's companion, George Eliot, well known for its inclusion of weighty remarks on life and character. When Dickens creates characters, he creates brainless amphibians; when George Eliot creates characters, she performs a different, apparently more successful operation.

This essay discusses the relationship between vivisection and fiction for both G. H. Lewes and George Eliot. I wish to show first that the analogy between literature and vivisection is fundamental for Lewes, a veteran amateur physiologist known in the last years...


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