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Paris, B.J. (1999). Middlemarch Revisited: Changing Responses to George Eliot. Am. J. Psychoanal., 59(3):237-255.

(1999). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 59(3):237-255

Middlemarch Revisited: Changing Responses to George Eliot

Bernard J. Paris

In Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values (1965), I examined George Eliot's ideas in relation to her time and her art in relation to her ideas. I argued that in her novels, which she called “experiments in life” (Haight, 1955, p. 216), Eliot explored the moral implications of science and positivistic philosophy in an effort to discover enduring truths that would ennoble human existence and replace the outmoded beliefs of the past. Because of her distrust of “shifting theory” and her reluctance to “adopt any formula which does not get itself clothed … in some human figure and individual experience” (Haight, 1955, pp. 216-217), she felt that art was the only means she could confidently employ to verify and communicate her values. Her protagonists arrive, through a varied course of experience, at some version of the Religion of Humanity in which living for others, for something beyond the self, gives meaning and value to their lives.

Experiments in Life was originally my doctoral dissertation, completed in 1959, and while writing it I subscribed to George Eliot's beliefs. I was convinced that she had solved the value problems of modern man living in a universe without God. When my dissertation director, Hillis Miller, posed questions about why George Eliot thought as she did, I felt it was silly of him to ask why someone believed the truth.

A strange thing happened after I completed my dissertation. When I was given the chance to teach George Eliot in a graduate course, I found that my enthusiasm for her ideas had disappeared. I remained convinced that I had understood her correctly, but I was no longer sure of my own attitude toward her philosophy. I was intellectually confused and could not understand the change I was undergoing.

It was at this point that I first read Karen Horney. Her description of how our belief systems are often a function of our defensive strategies seemed directly applicable to me and, by extension, to George Eliot. Miller's questions began to make sense. I came to see that my relationship to George Eliot had been profoundly influenced by a shaky performance on my doctoral oral that had hurt my pride, undermined my confidence, and made me regard my dissertation as the means by which I would vindicate myself.

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