Johns Hopkins University Press

In george Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), women's tears play an underestimated but critical role in the language of flow and circulation that characterizes nineteenth-century human connectedness. Inherited traits prompt many of the novel's crises; as bodily fluids, women's tears define lineage as so indelible that, as Julia Kristeva observes, "the unbearable identity of the [End Page 28]

Fig 1. Frederick Walker, 'Comfort in grief ' in William Makepeace Thackeray's The Adventures of Philip on his Way Through the World: Shewing Who Robbed Him, Who Helped Him, and Who Passed Him By (Cornhill Magazine, 1862).
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 1.

Frederick Walker, 'Comfort in grief ' in William Makepeace Thackeray's The Adventures of Philip on his Way Through the World: Shewing Who Robbed Him, Who Helped Him, and Who Passed Him By (Cornhill Magazine, 1862).

narrator … can no longer be narrated but cries out" (141; emphasis in original). Tears both circulate the shame of inherited traits and demonstrate the frustration Victorian women feel at the impossibility of escaping their bloodlines.

Tears had strong performative purchase for the Victorians, signifying a range of intense emotional responses, from hysterical overwhelm to profound grief and moral regeneration, and becoming hallmarks of sensation fiction and melodrama. In contrast to authors of these popular genres, which paired tears with heightened emotions, Eliot pursues a more scientific interest in these bodily fluids as they manifest each person's history of inherited traits. Her use of tears in Middlemarch also draws on their rich literary history, as tears register tragic self-awareness in Shakespeare, illustrate "penitential weeping" in Herbert, and "communicate forgiveness" in Blake (Lafford 118). Tom Lutz, in his cultural history of tears, begins by observing "the association of tears with renewal" (3), and critics writing about Eliot's efforts to [End Page 29] foster a sympathetic response are quick to see tearful scenes in her novels as diffusing compassion as well as self-awareness.1

Endorsing Adam Smith's theory that human sympathy depends on the imaginative extension of self, Eliot uses tears to dramatize the development of social consciousness.2 Both protagonist Dorothea Brooke and her foil, Rosamond Vincy, struggle against the claims of their bloodlines, though with differing outcomes. As "the flower of Middlemarch" (253), Rosamond experiences distress at the incongruity between her personal narrative of conquest and her family's vulgar bloodline and rank. Convinced "that she might have been happier if she had not been the daughter of a Middlemarch manufacturer," Rosamond resents any reminder "that her mother's father had been an innkeeper" (107). Her father unwittingly contributes to Rosamond's discontent; while he clearly hopes to improve his family's status by educating Fred and Rosamond, Mr. Vincy is regarded to have "descended a little" in his marriage (103). Able "to discern very subtly the very faintest aroma of rank," Rosamond aspires to a higher social sphere because "what is the use of being exquisite unless you are seen by the best judges?" (353). Once ambition leads her to fasten on Lydgate, she quickly formulates an escape narrative and soon imagines "the costumes and introductions of her married life, having determined on her house in Middlemarch, and foreseen the visits she would pay to her husband's high-born relatives" (120).

Lydgate disrupts this pleasant success story by deliberately avoiding the Vincy household. When he calls after a long absence, Rosamond gives way to tears and becomes "as natural as she had ever been when she was five years old: she felt that her tears had risen and it was no use to try to do anything else than let them stay like water on a blue flower or let them fall over her cheeks" (259). Although Eliot describes this as "a moment of naturalness," Rosamond's visualizes her tears as "water on a blue flower," imagining how she will appear to Lydgate's more cultivated aesthetic taste. Her decision to let him observe her tears is both natural and theatrical—while she performs her distress to test Lydgate's response, Rosamond's tears arise from a fear that her vulgar lineage has repelled Lydgate, who is "better born than most country surgeons" (144). As Rae Greiner notes, Rosamond "is narrator-like in not quite having a 'self,' in being something like mindfulness entire" in her complete dedication to her projected marital narrative (303). Here, her tears express a genuine fear that family identity is indelible, and that for all her accomplishments, she will not be able to transcend her bloodline by marrying a gentleman and moving out of Middlemarch.

Lydgate's self-consciousness and sense of family also determine the outcome of this tearful scene, as he folds Rosamond's weeping into his own narrative of gallantry, in which "this sweet young creature depended on him for her joy" (259). Lydgate's "spots of commonness" (143) reveal that he is proud of his bloodline, wants others to know it, and scorns even the appearance of vulgarity. Cultivating a noble self-image, Lydgate styles [End Page 30] himself as the rescuing hero and, "completely mastered by the outrush of tenderness … kissed each of the two large tears" (259). Ironically, by ingesting her tears, he is himself consumed, and both characters' narratives offer projections of ego that reveal crucial anxieties about family lineage. As Kristeva's remark makes plain, Rosamond's tears declare an "unbearable identity"—the unarticulated dread that blood cannot be mitigated by merit. Lydgate's interpretation of those tears also imposes a narrative order on his lineage—he performs nobility by proposing, reinforcing his superior status by conferring it on a social inferior.

Family identity also surfaces in book 2, in which newlywed Dorothea is "sobbing bitterly" in her boudoir in Rome, having failed to achieve an epic life through marriage; her sense of a "stupendous fragmentariness," however, also points to inherited traits (179). Like Rosamond, Dorothea has difficulty separating herself from the perceived failings of her class and her bloodline, and her tears in this scene unmask a similar ineffectuality: "She was humiliated to find herself a mere victim of feeling, as if she could know nothing except through that medium: all her strength was scattered in fits of agitation" (184). Dorothea, in fact, shares her uncle Mr. Brooke's lack of a clear, practical vision to direct action. This is borne out in Dorothea's many unsuccessful efforts—to build cottages at Tipton, to improve her uncle's relations to his tenants, to found a co-operative village at Lowick, and finally to recover Lydgate's reputation in Middlemarch. Dorothea's tears in Rome mark the beginning of her awareness of the family trait of ineffectuality.

As Donald Jellerson puts it, tears are bodily fluids that "threaten an apocalyptic dissolution of boundaries, a drowning flood" (182)that recalls not only the Brooke family name but also Dorothea's "incalculably diffusive" effect, which Eliot compares to the river that "spent itself in channels which had no great name upon the earth" (640). Like Rosamond, Dorothea cries because her plan has failed, but her "scattered strength" echoes Mr. Brooke's "too rambling habit of mind" (34), the familial vagueness that makes Dorothea's mind theoretic rather than practical. Neither Dorothea nor her uncle can act purposefully and independently, despite Eliot's insistence that ardour and intention should provoke "a sympathy of 'doing,' not just thinking or feeling" (Greiner 293).

At the dinner at Tipton, Dorothea shrinks from the gap between her uncle's authority and his triviality, fearing that Casaubon will also be repelled by the "motes from the mass of a magistrate's mind" (41). However, Dorothea also repeatedly fails to act purposefully, and instead her "plans" resemble Mr. Brooke's dabbling, "going into" one idea after another and finding that it "won't do" (41). Weeping in Rome, she registers the horror that Casaubon may be just another Brooke, "that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither" (181). While sobs and tears acknowledge her crumbling aspirations, her own mental [End Page 31] wandering also points to the lack of a "consistent idea of Dorothea" (Purdy 811). Nicholas Brush observes that tears often mark the dissolutions of plot-centric boundaries, causing a shift in the character's "identity matrix" (3). As she tells Celia at the end, "I never could do anything I liked. I have never carried out any plan yet" (648).

The tearful meeting between Rosamond and Dorothea in chapter 81 may invite us to consider whether tears are truly regenerative, fostering sympathy and beneficent action. This scene follows one in which Dorothea weeps overnight for "her lost belief" in Will and rises filled with new sympathy for suffering (604). Here, Eliot adapts Smith's view of imaginative identification, as the sympathetic response depends on the claims of ego and bloodline. As Dorothea tries to reassure Rosamond that Lydgate's reputation can be restored, Rosamond "bursts into hysterical crying," which in turn causes Dorothea to struggle "against her own rising sobs." Rosamond, however, is not crying because of Lydgate but because her "aversion and dread" of Dorothea is clearly misplaced. This misjudgment "shattered her dream-world" of certainty—she can no longer completely trust the accuracy of her own inflexible judgment (611). It is a temporary personal crisis, not a moment of opening social awareness, and although it does inspire Rosamond to clear up Dorothea's mistaken assumptions about Will Ladislaw, it has no other far-reaching sympathetic effect.3 Likewise, Dorothea acts on her own assumptions, and Eliot mitigates the sympathetic response by telling us that, "preoccupied with her own anxiety," Dorothea naturally speaks more from her own feelings (a Brookeian solipsism) than from any true understanding of Rosamond's (611).

Although the exchange does foster a temporary intimacy between the two tearful women, it serves to underline the limits of human connectedness in the novel. Each woman struggles against the claims of her blood—Rosamond returns to her narrative of upward mobility, while Dorothea finds in Will Ladislaw a practical, if incomplete, outlet for her unfocused aspirations.4

Tears offer opportunities for strong emotions to be shared, interpreted, and processed, but in Middlemarch they often also underscore the ineffectuality of feeling, the "unbearable identity" produced by inherited traits, and the difficulty of attaining the kind of sympathy that would be truly transformative.

Nancy Marck Cantwell

NANCY MARCK CANTWELL is a professor and chair of the English department at Daemen College in Amherst, New York, where she teaches British literature. Her recent publications include articles in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Études Irlandaises, and Supernatural Studies, as well as book chapters in Jane Austen and Philosophy, Biographical Misrepresentations of British Women Writers of the Long Nineteenth Century, and The Contemporary Irish Detective Novel. Her current book project is a study of George Eliot and scandal.


1. Of the studies relative to Eliot's tearful and emotional scenes, Kate Flint discusses the body's importance to the emotions, focusing on the circulation of blood in "The Lifted Veil." Jill Matus draws on Lewes and Spencer to contextualize emotions as they "incorporate history," situating Eliot's "The Lifted Veil" and Daniel Deronda within the contemporary discussions of cognition, the body, and the emotions (133). Michael Tondre's reading of the diffusion of beneficial social effects through energy science in Middlemarch is complementary to my own, although I take a less optimistic view of the outcomes in the novel's closing passages.

2. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1793), Smith holds that "the spectator must, first of all, endeavor as much as he can to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer" (22).

3. Imraan Coovadia observes that Smith's sympathetic extension of self forms in response to the necessity of economic interdependence, as "each person can only thrive against the background of the efforts of a mass of largely anonymous others" (824).

4. Only through marriage can Dorothea achieve a revision of lineage and familial indecisiveness, and even that effect is muted, when her son inherits Tipton Grange and refuses to stand for Parliament.

Works Cited

Brush, Nicholas. "Cry Me a River: Tears and the Dissolution of Boundaries in Titus Andronicus." Journal of the Wooden O, vol 16/17, 2018, pp. 1-7.
Chenovick, Clarissa. "A Balsome for Both the Hemispheres: Tears as Medicine in Herbert's Temple and Seventeenth-Century Preaching." ELH, vol. 84, no. 3, Fall 2017, pp. 559–90.
Coovadia, Imraan. "George Eliot's Realism and Adam Smith." SEL, vol. 42, no. 4, Autumn 2002, pp. 819–35.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Broadview, 2004.
Flint, Kate. "Blood, Bodies, and 'The Lifted Veil.'" Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 51, no. 4, 1997, pp. 455–73.
Greiner, Rae. "Sympathy Time: Adam Smith, George Eliot, and the Realist Novel." Narrative, vol. 17, no. 3, Oct. 2009, 291–311.
Jellerson, Donald. "Tears and Violence in Titus Andronicus." On the Verge of Tears: Why the Movies, Television, Music, Art, Popular Culture, Literature, and the Real World Make Us Cry. Edited by Michele Byers and David Lavery, Cambridge Scholars, 2010, pp. 171–84.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia UP, 1982.
Lafford, Erin. "'Asking with Tears Forgiveness': Weeping as 'Gentling' in Blake's Milton." Literature Compass, vol. 11, no. 2, 2014, pp. 117–125.
Lutz, Tom. Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. Norton, 1999.
Matus, Jill. Shock, Memory and the Unconscious in Victorian Fiction. Cambridge UP, 2009.
Purdy, Dwight H. "'The One Poor Word' in Middlemarch." SEL, vol. 44, no. 4, Autumn 2004, pp. 805–21.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1759. Great Books in Philosophy Series, Prometheus, 2000.
Tondre, Michael. "George Eliot's 'Fine Excess': Middlemarch, Energy, and the Afterlife of Feeling." Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 67, no. 2, 2012, pp. 204–33.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.