George Eliot. (1819–1880). The Mill on the Floss.
Criticisms and Interpretations
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
II. By George Willis Cooke
IN literature, the new method as developed in recent years consists in an application of psychology to all the problems of man’s nature. George Eliot’s intimate association with the leaders of the scientific movement in England, naturally turned her mind into sympathy with their work, and made her desirous of doing in literature what they were doing in science. In the special department of physiological psychology, no one did more than George Henry Lewes, and her whole heart went out in genuine appreciation of his work. He studied the mind as a function of the brain, as being developed with the body, as the result of inherited conditions, as intimately dependent on its environment. Here was a new conception of man, which regarded him as the last product of nature, considered as an organic whole. This conception George Eliot everywhere applied in her studies of life and character. She studied man as the product of his environment, not as a being who exists above circumstances and material conditions. “In the eyes of the psychologist,” says Mr. James Sully, “the works of George Eliot must always possess a high value by reason of their large scientific insight into character and life.” This value consists, as he indicates, in the fact that she interprets the inner personality as it is understood by the scientific student of human nature. She describes those obscure moral tendencies, nascent forces, and undertones of feeling and thought, which enter so much into life. She lays much stress on the subconscious mental life, the domain of vague emotion and rapidly fugitive thought.
The aim of the psychologic method is to interpret man from within, in his motives and impulses. It endeavors to show why he acts, and it unfolds the subtler elements of his character. This method George Eliot uses in connection with her evolutionary philosophy, and uses it for the purpose of showing that man is a product of hereditary conditions, that he has been shaped into his life of the emotions and sentiments by the influence of tradition. The psychologic method may be applied, however, without connection with the positive or evolutionary philosophy. The mind may be regarded as a distinct force and power, exercised within social and material limits, and capable of being studied in all its inner motives and impulses. Yet in her mental inquiries George Eliot did not regard man as an eternal soul in the process of development by divine methods, but as the inheritor of the past, moulded by every surrounding circumstance, and as the creature of the present. Instead of regarding man as sub specie eternitatis, she regarded him as an animal who has through feeling and social development come to know that he cannot exist beyond the present. This limitation of his nature affected her work throughout.—From “George Eliot, a Critical Study” (1883).