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George Eliot. (1819–1880). The Mill on the Floss.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

VI Criticisms and Interpretations

VI. By Edward Dowden

GEORGE ELIOT’S humour allies itself with her intellect on the one hand, and with her sympathies and moral perceptions on the other. The grotesque in human character is reclaimed from the province of the humorous by her affections, when that is possible, and is shown to be a pathetic form of beauty. The pale, brown-eyed weaver, gazing out from his cottage with blurred vision, or poring with miserly devotion over his golden hoard, touches us, but does not make us smile. The comedy of incident, the farcical, lies outside her province; once or twice, for reasons that appear hardly adequate, the comedy of incident was attempted, and the result was not successful. The humour of George Eliot usually belongs to her entire conception of a character, and cannot be separated from it. Her humorous effects are secured by letting her mind drop sympathetically into a level of lower intelligence, or duller moral perception, and by the conscious presence at the same time of the higher self. The humorous impression exists only in the qualified organs of perception which remain at the higher, the normal point of view. What had been merely an undulation of matter, when it touches the prepared surface of the retina, breaks into light. By the fire of the “Rainbow Inn,” the butcher and the farrier, the parish clerk and the deputy clerk puff their pipes with an air of severity, “starting at one another as if a bet were depending on the first man who winked,” while the humbler beer drinkers “keep their eyelids down, and rub their hands across their mouths as if the draughts of beer were a funeral duty, attended with embarrassing sadness.” The slow talk about the red Durham is conducted with a sense of grave responsibility on both sides. It is we who are looking on unobserved who experience a rippling over of our moral nature with manifold laughter; it is to our lips the smile rises—a smile which is expressive not of any acute access of risibility, but of a voluminous enjoyment, a mass of mingled feeling, partly tender, partly pathetic, partly humorous.

The dramatic appropriateness of the humorous utterances of George Eliot’s characters renders them unpresentable by way of extract. Each is like the expression of a face which cannot be detached from the face itself. The unresentful complacency with which Dolly Winthrop speaks of the frailties of masculine human creatures is part of the general absence of severity and of high views with respect to others which belongs to her character, and receives illustration from her like complacent forbearance with the natural infirmities of the pups. “They will worry and gnaw—worry and gnaw they will, if it was one’s Sunday cap as hung anywhere so they could drag it. They know no difference, God help ’em; it’s the pushing o’ the teeth as sets them on, that’s what it is.” Contrast Dolly’s indulgent allowances in men’s favour, tempered by undeniable experiences of their scarcely excusable failings, with the keen and hostile perceptions of Denner, Mrs. Transome’s waiting-woman, with mind as sharp as a needle, whose neat, clean-cut, small personality is jarred by the rude power, and coarse, incoherent manners of men. “It mayn’t be good luck to be a woman,” Denner said, “but one begins with it from a baby: one gets used to it. And I shouldn’t like to be a man—to cough so loud, and stand straddling about on a wet day, and be so wasteful with meat and drink. They’re a coarse lot, I think.” We turn for a kindlier judgment to Dolly. “Eh, to be sure,” said Dolly, gently (while instructing Silas in the mysteries of Eppie’s wardrobe), “I’ve seen men as are wonderful handy wi’ children. The men are awk’ard and contrairy mostly, God help ’em; but when the drink’s out of ’em, they aren’t unsensible, though they’re bad for leeching and bandaging—so fiery and unpatient.”—From “George Eliot” in “Studies in Literature”(1906).