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This article examines natural historical writings by George Henry Lewes and Philip Henry Gosse in order to illuminate George Eliot's understanding and plotting of human relations, particularly in her novel The Mill on the Floss (1860). Inspired by Gosse's studies of seaside ecosystems, in which traditional understandings of parasitism give way to dense and overdetermined parasitic relations, both Lewes and George Eliot take up the "parasitic cluster" as a formal device. For Lewes, the parasite reveals the beauty and interdependence of nature; in environments marked by infinite connection, the parasitic cluster is a "typical form." In George Eliot's darker view, however, the parasite exposes the complex asymmetry inherent to all relationships, especially among humans; as such, it becomes an archetype crucial to her novel's form.

George Eliot seems to be her own best critic when she compares her fiction to the form of a web in Middlemarch (1871–72), describing her project as concentrating on a "particular web" of human relations, "unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven."1 Critics ever since have followed George Eliot's preference for this metaphor, especially since it affords a proximity to the Darwinian "web of affinities" and conveys what is felt to be George Eliot's scientific ambition to represent social complexity in the novel form. The form of the web—whether we take it to refer to a spider's web or a web of spun fabric—alerts us to the connectivity and overdetermination of human relation in her novels. But the image can also imply a level of symmetry and stasis that the novels work to undermine. This is why, as Gillian Beer puts it, Middlemarch eventually "repudiates" its "favourite image."2 As George Eliot suggests in the novel's "Finale," web metaphors risk overstating the evenness and consistency of human connection: "the fragment of a life, however typical," she writes, "is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval."3 The web, for all its elegance, does not immediately account for unintended outcomes or the wasteful contingencies of a dynamic process. Despite George Eliot's reservations, [End Page 919] however, the web persists, especially in accounts of her form that prioritize its affinities with Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859).4 In the absence of another metaphor, it remains the image of choice among critics (including Beer herself) interested in visualizing George Eliot's character spaces.5

This article offers another way of visualizing relations in George Eliot's work rooted in the author's earlier attempts to unite literary and scientific form: the parasitic cluster. While the web dominates Middlemarch, the parasitic cluster was central to the scientific research that George Eliot undertook with her partner, George Henry Lewes, in the late 1850s, and to George Eliot's earlier novel The Mill on the Floss (1860).6 During this period, as Lewes was transitioning into natural history writing, George Eliot was starting to write fiction—and to think of fiction as its own type of natural history. As part of this transition, the pair spent much of their time studying life on the smallest of scales, even taking trips to the English coast in 1856 and 1857 to study tide pools and other marine ecologies. As the two writers familiarized themselves with the intimate relations formed by tiny and often parasitic seaside creatures, they started to conceptualize the dense ecologies that would prove integral to their visions of nature, literary form, and ethical life.

The term "parasite" originated in ancient Greece, first describing a religious acolyte and later something more negative: a human sponger or flatterer. This was the classic literary parasite, associated with figures from Lucian's Simon to Moliére's Tartuffe. Applications of parasitism to nonhuman life came quite late: in the eighteenth century, the term was used—as a metaphor, initially—to describe certain plants, such as mistletoe, and in the early nineteenth century it was applied to insects.7 From here, it invaded other emergent and professionalizing scientific fields. This movement from a longstanding literary conception to applications in plant and nonhuman animal life resulted in new approaches to parasitic meaning and value; by the middle of the nineteenth century, interplay between human and nonhuman applications of the term was common, and parasites were beginning to shed some of their negative associations. Particularly among natural historians, it was now possible to view parasites not simply as problematic or dangerous, but also as illuminating crucial features of society and environment. Drawing from a natural theology that presented the study of nature as a way to learn about God's power and wisdom, popular natural historians such as Philip Henry Gosse and Charles Kingsley treated parasites as [End Page 920] evidence of "[t]he economy with which God works in nature," an economy that acts as "an instructive homily … on the beneficent care of Him who 'openeth his hand, and satisfieth the desire of every living thing.'"8

With this natural historical work in mind, Marian Evans and Lewes set out for Ilfracombe on 8 May 1856. Over the course of two summers, they would visit Tenby, the Scilly Isles, and Jersey, collecting aquatic creatures and examining them under their new microscope. For Lewes, the importance of the trip was straightforward: his studies of marine life would provide content for "Sea-Side Studies," a series of articles published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine beginning in August 1856. And as Rosemary Ashton notes, the couple's natural historical pursuits "mingled fruitfully" with Evans's reading at the time, too, which included two of Wilhelm von Riehl's histories of German culture. In "The Natural History of German Life" (1856), published in Blackwood's just one month before the first installation of "Sea-Side Studies," Evans—now publishing as George Eliot—considered "the evolution of society in the naturalist's terms—the 'organism' and its 'medium.'"9

What most fascinated the pair at Ilfracombe was precisely this relationship between an organism and its medium—or, more precisely, between organisms and their many media. Defined by the multiplicity of their relationships as well as their tendency to take more than they give, parasites informed Lewes and George Eliot's thinking about what it meant to live among, alongside, and as part of others—not only to have needs and desires in common with one's intimates, but also, at least as often, to have them in conflict. From this shared understanding, however, the two writers moved in divergent directions. In Lewes's natural historical work, parasitic relationships reveal the beauty and ultimate harmony of nature, in spite of its asymmetry; clustering together in complex, intricate constructions, parasitic relationships are "typical forms" of natural life.10 In The Mill on the Floss, meanwhile, parasitism is more problematic, but equally foundational. At the most fundamental level, it serves as a reminder of the growth and restriction inherent to all relationships, especially among humans. And at the level of form, it helps George Eliot figure social landscapes dense with asymmetrical relations. While the webs of Middlemarch help George Eliot to represent interconnectedness and overdetermination, then, the parasitic clusters of The Mill on the Floss prompt her to imagine something even more complex: overlapping sets of proliferating and precarious relations that are at once necessary for life and limiting. [End Page 921]


In 1860 Lewes opens his natural history work Studies in Animal Life with an image of proliferating life:

Come with me, and lovingly study Nature, as she breathes, palpitates, and works under myriad forms of Life—forms unseen, unsuspected, or unheeded by the mass of ordinary men. Our course may be through park and meadow, garden and lane, over the swelling hills and spacious heaths, beside the running and sequestered streams, along the tawny coast, out on the dark and dangerous reefs, or under dripping caves and slippery ledges. It matters little where we go: every where—in the air above, the earth beneath, and waters under the earth—we are surrounded with Life.11

In these first lines of the text, Lewes marks out a purview recognizably more expansive than that of his earlier "Sea-Side Studies" articles. Rather than "marine animals of simple organization," he will study nature in its relation to "myriad forms of Life"—for life, as he says at the start of two successive paragraphs in this opening chapter, is "every where!"12 But the relationship between nature and life here is initially unclear. What does it mean, after all, for nature to breathe, palpitate, and work "under" various life forms?

Raymond Williams cites three main meanings of the word "nature," all of which have long competed and combined in ecological thought as ways of understanding the world: first, "the essential quality and character of something"; second, "the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both"; and third, "the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings."13 At first glance, Lewes's meaning in this passage appears to lie closer to Williams's second version of nature, where it reigns as the idea, the directing force. But if the word "under" connotes verticality (which would imply Williams's second meaning), then such a construction collapses under the heterarchical weight of Lewes's passage as a whole. The image is ambiguous: nature is subordinate to teeming life but is also a quality; at the same time, it is a current beneath the material world that makes living possible. Thus Lewes's vision combines all of Williams's meanings: nature has its own "nature," its essential qualities such as infinitude, diversity, and complexity; it is a transcendent agent, forming life everywhere; and it is a tangible subject of study. [End Page 922]

When Lewes uses the word "Life," the logic is parallel. Like nature, life in this text simultaneously "surround[s]" and is enclosed, contains and is contained; it is excessive. This simultaneity indicates a problem of representation. Because this ecological logic lends itself to spatial ambiguity, in dealing with nature and life Lewes's prepositions proliferate: he uses "under," "through," "over," "beside," "along," "out," "above"—and the list goes on, even in just these three sentences. This proliferation of prepositions allows Lewes to undermine conventional approaches to the study of organisms and their environments; rather than suggest that one preposition or relation could suffice, Lewes's approach assumes that complex relationships fill every imaginable (and unimaginable) space in an infinite natural world—that life is "every where."

For this reason it is appropriate that Lewes's first example of a life worth studying is a parasite, a term whose prefix "para" refers to something alongside but also inside, contrary to, beyond.14 Though he closes the passage above with the idea that we are "surrounded with Life," in Studies in Animal Life Lewes is fascinated by the idea that humans also share life, not only with infinite numbers of creatures in the air and on and under the earth, but also with the organisms that inhabit our bodies and those that inhabit theirs as well. As he writes, "Life cradles within Life … In the fluids and tissues, in the eye, in the liver, in the stomach, in the brain, in the muscles, parasites are found; and these parasites have often their parasites living in them!"15 His introduction of the parasite in the early pages of the text expands his sense of mediation between organisms: we are not just subjects living alongside other subjects, he suggests; we are also steeped in life, inhabited as well as encircled by various plants and animals that are neither fully part of nor fully outside us.

Lewes's example is an Opalina that he has found in the emptied-out digestive tract of a previously dissected frog, and one could imagine a description of this relationship in which the frog/digestive tract/parasite triad might be represented as a sort of Russian doll: a body inside an organ inside a body. But Lewes never describes the relationship this way, just as he does not describe life as something situated "within" physical nature. Instead, he stresses the extent to which the Opalina and its host restrict one another. As he explains, the Opalina is "the infantile condition of some worm," perhaps of the genus Distoma, but "it will not grow into a mature worm as long as it inhabits the frog; it waits till some pike, or bird, has devoured the frog, and then, in the stomach of its new captor, it will develop into its mature [End Page 923] form—then, and not till then."16 In a conceptual reversal, the host has become the parasite's "captor"; the body that encloses the Opalina checks its growth. Rather than draw attention to his subject as a figure for unidirectional sponging, then, Lewes suggests a reciprocity of uneven relations, extending to every actor in a parasitic relationship. Insofar as life is structured through multiple dynamic relationships, any relationship may act as a limit or opportunity for a given actor, and sometimes may act as both. In this reading, parasitism is never unidirectional: it is a series of overlapping limitations and opportunities in which it can be hard to distinguish where one organism begins and another ends, as well as who is benefiting and to what extent.

Crucially, however, the Opalina's connections to the frog and its digestive tract do not constitute the parasite's only determining asymmetrical relationships. A certain recursivity, in which parasites act as hosts to parasites who act as hosts to other parasites and so on, fascinates Lewes in this text and elsewhere, as evidenced by his wonder at life's tendency to "cradle[ ]" within life.17 This is why in the book-length Sea-Side Studies Lewes calls the parasitic crustacean Lernœa "the most piquant of all paradoxes." As he writes, "the female, ensconced in the eye, or gills, of a fish, lives a lazy life at the fish's expense, and the male lives upon her as she lives on the fish (not unlike some disreputable males of the human species), and this male is himself infested with parasitic Vorticellæ, so that we find parasites of parasites of parasites!"18 His tone is gleeful as he goes on to note how "Great fleas have little fleas, and lesser fleas to bite 'em, / And these again have other fleas, and so ad infinitum."19 The host, its parasite, the parasite's parasite, and the second parasite's parasite all are positioned here in a cluster of infinite relationships, much like those of the Opalina, the digestive tract, and the frog. And indeed, Lewes claims that these parasitic "paradoxes … might be indefinitely multiplied."20 His meaning is double: not only could he produce many more such examples, but the relationships under study themselves could also be multiplied "ad infinitum." In this sense, a parasitic cluster, much like an individual organism, is never discrete. It forms relationships with other clusters, which form relationships with other clusters, and so on.

In treating parasites as figures for complex interconnection rather than for the perils of a ruthless natural world, Lewes was working against a dominant current of Victorian thought that was primarily concerned with parasites' destructive potential. For most Britons, nonhuman parasitism, which had emerged only recently [End Page 924] as a coherent concept, remained closely tied to more longstanding—and negatively valued—literary meanings of the term. But Lewes had an important forerunner in treating parasites this way. In Gosse's popular A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (1853), parasites serve as prime examples for the economy of space to be found in nature, as when Gosse describes the footstalk of "a frond of the Digitate Oar-weed … densely crowded with a parasitical forest of the angular stems of Laomedea geniculata as thick as they could bristle"—even the oar-weed's roots, he notes, are populated by "a considerable number of stems of that lovely feather-like zoophyte, the Crested Plumularia" and "small Mantis-shrimp, (Caprella) of curious form and the most delicate transparency."21 Gosse follows the same pattern when describing a hypothetical plant that, though it occupies a limited amount of space, harbors an incredible amount of life, directly and indirectly. In addition to its parasites, this plant sustains "many species of spiders and insects … not to speak of the birds, and butterflies, and bees, and flies, that are but temporary visitants, mere comers and goers." These creatures

have other creatures living on them as parasites; the earwig that is snugly ensconced in the tube of that flower is tenanted by a long intestinal worm ; yonder caterpillar so calmly gnawing out sinuous cavities in the edge of a leaf, supports within a colony of infant ichneumons ; the little wild bee that has just alighted on this blossom would be found to carry about sundry maggots whose black heads peep out from beneath the rings of his abdomen. Even the very juices that circulate in the vessels of the plant probably bear along in their course the germs of invisible animalcules.22

Here Gosse highlights not the redirection of energy from a host toward a parasite, but instead the density of relationships to be found on a single plant. And in his view, these relationships are marked by a "vast amount of happiness" that reveals God's infinite wisdom and goodness.23 For despite the asymmetry of their relationships, Gosse suggests that the "sentient existences" that fill "every nook and corner of his world" are "capable of pleasure, and actually [enjoy] it to the full, hour by hour and day by day."24 If the classic form of parasitism—the ancient Greek parasitos—conveys straightforward, unidirectional draining from a host to a parasite, then in passages like these Gosse imagines parasitism [End Page 925] differently, as "a submarine 'happy family'" structured by complex and overdetermined relations, and even beauty, harmony, and joy.25

In emphasizing the complexity and harmony of parasitic relationships, Gosse lays the groundwork for a new kind of parasitic form that proves central to Lewes's understanding of relations both in and out of the water.26 But if Gosse treats parasitic relationality as exemplary of the complex relationships to be found in marine ecologies, Lewes would find parasites in all social and biological systems. In this view, parasites are no longer merely exemplary of marine life's tendency to form clusters of relationships: they are what he calls "typical forms."27 For it is crucial to note that, despite his increasing interest in parasites from the first "Sea-Side Studies" article to Studies in Animal Life, parasites in and of themselves are never Lewes's subject.28 He uses parasites instead to reveal a formal relationship, one that can help us expand "our sense of the vastness and complexity of Life"—which is "[t]he crowning glory" of scientific practice.29 His pleasure in identifying forms typical to all creatures is enough to border on the erotic:

The typical forms took possession of me. They were ever present in my waking thoughts; they filled my dreams with fantastic images; they came in troops as I lay awake during meditative morning hours; they teazed me as I turned restlessly from side to side at night; they made all things converge towards them. If I tried a little relaxation of literature, the page became a starting-point for the wandering fancy, or more obtrusive memory; a phrase like "throbbing heart" would detach my thoughts from the subject of the book, and hurry them away to the stage of the Microscope, where the heart of some embryo was pulsating. I could not look at anything intently, but the chance was that some play of light would transform itself into the image of a mollusc or a polype.30

Once we learn to recognize nature's typical forms, we see them everywhere. For they proliferate even when we are not looking under a microscope's lens—they can be found in books, in dreams, in "anything." Scored as it is by embryonic pulsations and throbbing heartbeats, this influx of images of tiny organisms and their relations provides an occasion for awe and pleasure as well as a scene of spatial confusion and reorganization. And [End Page 926] indeed, Lewes's vision of a world in flux suggests his work's resistance to the sort of spatial coherence associated with the more linear images of nature to be found elsewhere in Victorian science.31 Confronted with a vision of life as infinitely dense and multiplying, Lewes uses the idea of typical forms to turn disparate images into a coherent, if shifting, view of an endlessly complex, aestheticized nature.

"Far as the mightiest telescope can reach," Lewes writes, "it detects worlds in clusters, like pebbles on the shore of infinitude; deep as the microscope can penetrate, it detects life within life, generation within generation, as if the very universe itself were not vast enough for the energies of life!"32 Working on the smallest of scales within an infinite series of ecologies, then, parasitic relationships become the building blocks for an incredible array of relations. In this passage, he makes explicit something he implies in the first of his "Sea-Side Studies" articles, in a selection pulled, in fact, from George Eliot's own "Recollections of Ilfracombe, 1856":

the houses all about naturally recall the curious shells and habitats with which our hunting has made us familiar. In these mountainous districts, where houses and clusters of houses look so tiny in comparison with the huge limbs of Mother Earth, one is apt to think of man as a parasitic animal living on a grander creature—an epizoon nestling in the skin of this planetary organism, which rolls through space like a ciliated ovum rolling through a drop of water. In flat districts a town looks imposing; even a single house raises its head with haughtiness. There is nothing around to rival it in height, and from it we may fondly imagine earth our pedestal. But our thoughts are otherwise when we see the house lost on the broad side of a noble hill; and still more when, from a little distance, we see a number of houses clustered on the side, clinging to it like so many Barnacles clinging to a rock; we then begin to think of our family resemblance to all other building, burrowing, house-appropriating animals.33

Here, the parasitic cluster acts again as a typical form, lending structure to life's clustering and perpetual proliferation, with the infinitely recursive and expansive space that proliferation implies. Lewes moves—parasitically off George Eliot, we might say—between manmade constructions, man, and nature, from [End Page 927] the individual (single houses compared to shells, and man compared to "an epizoon") to groups and species (clusters of houses compared to barnacles, and humanity compared to the entire category of more or less parasitic animals). He reduces macro-cosmic and social relations to the contents of a drop of water and then enlarges them again, suggesting that dwelling itself may be a parasitic activity as far as the microscope or the telescope can see. In so doing, he collapses the distinction between the parasite and seemingly independent organisms, presenting an aestheticized view of life as generally parasitic—but also balanced in its asymmetry.


If Lewes saw the parasitic cluster as typical to a relatively balanced, if asymmetrical, natural world, then George Eliot used the same form to think through the vicissitudes of shared life in human communities. For this reason, references to parasitism continue to crop up in her work following "Recollections of Ilfracombe, 1856." Many of these references appear to reflect the older parasitic form described above, imagining unidirectional, asymmetrical relationships between one host and one parasite—but the novels themselves undermine such linearity. In Middlemarch, for example, Lydgate calls Rosamond his basil plant, because "basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man's brains"; Dorothea thinks tiny, passive dogs are "parasitic"; and Mr. Raffles appears to Ladislaw as "one of those political parasitic insects of the bloated kind who had once or twice claimed acquaintance with him as having heard him speak on the Reform question, and who might think of getting a shilling by news."34 And in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), Felix of "all men in the world had the least affinity either for the industrious or the idle parasite," while "a man of Sir Maximus's rank is like those antediluvian animals whom the system of things condemned to carry such a huge bulk that they really could not inspect their bodily appurtenance, and had no conception of their own tails: their parasites doubtless had a merry time of it, and often did extremely well when the high-bred saurian himself was ill at ease."35

In The Mill on the Floss, however, George Eliot lays out the same sort of parasitic form that she presents in "Recollections of Ilfracombe, 1856." First it appears as a metaphor when, at the close of the novel's second chapter, the protagonist's father, Mr. [End Page 928] Tulliver, asks his friend Mr. Riley to recommend a tutor for his son. Mr. Riley recommends a Mr. Stelling, but without knowing whether he is well qualified. At this point, George Eliot's narrator emerges to tell us that we shouldn't blame Riley for recommending someone on so little evidence. As she explains, "a man with the milk of human kindness in him can scarcely abstain from doing a good-natured action, and one cannot be good-natured all round. Nature herself occasionally quarters an inconvenient parasite on an animal towards whom she has otherwise no ill-will. What then? We admire her care for the parasite. If Mr Riley had shrunk from giving a recommendation that was not based on valid evidence, he would not have helped Mr Stelling to a paying pupil."36 It has been difficult for scholars to treat the suggestion that we admire "Nature['s] … care for the parasite" as anything but ironic. Sally Shuttleworth, for instance, argues that "Nature's 'care' is simply a retrospective form of explanation which creates a sense of order not actually inherent within the action, and explains an initial evil in terms of good." After all, Riley's recommendation is "offered on no firmer ground than that of having been asked to deliver an opinion."37 But if Shuttleworth is right to highlight the pain underlying this passage, it is not so clear that we are meant to judge Riley's actions harshly. Riley's recommendation precedes what is a disastrous turn of events for Tulliver. And yet it is no less good-natured than a refusal to recommend someone of whom he had heard nothing ill. Though Riley does not know Stelling well, he believes the schoolmaster "to be an excellent classic, for Gadsby had said so, and Gadsby's first cousin was an Oxford tutor" (p. 22). Moreover he likes Stelling's wife, Louisa (née Timpson), and is happy to do "a good turn to a son-in-law of Timpson's, for Timpson was one of the most useful and influential men in the parish" (p. 23). In laying out this set of direct and indirect relationships among Riley and Tulliver, Stelling, Gadsby, Louisa, and Timpson, then, George Eliot shows that Riley is "more under the influence of small promptings than of far-sighted designs" (p. 22). Even the "evil" result of the recommendation is more ambiguous than it initially appears. If we can name any one repercussion as particularly damaging, then it is something that even a more qualified informant could not have known: that through Stelling, Tom and Maggie will meet Philip Wakem, Maggie's future love interest and Tom's future nemesis. Perhaps, then, George Eliot is not ironically alerting us to a straightforward evil perpetuated by Riley, but is instead drawing attention to the density of the relationships involved even in this early and minor interaction. [End Page 929]

In this light, George Eliot's mention of the word "parasite" seems more ambiguous—who, we might ask, is George Eliot comparing to a parasite anyway? Riley shares similarities with the type of literary parasite dating to ancient Greek comedy: he is a sponger, an entertainer, a giver of advice. Just as the literary parasite might take a seat at a patron's table, Riley takes a seat by Tulliver's hearth. His advice and entertainment alone appear to entitle him to Tulliver's brandy and water. And later in the narrative he will die, leaving Tulliver saddled with his debts. But if Riley appears to be playing the part of the parasite, then his role in the novel is also comparable to George Eliot's "Nature." If nature "occasionally quarters an inconvenient parasite on an animal towards whom she has otherwise no ill-will," Riley similarly quarters Stelling on Tulliver, not because he means his friend harm, but simply because he is taking care, if absentmindedly, of the tutor. If we think of the parasite as Michel Serres does, as a third figure in a relationship who benefits while offering nothing in return, then Stelling would be as good a candidate for the position as any. Of course, there is no need to decide among these possibilities. George Eliot sets up the connection between Riley, Tulliver, and Stelling—not to mention Louisa, Gadsby, or Timpson—as a complex cluster, with Stelling sponging off of Tulliver but also off of Riley, who himself sponges from Tulliver. Easy as it is to introduce the word "parasite" into the passage above, it has no one referent, and under the new parasitic form, it need not.

The same pattern applies in the novel's approach to debt. Rather than straightforward financial dealings between equals, The Mill on the Floss features a confusing array of borrowings and backings. Mr. Tulliver, for instance, owes money in numerous directions. Having borrowed five hundred pounds from Mrs. Glegg, his sister-in-law, he gets the funds to repay her from a creditor, who in turn asks him for "a bill of sale on his household furniture, and some other effects, as security in lieu of the bond" (p. 172). A man named Furley possesses the mortgage on Tulliver's land, but having been "lately much straitened for money," he parts "with his securities—among the rest, the mortgage on Mr Tulliver's property," which is transferred to Wakem, the lawyer against whom Tulliver has just lost a water rights case, causing the miller to enter further into debt (p. 174). Adding to this complicated picture, Tulliver has debtors of his own: his sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Moss, are in worse shape financially than he is, but Tulliver's wife and in-laws hope that the Mosses will return the three hundred pounds Tulliver has lent them. [End Page 930] In addition, Tulliver has a suretyship for Riley, who upon his sudden death leaves Tulliver saddled with a further debt of two hundred and fifty pounds. Thus the Mosses owe money to Tul-liver, who owes money to various, mostly unnamed creditors and lenders; these debts are only paid when his son Tom is able to speculate on money borrowed from his uncle. For this reason, no one reading the novel for the first time can be blamed for fearing that Tom's borrowing will go as badly as his father's—or, for that matter, for being confused regarding the financial relationships between characters.

Rather than isolate the root of asymmetry in any place in particular, George Eliot multiplies and diffuses that asymmetry across her character field until relationships that would otherwise appear binary—those of not only debtor and creditor, adviser and advisee, but also lover and beloved, brother and sister—take shape as parasitic clusters and everyone starts to look like natural history's "building, burrowing, house-appropriating animals." But rather than abstract this proliferating symmetry into a sort of natural harmony, as Lewes does, George Eliot is preoccupied with the pain inherent to such relations.38 Her treatment of her protagonist, Maggie Tulliver, is a testament to this difference—she embodies the pathos of a world in which there is no particular agent of asymmetry, and thus no clear way of bettering painful conditions. For in The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot lays out a character space in which conflicting needs and desires are inevitable: in satisfying their own desires, characters like Maggie are understood to disrupt the desires of others.

There are affinities between this approach to relationality and Baruch Spinoza's treatment of the subject in his Ethics (1677), which George Eliot finished translating just before she set off on the first of her natural historical trips with Lewes. Spinoza's work famously relies on the idea of an infinite substance, where nothing exists but substance and its modes or modifications, conceived as a series of parts and wholes. In a letter to the German natural philosopher Henry Oldenburg, Spinoza uses blood and its "parts" to elucidate this point: "when the motions of particles of lymph, chyle, etc., adapt themselves to one another in accordance with size and shape so as to be fully in agreement with one another and to form all together one single fluid, to that extent only are the chyle, lymph, etc., regarded as parts of the blood. But insofar as we conceive the particles of lymph as different from the particles of chyle in respect of shape and motion, to that extent we regard them each as a whole, not a part."39 Later in the letter he [End Page 931] imagines "a tiny worm living in the blood." This worm, he says, lives in the blood just as humans live "in our part of the universe," viewing "each individual particle of the blood as a whole, not a part." It has no understanding of the ways in which lymph and chyle are determined by the blood's "overall nature" and so are "compelled to mutual adaptation as the overall nature of the blood requires."40 Unlike Spinoza's parasite avant la lettre, however, humans can perceive bodies in their multiple roles, as parts and wholes. For this reason, we can recognize that our relations with others are never limited to just two actors: my relationship with you, in other words, is never just about my needs or about yours, but also involves the larger set of relations in which we are implicated, the larger set of relations in which those relations are implicated, and so on. Thus when we aim to help ourselves or to help others, we engage with a dense terrain of overlapping and conflicting desires.

For Spinoza, such musings are a useful reminder "that we are participators of the divine nature" or substance.41 Maggie, however, is blessed with no such certainty in ultimate order or good. Instead, she is an unwilling node of pleasure and pain, growth and limitation. Close relationships are required for her life and bildung; without the intimacy that would sustain her, Maggie's mind risks "withering in its very youth, like a young forest-tree, for want of the light and space it was formed to flourish in" (p. 271). And because her longest-running intimacies cannot provide her with what she requires, she complements her family ties with a series of newer relationships that expand her sense of self and her understanding: first with Thomas à Kempis, whom she reads alone, then with her love interests Philip Wakem and Stephen Guest. These relationships offer her much: the intimacy she desires, a sense of fellow feeling for others, and a wide-ranging sympathy. But they cause pain as much as they help her grow; they force Maggie to confront new sets of needs and desires that conflict with hers or with those of her other loved ones. Indeed, like Riley's recommendation of Stelling as a tutor, Maggie's actions always seem to involve choosing (intentionally or otherwise) between the conflicting needs and desires of her intimates, and the results of these choices are similarly "evil."42

At her most deterministic moments, Maggie thinks that she should do as she pleases. She has pursued this idea, she says, "till it has seemed to me that I could think away all my duty" to others (p. 265). In this, she prefaces a point made by George Eliot's narrator later in the novel: "If we only look far enough off for the [End Page 932] consequence of our actions, we can always find some point in the combination of results by which those actions can be justified: by adopting the point of view of a Providence who arranges results, or of a philosopher who traces them, we shall find it possible to obtain perfect complacency in choosing to do what is most agreeable to us in the present moment" (p. 290). But Maggie calls this abstracting impulse an "evil state of mind" (p. 265). Rather than act on it, more often she does the opposite and stubbornly strives for the impossible—she tries to perform actions that are ever more conscious, ever more fair, ever more blameless. This striving is associated with periods of painful renunciation, when, in the interest of limiting potential conflict, she attempts to shut out her own needs and to limit her interactions with others. But such efforts lead her into a state of being, as she puts it, "like death," a state of being in direct contrast to her impulse to lead a "full life"—to understand, to love, and to help others (pp. 265 and 269). Like Lewes's Opalina, Maggie cannot live long without the relationships that sustain and fetter her, so her long periods of renunciation seem almost to prime her for the pleasure of renewed intimacy when she must reenter society.

This movement from renunciation to intimacy and back again can span just a few pages, as it does during her boat ride with her cousin's fiancé, Stephen Guest. After Maggie has renounced her strong desire for Stephen, she is forced to take a boat ride with him and forgets the outside world almost immediately. George Eliot enters the lyrical mode to track Maggie's absorption: "The breath of the young, unwearied day, the delicious rhythmic dip of the oars, the fragmentary song of a passing bird heard now and then, as if it were only the overflowing of brim-full gladness, the sweet solitude of a twofold consciousness that was mingled into one by that grave, untiring gaze which need not be averted," she writes, "what else could there be in their minds for the first hour?" (p. 407). The day's breath, the dip of the oars, the bird songs, the "twofold consciousness": the parasite Maggie has been absorbed into Stephen despite her best intentions. But then time interrupts. The pair has been gone an hour. In cutting its own lyricism with a frank admission of time, George Eliot's prose alerts her readers to the impossibility of sustained intimacy, just as she has already alerted us to the impossibility of sustained renunciation. By the time Maggie can get away from Stephen, they will have been gone overnight, resulting in precisely the pain that Maggie hopes to avoid. But she ends their relationship nonetheless the next morning, in the interest of a wider array of now-damaged connections [End Page 933] that includes her family, her home, and her past. By temporarily and unconsciously running away with Stephen, she thinks that "[s]he had brought sorrow into the lives of others,—into the lives that were knit up with hers by trust and love. The feeling of a few short weeks had hurried her into the sins her nature had most recoiled from,—breach of faith and cruel selfishness; she had rent the ties that had given meaning to duty, and had made herself an outlawed soul, with no guide but the wayward choice of her own passion" (p. 413). Rather than accept Stephen's argument that their trip has made marriage their best option, Maggie puts an end to what seems inevitable: she works against the pull of her feelings and the pull of the river. We might be tempted to say that she works against nature, even—but such a nature would be too incongruously linear. There is no sense in The Mill on the Floss that a parasite can simply move from one host to another when its growth is too well checked. In this, we might again remember Lewes's Opalina, which remains in its host's body long after its host has stopped sustaining it. In George Eliot's novel, it seems most natural that Maggie remain with her oldest intimates, even though she can no longer imagine her life as "knit up" with theirs—a static web image if there ever was one. She chooses these older, damaged relationships over a perhaps stronger attachment to Stephen, recognizing that this strong attachment—"[t]he feeling of a few short weeks"—is likely to be at least as precarious, limiting, and painful. Her relationships have become dangerously unstable, then, but she does not—and perhaps cannot—move on; she simply accepts that her cluster has been broken down and reorganized to be more painful and limiting than ever.


So where does this leave George Eliot's parasitic form? Just before the novel's end, Maggie receives a letter from her friend Philip Wakem, who at this point has ceded his role as an active participant in her daily affairs to become an observer. The letter is about intimacy, but it is about an intimacy that aims toward openness rather than renunciation. Philip speaks of his love for Maggie: "nothing but such complete and intense love could have initiated me into that enlarged life which grows and grows by appropriating the life of others; for before, I was always dragged back from it by ever-present painful self-consciousness. I even think sometimes that this gift of transferred life which has come to me in loving you, may be a new power to me" (p. 443). There is [End Page 934] something Lewesian in this presentation of parasitic intimacy as a mutually beneficial (though precarious and unequal) sympathetic state, one that allows characters to develop in tandem. Despite its somewhat violent undertones—especially insofar as it appropriates "the life of others"—Philip suggests that parasitic form causes life to grow more complex, dynamic, and awe-inspiring. But, like George Eliot, he also acknowledges its pain. Through Maggie, he writes, he has suffered the "utmost agony"—and his agony has allowed him to develop "strong sympathy" for others (pp. 442–3). In writing of his appreciation for precisely the relationship that has given him the most pain, he reminds us of Maggie, or of George Eliot's narrator when she tells us to admire nature's care for the parasite: rather than try to abstract pain away, he tries to learn from it a greater sympathy and understanding.

For in The Mill on the Floss—as in all of George Eliot's novels—idealized images of harmony can only ever chafe against a more conflicted reality; growth comes at a great price. George Eliot never lets us forget for long that life necessitates pain and limitation. In this sense she takes an approach that is not only darker than Lewes's, but also, I would like to suggest, less laissez faire. Asymmetries of care are inevitable, she insists, but there are better and worse ways of witnessing and giving pain, just as there are better and worse ways of interacting with others. And, ultimately, to be better in George Eliot's work is to avoid causing pain when possible and, more often, to be radically sympathetic—to sympathize with others not only when they suffer, but also when they cause suffering, just as Philip sympathizes with Maggie, the parasitic figure responsible for both his "keenest joy and keenest sorrow" (p. 459).

In their writing in the late 1850s and early 1860s, then, both Lewes and George Eliot treat the parasite—and not the web—as archetypical. But if to Lewes it reveals an abstract, harmonious nature, then George Eliot insists on appropriating relationality as an ethical consideration. In suggesting that we care for, as well as try to act against, the decisions and people that hurt us, in The Mill on the Floss George Eliot constructs a limited ethics predicated on radical, if necessarily incomplete, awareness of and sympathy for conflicting needs—one that she would add to and experiment with over the course of her career. Life is shared among organisms, and asymmetrical, overdetermined connection is the structuring mechanism for life. But to ignore the precarity and pain necessitated by this connection is to fail in one's ethical commitment and in one's sympathy. In this sense, George Eliot's [End Page 935] ethics is an extension of Lewes's work with a difference: instead of assuming that life is unified and relatively good, she learns from the parasite that life is asymmetrical to the point of pain, and that pain is worth working against, even if such efforts may be futile.

Jeanette Samyn

Jeanette Samyn is a former Mellon Postdoctoral Associate at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University. Her work has appeared in Configurations and Nineteenth-Century Literature, as well as n+1, The New Inquiry, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.


1. George Eliot, Middlemarch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 139.

2. Gillian Beer, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 2d edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 154–5.

3. George Eliot, Middlemarch, p. 818.

4. Beer, for instance, after acknowledging George Eliot's repudiation of the "even web," attempts almost immediately to salvage it. The web, she suggests, accommodates "conflicting models" of, on the one hand, "interconnection and of necessary sequence," and, on the other, "divergence and incongruity" (p. 155).

5. I borrow the term "character-space" from Alex Woloch. See Woloch, The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 12–4.

6. In highlighting George Eliot's natural historical interests, I am indebted to recent scholarship that treats the concerns of natural history as central to Victorian literature. Faced with the dominance of Charles Darwin in studies of Victorian science, this recent work problematizes assumptions of a straightforward shift from natural historical observation to evolutionary narrative. On the importance of natural history to the Victorians, see Amy M. King, "Reorienting the Scientific Frontier: Victorian Tide Pools and Literary Realism," VS 47, 2 (Winter 2005): 153–63; Amy M. King, "Tide Pools," VRev 36, 2 (Fall 2010): 40–5; Bernard Lightman, "The Microscopic World," VRev 36, 2 (Fall 2010): 46–9; Lightman, "'The Voices of Nature': Popularizing Victorian Science," in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Lightman (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 187–211; and Harriet Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997). On George Henry Lewes and George Eliot in particular, see Danielle Coriale, "When Zoophytes Speak: Polyps and Naturalist Fantasy in the Age of Liberalism," NCC 34, 1 (January 2012): 19–36; Ivan Kreilkamp, "Middlemarch's Brute Life," in Minor Creatures: Persons, Animals, and the Victorian Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018), pp. 89–106; and S. Pearl Brilmyer, "'The Natural History of My Inward Self': Sensing Character in George Eliot's Impressions of Theophrastus Such," PMLA 129, 1 (January 2014): 35–51. Classic texts on natural history during the Victorian period include Barbara Gates, Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998); Gates and Ann B. Shteir, Natural Eloquence: Women Reinscribe Science (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1997); Lynn Barber, The Heyday of Natural History, 1820–1870 (New York: Doubleday, 1980); David Elliston Allen, The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976); and Lynn L. Merrill, The Romance of Victorian Natural History (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989).

7. For more on parasitism's applications in nineteenth-century entomology, see Jeanette Samyn, "Cruel Consciousness: Louis Figuier, John Ruskin, and the Value of Insects," NCF 71, 1 (June 2016): 89–114.

8. Philip Henry Gosse, A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (London: John Van Voorst, 1853), pp. 202 and 207.

9. Rosemary Ashton, G. H. Lewes: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991),p. 173.

10. [Lewes], "Sea-Side Studies," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 80, 490 (August 1856): 184–97, 196.

11. Lewes, Studies in Animal Life (New York: Harper, 1860), p. 9.

12. [Lewes],"Sea-Side Studies," p. 184; and Lewes, Studies in Animal Life,p. 9.

13. Raymond Williams, Keywords (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 219.

14. See Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2007); and J. Hillis Miller, "The Critic as Host," in Theory, Now and Then (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp. 143–70.

15. Lewes, Studies in Animal Life, pp. 13–4.

16. Lewes, Studies in Animal Life, p. 15.

17. For another such example, see Lewes's description of the Vorticella in "Only a Pond!," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 85, 523 (May 1859): 597.

18. Lewes, Sea-Side Studies at Ilfracombe, Tenby, Scilly Isles, & Jersey (London: Blackwood, 1858), p. 53. Sea-Side Studies was the book-length, edited compilation of Lewes's seaside articles for Blackwood's.

19. Lewes, Sea-Side Studies, p. 53.

20. Lewes, Sea-Side Studies, p. 53.

21. Gosse, p. 82.

22. Gosse, p. 202.

23. Gosse, p. 207.

24. Gosse, pp. 207–8.

25. Jonathan Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cam-bridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), p. 84.

26. In my discussion of parasitic form, I am drawing from the work of recent literary critics who present our world as structured by a wide array of forms. Each form has, as Caroline Levine writes, a set of "affordances" or "latent … potential uses or actions": "Glass affords transparency and brittleness. Steel affords strength, smoothness, hardness, and durability. Cotton affords fluffiness, but also breathable cloth when it is spun into yard and thread" (Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network [Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015], p. 6).

27. Lewes, Sea-Side Studies, p. 34.

28. Indeed in Sea-Side Studies, Lewes claims that parasites "excite a smile, or a passing wonderment, which is as nothing compared with the deep, abiding, almost awful sense of the mystery and marvel of Nature" (p. 53).

29. Lewes, Sea-Side Studies, p. 53.

30. Lewes, Sea-Side Studies, pp. 34–5.

31. Lewes's disdain for such images—a chain of being, even the simpler instantiations of Darwin's evolutionary tree, or, as above, piled life—is well known. Beer has called this his "emphasis on plurality, rather than upon singleness" (p. 143).

32. Lewes, Studies in Animal Life, p. 27.

33. Lewes, Sea-Side Studies, pp. 30–1; and George Eliot, "Recollections of Ilfracombe, 1856," in The Journals of George Eliot, ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 259–73, esp. pp. 264–5.

34. George Eliot, Middlemarch, pp. 821, 30, and 595.

35. George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 242 and 86–7.

36. George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 23. Subsequent references to The Mill on the Floss are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by page number.

37. Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 62 and 61.

38. Critics have long noted the seeming overabundance of pain in The Mill on the Floss. See, for example, "The Mill on the Floss," Saturday Review 9 (14 April 1860); Rachel Ablow, "George Eliot's Art of Pain," in The Marriage of Minds: Reading Sympathy in the Marriage Plot (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 70–91; and Jeannette King, Tragedy in the Victorian Novel: Theory and Practice in the Novels of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 78–84.

39. Baruch Spinoza to Henry Oldenburg, 20 November 1665, in The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and Related Writings, ed. Michael L. Morgan, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006), pp. 268–71, 269.

40. Spinoza to Oldenburg, p. 269.

41. Spinoza, Ethics, trans. George Eliot (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Univ. Salzburg, 1981), p. 89.

42. See George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, pp. 442–3. Scholars have drawn attention to George Eliot's skepticism regarding "the notion that knowing or feeling what others feel inspires ethical behavior in us." See Rae Greiner, Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2012), p. 1.

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