by S. Pearl Brilmyer
The essay begins:
George Eliot’s 1874 novel Middlemarch is said to both thematize and foster intersubjectivity through its psychologically rich and detailed portrait of human life. To elide the distinction between the human psychology and what I will refer to as its material substrate—character—however, risks overlooking the extent to which Eliot approaches subjectivity as an impersonal structure formed not just through intentional acts such as thought or speech but through physical actions and reactions as well. Deidre Lynch has shown how the protocols of interiority attributed to the novelistic modes of characterization were not endemic to the novel genre, but emerged, rather, in attempts to “validate and naturalize a concept of character as representational.” Extending and elaborating upon Lynch’s thesis, I show how, in conversation with nineteenth-century materialist science, Eliot pushed back against the interiorized novelistic subject so often attributed to her by producing not only sympathetic and real-seeming minds but also lively and responsive characterological bodies….
The characterological bodies that form the focus of this essay are … not verisimilitudinous human anatomies with faces and limbs. Consider, as an initial example, Eliot’s description of Rosamond’s persistence as that which “enables a white soft living substance to make its way in spite of opposing rock.” Importantly, this description of Rosamond’s tenacity relies not only on the reader’s experience of human intentionality but also on her sensual awareness of the basic properties of matter—in this case, the properties of fluids, which have the capacity to envelop solid bodies due to the sensitivity of their structure to encounter. The descriptive force of the figure inheres in the lively materiality of this “white soft living substance”—its soft texture, malleable form, unexplained animacy. The capacity of Rosamond’s intent to overpower, indeed, literally to engulf that of her father is aligned with the potential of a fluid to envelop a rock, no matter how rigid or firm. Much later in the novel, the narrator explains Rosamond’s behavior with a maxim that harkens back to her plastic quality:
We cannot be sure that any natures, however inflexible or peculiar, will resist this effect from a more massive being than their own. They may be taken by storm and for the moment converted, becoming part of the soul which enwraps them in the ardor of its movement. (714)
As we shall see, few natures in Middlemarch are so inflexible; most are like Rosamond in their affinity with a soft, amorphous matter. Arthur Brooke, for example, is described as “glutinously indefinite” (8). He is “a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into any mould, but he won’t keep shape” (65). Sir James Chettam, likewise, is made of a kind of “human dough”; he has but the “limpest personality,” furnished “with a little gum or starch in the form of tradition” (20). Taken separately, such descriptors might read as metaphors for particular personality traits (Brooke is fickle; Chettam, lacking in substance). Taken together, however, they develop a vocabulary for the plasticity of character that—while certainly figural in nature—exceeds the metaphorical in its consistent explanation of characterological traits and behaviors with reference to physical laws. Continue reading …
Brilmyer’s essay tracks George Eliot’s construction of a layer of descriptions of characters as soft matter—as liquids, polymers, and other types of condensed matter in a malleable state—in her 1874 novel Middlemarch, elucidating what she calls a physics of character from within its pages. In so doing, the essay suggests that even the most notoriously “brainy” of novels—on the level of its descriptions—resists a too-easy alignment of its characters with individual human psychologies.
S. PEARL BRILMYER is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oregon and postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, Germany. She is currently at work on two projects, The Prism I Hold in My Hand, an experimental, excerpted edition of a 1926 novel by the South African writer Olive Schreiner, and a book project about problems of description and characterization in late Victorian fiction and philosophy. A companion article on Eliot and characterization has recently appeared in PMLA 129, no. 1.