"The One Poor Word" in Middlemarch
Abstract

George Eliot's ethic of sympathy informs every aspect of her art, from plot to diction. In Middlemarch, the humble adjective, "poor," provides an especially revelatory example of her ethic suffusing a text. Used as an epithet connoting sympathy, "poor" appears in Middlemarch 145 times. For "poor Dorothea," "poor Casaubon," and "poor Lydgate," the contextual nuances of this simple modifier imply subtle shifts and distinctions in the narrator's moral valuations. Applied to Rosamond, the adjective engages and challenges the ethic of sympathy in George Eliot's reader. "Poor Rosamond," "poor" more often than anyone else in Middlemarch, is the novel's most exacting test of a reader's compassion.