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Comptes rendus

Thomas Albrecht, The Ethical Vision of George Eliot

New York & London: Routledge, 2020, 210 p.
Stéphanie Richet-Drouet
Bibliographical reference

Thomas Albrecht, The Ethical Vision of George Eliot, New York & London: Routledge, 2020, 210 p. ISBN 9780367360740

Full text

1Six chapters compose this 210-page essay along with an introduction, a conclusion, a bibliography and an index, according to the following organization:

  1. The Defective Mirror: The Ethics of Realism in Adam Bede and ‘The Natural History of German Life’

  2. The Pier Glass Effect: Narrative Ethics in Middlemarch

  3. Egoism and Empathy in Middlemarch

  4. ‘The Balance of Separateness and Communication’: Cosmopolitan Ethics in Daniel Deronda

  5. The Concept of Separateness in ‘The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!’

  6. Moral and Multilingualism in Impressions of Theophrastus Such.

2Numerous papers and essays have been devoted to the moral preoccupations of George Eliot as evinced in both her fictional and non-fictional works. Ethics are indeed deemed one of her most characteristic subjects. As scholars have repeatedly underlined, George Eliot defines ethics mainly in terms of interaction and relation with the others. She has then become famous for her ethics of sympathy, a concept positing the fundamental fellow-feeling binding individuals together and enabling them to share emotions and transcend differences. In line with this, Thomas Albrecht calls these ethics of empathetic connections the ‘communion imperative’, as opposed to the egoistic tendency to apprehend the world and the others as mere extensions or reflections of one’s own desires and needs (which he calls the ‘difference imperative’). Moral growth in Eliot’s heroes and heroines has mainly been seen in terms of the passage from the latter (the egoistic ordering of the world) to the former (the communing with other people across apartness).

3Albrecht’s originality lies in the complexification of the concept of sympathy—and by extension of the principle of otherness—in order to evince Eliot’s complex and apparently paradoxical ethical vision. On the one hand he shows how, for George Eliot, the very communion imperative may be tainted by a latent egoism. On the other hand he demonstrates how Eliot’s conception of one’s relation to others in terms of separateness (difference imperative) may, however contradictory it may seem, provide a moral antidote to one’s egoism.

4As a matter of fact, even in her early writings, in which she seems to define her ethics in terms of the communion imperative, Albrecht explains that this principle proves morally fallacious in that it reveals the self-serving assumption that the world and the others are mere extensions of one’s consciousness and that another person’s mind can be fully comprehensible to oneself. Self-flattering sympathy has no sense of a moral responsibility towards otherness. True empathy rather implies a dynamic relationship between two actively participating parties, preserving the essential separateness between them and the fundamental unpredictability of the other, i.e. the acknowledgement of one’s own limitations, beyond egoism. This fully responsible and ethical relationship hinges on the principle of trust and reciprocity.

5Albrecht argues that both principles cohabit and collide in Eliot’s works and that their relationship is both dialectical (they being complementary, dual ethical imperatives) and diachronic (her ethics increasingly becoming an ethics of differences).

6He demonstrates how the difference imperative is addressed with growing complexity by the author, with special emphasis on Adam Bede and Middlemarch, culminating in an original reflection on Eliot’s later works, her last novel Daniel Deronda and her long ignored collection of essays, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (Albrecht devotes two entire chapters to them), in which she redefines difference as a basis for her ethical vision of sympathy: difference is not just with others, but also within one’s consciousness, within one’s own race, nation and language. It is therefore intrinsic to literary texts. The acknowledgement of the heterogeneity, separateness and autonomy of a foreign world without and within is consequently the paramount ethical value to be found in literature, whose moral responsibility is to give ‘a large yet finely discriminating vision’ (George Eliot) reconciling both imperatives.

7Albrecht’s precise, complex yet clear analysis provides a fresh and enlightening insight into Eliot’s ‘moral seriousness’ (F. R. Leavis), which is never prescriptive nor normative. Albrecht’s complex study therefore gives full credit to the author’s never simplistic thought. Undoubtedly this inspiring monograph will be useful to whoever would like to broaden and refine their vision of Eliot’s ethical standards.

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References

Electronic reference

Stéphanie Richet-Drouet, Thomas Albrecht, The Ethical Vision of George EliotCahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 92 Automme | 2020, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 24 July 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/cve/8412; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.8412

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About the author

Stéphanie Richet-Drouet

Université de Lille

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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