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  • Subjective Realism and Diligent Imagination: G.H. Lewes’s Theory of Psychology and George Eliot’s Impressions of Theophrastus Such
  • Scott C. Thompson (bio)

Over the course of George Eliot’s career, her realism developed from attentive observation and sympathetic historicism in her early novels to analysis of the web-like intricacies between individuals and their social and cultural environment in her late novels. However, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), Eliot’s last published work, has remained enigmatic for scholars of realism due to its deviation from Eliot’s primary literary form, the novel. Impressions is not a novel. In fact, George Henry Lewes, Eliot’s philosopher-psychologist partner, claims in a note to John Blackwood accompanying the manuscript of Impressions that it “is not a story” (qtd. in Haight 515, emphasis in original). Indeed, it does not read like a story. Impressions presents as a series of loosely connected character sketches narrated by a middle-aged bachelor named Theophrastus, and it deviates from two mainstays of Eliot’s realism. In contrast to her novels, which make use of third-person omniscient narrators and fully realized and psychologically complex characters, her last work embraces a limited first-person perspective and presents typified, one-dimensional characters through the character sketch genre. Because of the first-person narrative and generic experimentation in Impressions, scholarship has failed to provide a coherent account of it in relation to her body of work and realist aesthetic.

Though Nancy Henry’s introduction to the 1994 edition renewed interest in the text, Impressions has received remarkably little attention from Eliot scholars. Most often, individual chapters are treated in isolation or Impressions is read alongside Daniel Deronda (1876).1 Hazel Mackenzie’s essay, which aligns the formal complexity of Impressions with Eliot’s perfectionism, and S. Pearl Brilmyer’s essay, which analyzes Eliot’s late-career non-human interest through Impressions’s conflation of humans with other life forms, are notable exceptions. Most recently, Rosemarie Bodenheimer gives an account of the text in relation to Eliot’s biography and traces common themes from Eliot’s novels, such as human illusion and egoism, as they appear in Impressions. Moreover, despite its heavy engagement with psychological discourse, Impressions has been overlooked in monographs on Eliot and [End Page 197] science and nineteenth-century psychology.2 Sally Shuttleworth examines Eliot’s engagement with organic theory in her novels but treats Impressions for only two pages in her conclusion, arguing that the book offers “no hint” of “radical social or psychological vision” (202). Michael Davis argues that Eliot fictionalizes representations of consciousness, echoing contemporaneous psychologists such as Spencer and Lewes (5), but Davis only mentions Impressions in his introduction and does not examine the text at length. The present essay corrects this gap in scholarship by tracing the unrecognized connections between Impressions and Lewes’s psychological theory as posited in the major work of his late period, Problems of Life and Mind (1874–79), and by demonstrating how Eliot’s philosophical and literary realism culminates in her final work.

In his last published article, “On the Dread and Dislike of Science” (1878), composed simultaneously with both Problems and Impressions, Lewes argues that “Science” should be understood as “a general Method, or Logic of Search, applicable to all departments of knowledge” (808). He insists that “the principles applicable in the Physical Sciences and the principles applicable in the Moral Sciences” are exactly the same (809). Using observation and induction, the scientific method can and should be applied to fields traditionally considered too subjective for formal study, such as psychology and morality. Where Problems applies the method to psychology, Impressions dramatizes Lewes’s psychological theory and applies it to epistemological and moral inquiries; the text outlines the limitations of human subjectivity through a first-person perspective and provides a model for proper engagement with the objective world using imagination grounded in experience.

I call Eliot’s experimental shift in narratorial perspective from third to first person “subjective realism” because, while her end-goal of proper engagement with others and the objective world remains, Impressions meditates explicitly and implicitly, through both its content and form, on the inherent inability of the human subject to...


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