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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 819-835
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George Eliot's Realism and Adam Smith
"Young ladies don't understand political economy," Mr. Brooke explains in Middlemarch, "I remember when we were all reading Adam Smith. There is a book, now." 1 Although references to economics are invariably satirical in George Eliot's fiction, her later novels borrow extensively from Smith. The images that George Eliot selects in Felix Holt as emblems of her own realism—a milkmaid, an election day mob, and a chessboard—are indebted to Smith, particularly to his focus on the ways in which each person's career interferes with that of every other, whether for good or for ill. Smith articulated for George Eliot the "ground up" quality of a modern society: that is, the emergence of its large-scale institutions from the day-to-day interactions of its citizens. His insistence that a society is shaped from below turned out to be more than a principle of sociological analysis; it was, unexpectedly, a rule of thumb for constructing a realistic novel. 2
Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations would have been familiar to George Eliot early in her career, belonging as they did to the ordinary cultural competence of a nineteenth-century intellectual. Yet the allusions studied here turn up exclusively in her later writings. I suggest that George Eliot remembered Smith's language as her understanding of realism evolved in the sequence of novels from Silas Marner to Middlemarch. On the evidence of these novels, it is likely that her assumptions about realism developed of their own accord; nonetheless, the uses to which George Eliot puts Smith help to pick out a number of her central literary and imaginative prejudices in Felix Holt and Middlemarch. In a real sense, I will argue, George Eliot deepens Smith's conviction that a society makes itself from below. [End Page 819]
Like Middlemarch, the plot of Felix Holt dramatizes the interconnectedness of the lives of its many characters, or what George Eliot glosses as the "mutual influence of dissimilar destinies." 3 This phrase, however, does not refer to the direct and purposeful relationships between the novel's personages so much as to the indirect ways by which they influence one another. George Eliot explains that the purpose of her novel is to show that "there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life, from the time when the primeval milkmaid had to wander with the wanderings of her clan, because the cow she milked was one of a herd which had made the pastures bare" (F, p. 50).
The economic language in which George Eliot expresses the basic commitment of literary realism—the recording of many lives intersecting in the medium of historical circumstance—indicates what is unusual about the vision of society in Felix Holt. Even in a novel of parliamentary reform and election day riots, "wider public life" is almost nonexistent, because George Eliot treats large-scale social phenomena purely as the unintended aggregates of the microscopic transactions by which individuals unintentionally thwart or promote one another's pursuits. History, society, and public life disappear in Felix Holt and Middlemarch into this whirlpool of private interests and interactions. And this protosociological conviction, which George Eliot shares with (or even, in a sense, reads into) Smith, stands at the center of her novelistic metaphysics until she abruptly reverses course in Daniel Deronda. But Daniel Deronda, charting the possible formation of a new society in the East, has long been recognized as something of a romance.
Felix Holt and Middlemarch, by contrast, have rightly been seen as characteristic of the realist project, which in contemporary thought has often been seen as philosophically flawed. Recent critics (assuming as I do here that the varieties of nineteenth-century realism have much in common) have found in these novels considerable evidence for realism's failures. Depending on how much consciousness one attributes to the author, George Eliot's realism...