- George Eliot's Feuerbach:Senses, Sympathy, Omniscience, And Secularism
George Eliot's realist fiction repeatedly and explicitly declares its project to be one of cultivating sympathy, a principle nowhere more apparent than in the rhetorical intrusions of the omniscient narrators of her earliest novels. In "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton," the first of the three stories collected in Eliot's earliest fictional work, Scenes of Clerical Life, the male narrator both invites the reader to consider the eponymous and imperfect protagonist, Amos, and makes his objective for the reader quite clear: "Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones."1 This interruption repeats two years later in the novel that would make Eliot famous; the ungendered narrator of Adam Bede provides an intrusive and chapter-length discussion that addresses the aesthetic and moral merits of realistic representation and its promotion of "deep human sympathy" for even the commonest of characters: "I find a source of delicious sympathy," he insists, "in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence."2 Eliot's theories about sympathy as a dually aesthetic and ethical force are well-known and well-trodden by modern critics of Victorian fiction, and it is common to begin any discussion of Eliot's notion of sympathy with her 1856 essay, "The Natural History of German Life," where she famously asserts: "The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies."3 Across these texts, Eliot's edict appears unambiguous: represent ordinary people with realism and you will spark sympathy, thus exercising the highest ethical potential that fiction has to offer.
What becomes apparent when we look beyond "The Natural History of German Life" to Eliot's fiction is how the narrators who make these proclamations about sympathy do not limit their engagements to a rhetorical realm: they do not solely peer into the worlds they narrate or directly address the reader from a disembodied vantage point. Instead, Eliot's earliest omniscient narrators exercise their sympathetic ethos [End Page 475] through appearing as characters within their stories. These narrators metaleptically materialize alongside—or, as Scenes' narrator phrases it, "on the level" of—their fellow characters for whom they profess sympathy (SCL, 229). In "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton," for instance, the narrator briefly reminisces about how his nurse needed to bribe his good behavior in church "by smuggling bread-and-butter into the sacred edifice" (SCL, 6) when he was still "so crude a member of the congregation" (SCL, 5). And in Adam Bede the narrator remarks upon having "gathered" part of his story "from Adam Bede, to whom I talked of these matters in his old age" (AB, 163). This essay takes its impetus from brief moments such as these in Eliot's earliest fiction, moments when her omniscient narrators assume the same level of corporeality that they attribute to their characters.4 I contend that with each appearance Eliot's omniscient narrators reveal how their embodiment serves as a foundation for participating in sympathetic relationships with the characters and narrative universe that they seem to survey from afar.
I begin this essay by arguing that across Eliot's fiction she repeatedly privileges forms of fellow feeling that avoid abstraction and instead capitalize on the productive intimacy gleaned from proximate and embodied experiences. Thus the instances in Eliot's early fiction when narrators appear as characters help us to frame later moments of sympathy in her oeuvre when the narrators may not materialize as characters but the narration still envisions a sympathetic ideal in which fellow feeling never shakes off the centrality of sensory feeling. Reading feeling in this way places Eliot in conversation with theories of the sensorium that reach from Lucretius's materialism and John Locke's empiricism to eighteenth-century models of sensibility. Here I approach Eliot's form of sensory sympathy by concentrating...