George Eliot's Problem with Action
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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 785-803

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George Eliot's Problem with Action

Stefanie Markovits

D. H. Lawrence remarked that "it was [George Eliot] who started putting all the action inside." 1 So, for example, in Felix Holt , she shifts the focus from the political revolution implied by the title of the novel to Esther Lyon's "inward revolution." 2 When George Eliot "puts things inside"--exploiting narrative's potential to describe the invisible--willing, judging, desiring, and feeling gain the same ontological status as acting. And yet, properly speaking, action is set apart by its externality. Moreover, it is only by doing that we become just or unjust, as philosophers since Aristotle (who for this reason famously privileges the element of plot or action over character in his Poetics) have argued. George Eliot, whose primary concern is always with the ethical, acknowledges this through the narrator of Daniel Deronda, who insists that "the fuller nature desires to be an agent, to create, and not merely to look on." 3 Nevertheless, in his conversational review, Henry James's Pulcheria complains (ironically, given the pace of his own late fiction) about Daniel Deronda's lack of action: "I never read a story with less current. It is not a river; it is a series of lakes." 4

In fact, relatively little happens in most of George Eliot's books. Even the "murders" are usually, and conspicuously, crimes of inaction: Hetty's abandoning her child, Bulstrode's not telling his housekeeper to refrain from administering the liquor, and Gwendolen's hesitating to throw Grandcourt the rope. V. S. Pritchett recognizes that George Eliot has a mind "that has grown by making judgments," but these judgments are rarely allowed to find outward expression in positive action. 5 Her optimism seems [End Page 785] to be much more about the human potential to will the right things than to do the right things. I wish to argue that George Eliot's shifting inward of action creates a series of ethical problems with which she wrestles increasingly in her novels. 6 The culmination of this struggle occurs in Daniel Deronda, in which the nature and potential of action become the dominant subject, and it is to this work that I will eventually turn. But first, by comparing her philosophical inquiries to analogous statements by philosophers from John Stuart Mill onward, I will show why the field of action becomes a battlefield for George Eliot.

George Eliot's trouble with action rests partly in her sense of the impossibility of controlling consequences. Actions, both our own and those of others, inevitably constrain our future choices. Adam Bede's narrator comments of Arthur Donnithorne: "Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds . . . There is a terrible coercion in our deeds which may first turn the honest man into a deceiver, and then reconcile him to the change; for this reason--that the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right." 7 Again and again, George Eliot reminds us of this lesson: Tito Melema's decision, in Romola, to sell Baldassarre's rings occasions the comment that "he had chosen his color in the game, and had given an inevitable bent to his wishes." 8 And George Eliot's fear is compounded by her awareness of the irreversibility of acts, the worst kind of "woeful progeny" (FH, p. 11). There is a "dreadful vitality of deeds"--"children may be strangled, but deeds never" (R, p. 156). One can sense her terror in this analogy. In her novels, the smallest actions can bring about vast and unimaginable consequences.

So our deeds are not completely within our control; this is the great lesson Harold Transome must learn in Felix Holt: "It was the most serious moment in Harold Transome's life: for the first time the iron had entered into his soul, and he felt the hard pressure of our common lot, the yoke of that mighty resistless destiny laid upon us by the acts...