Psychological Novel: Its Nature
George Eliot is a Victorian novelist, but in many ways she is the first of the great modern novelists. She is a modern in her high conception of her art, in her view of the novel as a serious art form and in her interest in the human psyche.
A psychological novelist analyses the motives, pulses and mental processes which move his characters to act in a particular way. He depicts the inner struggles of his characters and thus lays bare their souls before his reader. Thus in psychological novels there is much soul-dissection, as in the dramatic monologues of Browning, and the novel acquires a hard intellectual tone. Samuel Richardson, George Eliot, and George Meredith are some of the pioneers to be mentioned in this connection.
The Inner Action
George Eliot is an ‘intellectual novelist’ and she brought to bear on the art of the novelist an exceptionally well-cultivated and trained intellect, and extraordinary powers of observation and reasoning. Her concerns are primarily serious and intellectual, she is more concerned with the inner drama, the inner action, than with the presentation of the externals of character and action. She goes behind the external action, analyses the thought-processes, the motives, the springs of that action. Her novels are all novels of moral conflict, and the scene of that conflict is not the external world but the soul of the character concerned. Her novels are remarkable for their psychological realism, and this is her peculiar contribution to the English novel.
Spiritual Conflicts: Moral Disorder
She goes deep into the obscure recesses of human nature, and deals elaborately and in great variety with those spiritual conflicts and moral disorders which bring about the ruin and downfall of an individual. The tragedies which take place in her novels are all tragedies caused by some moral lapse or weakness, and George Eliot shows how that moral weakness slowly but inexorably operates within the human soul, ultimately driving the individual to his doom. Each individual thus is shown to bear his own fate within him. A.E. Baker rightly points out, “George Eliot’s sphere was the inner man; she exposed the internal clockwork. Her characters are not simply passive, and they do not stand still; they are shown making their own history, continually changing and developing or degenerating as their motives issue into acts, and the acts become part of the circumstances that condition, modify, and purify or demoralise the will.” Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds. Thus she rationalizes life and character, bringing the obscure into clear daylight, with her zeal for truth applying the most rigorous logic to the resolution of each problem, working it out with the accuracy and solemnity appropriate to a judicial inquiry, and issuing verdicts as irrefutable as the results of a scientific experiment. This was to view life tragically, and the novel had to be reshaped to bear the stress of the new conception.
The Internal Drama
Her novels are all biographies; Middlemarch interweaves the biographies of some fifty individuals. For the merely historical part, the loose epical plan that served Thackeray and Dickens was not inadequate. But the action invariably concentrates sooner or later into a crisis which automatically manifests itself in the inner drama. This is where the implicit idea, the central theme becomes clearly apparent, and the clash of motives and inhibitions which is the working out of the problem, now goes on to the logical conclusion. Such a novel is not dramatic in the sense that the action culminates in great scenes and spectacular events; there is a striking paucity of what usually constitutes incident in her novels. She rarely exhibits characters struggling together as on the stage. The drama is internal, it is the drama of moral conflict. The conflict is that of egocentric impulses, good or bad, with an opposing environment, and the antagonistic forces take many forms.
Portraits of the Inner Man
Lord David Cecil examines her psychological approach in some detail and studies its impact on her art of characterisation. “Her psychological insight into the springs of human action is best seen in her delineation of her serious characters. She does not begin with the personality that appears to the outward world, but with the psychological elements underlying that personality.” And this meant that her portrait is pre-eminently concerned with these elements. She may clothe them in outward idiosyncrasy, but this idiosyncrasy is never the principal thing about them. We do not remember her serious characters by their appearance or the way they talked, indeed we do not remember these things clearly at all. Her portraits are all primarily portraits of the inner man.
Probing of the Psyche
George Eliot’s serious characters are envisaged exclusively in their moral aspect. They are portraits of the inner man, but portraits not designed like Charlotte Bronte’s to exhibit the colour of his temperament, but the principles of conduct—his besetting sin, his presiding virtue. Such a portrait inevitably omits many of those aspects of a man—his manner, his mood, his face—which make living most of the great figures of fiction. All the same, George Eliot’s concentration on the moral side of human nature is the chief source of her peculiar glory, the kernel of her precious, unique contribution to our literature. Her imagination is not a distorting glass like Dickens, vitalising her figures by accentuating their personal idiosyncrasies, nor is it like Charlotte Bronte’s, a painted window suffusing them with the colour of her own live temperament; it is an X-ray, bringing them to life by the clearness with which she penetrates to the secret mainspring of their actions.
Penetrating Intellect and Observation
Her penetrating intellect is the source of her success. “Her power of drawing conclusions gave her a naturally sharp eye for symptoms of moral strength and weakness, taught her to discern them in all their varying modes of expression in well brought up girls, in men of the world, a poor weaver, a lusty young man, to note that Dr. Lydgate did not take trouble with an ugly woman, that Hetty always avoided being left to look “after the children.” She could also distinguish between different varieties of the same characteristic; see how Dorothea’s sense of duty differed from Mary Garth’s, Godfrey Cass’s self-indulgence from that of Arthur Donnithorne. “And she took advantage of her observation. She traced these expressions of virtue and weakness to their original source in the character, discovered the spark of nobility, the streak of weakness which are their origin. Finally, her disciplined generalising intelligence taught her to see the significance of her discoveries.” Having analysed a character into its elements, she was able to distinguish their relative force and position. She could deduce its central principle so that, however complex, and inconsistent it might appear, she saw it as a unity. It is this grasp of psychological essentials which gives her characters their reality. We may not see Godfrey Cass as we see Pickwick, but we understand him. “We get behind the clock face and see the works, locate the mainspring, discover how it makes the wheels turn. We know just how he will behave and why; we know exactly what special mixture of common human ingredients makes him act differently from other people.”
The result of such clear understanding of the inner man is that her characters are all psychologically consistent. They have inner consistency which is lacking in the characters of the other Victorian novelists. They also act under the irresistible force of their directing principle, and so they are always true to themselves. Further, this psychological insight also enables the novelist to sketch successfully the growth and development of a character. The stages in the growth and deterioration of a character are well-marked and logically consistent as, for example, has been done in the case of Lydgate in Middlemarch and Silas Marner in the novels of that name.
The Central Principle
Further, George Eliot’s grip on psychological essentials enables her to draw complex characters much better than her predecessors. Writes David Cecil in this connection, “Drawing from the inside out, starting with the central principle of the character, she is able to show how it reveals itself in the most apparently inconsistent manifestations, can give to the most varied coloured surface of character that prevalent tone which marks it as expression of one personality. Her characters always hang together, are of a piece, their defects are the defects of their virtues. We are not suprised that a man so anxious for the good opinion of others as Arthur Donnithorne should selfishly seduce Hetty, because we realise that the controlling force in his character is the desire for immediate enjoyment; so that his wish to sun himself in the pleasant warmth of other people’s liking goes alongwith his inability not to yield to the immediate pleasure of Hetty’s embraces. George Eliot can follow the windings of motive through the most tortuous labyrinths, for firmly grasped in her hand is always the central clue.”
Source of Moral Defeat and Triumph of Temptation
Her power of describing mixed characters extends to mixed states of mind. Indeed, the field of her most characteristic triumphs is the moral battlefield. Her eagle eye can penetrate through all the shock and the smoke of struggle, to elucidate the position of the forces concerned, and reveal the trend of their action. We are shown exactly how the forces of temptation deploy themselves for the attack, how those of conscience rally to resistance, the ins and outs of their conflict, how inevitably in the given circumstances one or the other triumphs. She is particularly good at showing how, temptation triumphs. “No other English novelist has given us so vivid a picture of the process of moral defeat, the gradual steps by which Mr. Bulstrode is brought to further Raffle’s death, Arthur Donnithorne’s gradual yielding to his passion for Hetty, Maggie Tulliver’s to hers for Stephen Guest. With an inexorable clearness she reveals how temptation insinuates itself into the mind, how it retreats at the first suspicious movement of conscience, how it comes back disguised, and how, if once more vanquished, it will sham death only to arise suddenly and sweep its victim away on a single irresistible gust of desire when he is off his guard.” With an extraordinary subtlety she describes how Maggie’s passion for Stephen steals into her inexperienced mind, imperceptibly, so that she only realises it when it has become such an obsession that she is unable to see it in its true proportions. Alone in her room she can make the strongest resolutions but when Stephen appears the violence of her desire so overwhelms her that she can’t see her conduct in perspective at all. She lives only in the present, and in the present she is only conscious that she is happy and must at all costs prolong her happiness.
Portrait of Moral Chaos
With equal insight she can portray the moral chaos that takes possession of the mind after wrong has been done. She exposes all the complex writhings of a spirit striving to make itself at ease on the bed of a disturbed conscience, the desperate casuistry by which it attempts to justify itself, its inexhaustible ingenuity in blinding itself to unpleasant facts, the baseless hopes it conjures up for its comfort; she can distinguish precisely how different an act looks before it is done, shrouded in the softening darkness of the secret heart, and after it has been exposed in all its naked ugliness to the harsh daylight of other peoples’ judgment. The guilt-ridden conscience of Arthur Donnithorne in Adam Bede is analysed in this way and we are shown the scorpions that sting him and prevent sleep. “With rare penetration and insight George Eliot isolates and detects the various warring elements in Arthur’s mind, his genuine compunction, his horror of being disapproved, of his instinctive resentment at disapproval, however justifiable, his inextinguishable hope that things will come right in the end, his irrational conviction that with him, at least, things always must come right. One grows quite uncomfortable as one watcnes so merciless, so delicate an exposure of human weakness. The truth it embodies is universal. In exposing Arthur Donnithorne, she also exposes her reader.” —(David Cecil)
It is George Eliot’s psychological insight into the springs of human action, the subtle analysis of character and motive accompanying the external action, which gives her a peculiar and individual place among the Victorian novelists. She is one of them and yet how very different and original. She is the first of the great modern novelists who have a high conception of their art, who regard the novel as a serious art form, and who are given to the probing of the human psyche, to the subtle analysis of the sub-conscious and even the unconscious.