George Eliot’s life can be divided into two spheres; one is a religious childhood, and the other is a secularized adulthood. Mary Ann Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot, was a devout evangelical girl, but the encounter of the intellectuals and her reading books about the criticism of Christianity made her question religious faith. One day when she was 22 years old, she refused to attend church, which was the end of her religious period of life. With her intellectual nature, she absorbed modern thoughts such as philosophy and science. She began to write novels several years later, and therefore all her writings were written in the secularized period. The question is, did she completely abandon her religiosity and is there no trace of her religiosity in her writings? Is it possible to live a life without any connection to the past which is the opposite to the present? This essay will explore Eliot’s religiosity in her novels, examine some books which had great influence on Eliot to formulate her thoughts on religion, and then analyze “Janet’s Repentance” to show that the secular thoughts of the books contrarily encourage Eliot to develop her religiosity.
George Eliot’s ambivalent attitude toward religious faith has drawn critics’ attention for many years, since thematically it seems to have relevance to her work. Some argue that her intellectual engagement in various ideas of her time is crucial, while others point out that her religious attitude had a major influence on her novels. They disagree on the degree to which religion affected her work, but most of them agree that she does not believes in God, while holding a sympathetic attitude to religion and those with religion. This suggests that Eliot accepted the secular ideas, which was, however, integrated with her sentiment about religion.
I will argue, however, that the religious faith young “Mary Anne Evans” had was too deep to abandon easily. Mary Ann Evans, known by her pseudonym George Eliot, was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England in 1819. She published under this male pen name to ensure that her works would be taken seriously. It is true that Eliot did seemingly adopt the modern, irreligious way of portraying lives of people in her novels, but closer examination enables us to see her religious sentiments buried in them.
The nineteenth century witnessed a great transformation of English society, and religion was no exception. As science made progress, people saw things differently from the past. The zenith of the remarkable progress in the intellectual history may be the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859. The book revealed that all the species of organism arose from a single ancestor and developed through the process of adapting themselves to the environment in order to survive, which he called natural selection. The theory shocked a majority of people who believed in Creationism which presupposed that the universe and life originated from a divine creation. Thus, in the nineteenth century, more and more people became skeptical of Christianity. Nevertheless, religion was still an important part of social life in the Victorian period. The state religion was, as it is today, the Church of England, which was established by King Henry IIIV in 1534 by making himself the head of a church. Since then the monarch is the supreme governor. Under a system of succession, wealthy landowners virtually controlled a church, and it caused inequality between the rich and the poor. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution worsened the situation. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Evangelical Movement was conducted by John Wesley. Evangelicalism emphasizes individual’s direct connection to the God and the authority of the Bible. It was appealing to lower-class people in that it opposed to a conventional authority of the church system and dogma. Wesley established Methodism in the 1730s, and it continued to have an influence on the nineteenth century. By that time, the Church of England split to some sects. Groups whose practice and faith was furthest from Catholic were called Low Church, which was affected by evangelicalism. The Low Church united dissenters that had power in northern England and spread into middle-class people. On the other hand, there were also groups whose practice and faith were closest to Catholicism called High Church. Members of High Church at Oxford University launched a movement in the 1830s in which they argued the Church of England needed a reform by introducing a Catholic principle. Thus, there were a variety of sects inside and outside the Church of England, and its power gradually shrunk although it was a state religion.
Eliot’s father was an estate manager and her family belonged to the Church of England. She received an education which was considered adequate for a woman at this time. From age nine she attended a boarding school at Nuneaton, where she encountered an evangelical teacher Maria Lewis. After she moved to another school, she still continued to correspond with Maria. The influence Maria had on Eliot’s religious life was so great that when the latter became fifteen years old, she was converted to evangelicalism. Since she was a child, she satisfied her intellectual curiosity by reading a variety kind of books and learning many foreign languages. Since the conversion she spent most of her time reading religious texts. However, her move to Coventry due to her brother’s marriage when Mary was twenty-one years old became a turning point in her life. She had a chance to meet contemporary intellectuals such as Charles Bray and Charles Hennell there. Reading Hennell’s An Inquiry Concerning of the Origin of Christianity, which casts doubt upon the content of New Testament, Eliot was somewhat disillusioned by Christianity, and she discussed religion several times with these intellectuals. One year later when she moved to Coventry, she refused to attend church for the first time, which she later called “Holly War”. Although she came to regret it, she was still eager to pursue the truth about the world―truth about the religion. She took over the task of translating David Strauss’s Das Leben Jeus as The Life of Jesus from Hennell’s wife Rufa. The book argues that the life of Jesus in the four Gospel is a myth created by ancient people, and it made her more critical of the Bible. While she was acting as the editor of Westminster Review from 1851-1854, she translated Ludwig Feuerbach’s German text, Des Wesen des Christenthums, into English as The Essence of Christianity, which is thought to be one of the most influential books on her life. During that period, she met Henry Lewis and they decided to live together. Lewis is a philosopher and was familiar with a contemporary French philosopher Auguste Comte. Comte is known as a founder of positivism and the doctrine is also thought to influence Mary. This is how the basis of Mary’s thought was established. When she was thirty-eight years old, she began to write a novel.
One of Eliot’s short stories in Scenes of Clerical Life, “Janet’s Repentance,” which was published in 1857, emphasizes the necessity of religion. How are we to understand Eliot’s profound interest in German philosophy and other more secular views, which seem to contradict with her later works such as “Janet’s Repentance” and The Mill on the Floss? The kind of religion Eliot believed in was not traditional Christianity; it was a new type of Eliot’s religion, a religion for humanity. In this chapter, we will first look at three texts which influenced on Eliot, and two Eliot’s writings to trace how her thought was shaped by the time she began to write stories. Then I will analyze “Janet’s Repentance” so as to illustrate that Eliot describes how human love, rather than God, saves humanity.
- Eliot’s new religion
Basil Willey argues that “probably no English writer of the time, and certainly no novelists, more fully epitomizes the century” than George Eliot” (205). With scientific progress and the emergence of evolution theory in the nineteenth century, people became increasingly skeptical about religion and the credibility of the Bible, and that is why Willey states that Eliot’s novels embody this period. He lists four works that greatly influenced Eliot before becoming a writer. We will look at these four works and then examine another Eliot’s essay.
The first significant text which needs mentioning is Inquiry concerning the Origin of Christianity by Charles Hennell in 1838. He was an English merchant but spent his leisure on intellectual activities, and he was acquainted with Eliot after she moved to Coventry. The letter, which Eliot wrote to her former teacher after she read Inquiry, tells us that how the book inspired her;
My whole soul has been engrossed in the most interesting of all enquiries for the last few days, and to what result thoughts may lead I know not―possibly to one that will startle you, but my only soul desire is to know the truth, my only fear to cling to error. (GEL, 1;120)
The main argument of this book is that all the events in the Bible are a natural history of human beings. Therefore, it seems that the book inspired Eliot to abandon religiosity, as is obvious from the fact that she refused to attend church shortly after she read it. However, Hennell’s attitude toward Christians is so respectful that Eliot could keep her sentiment on religion. Basically, Hennell’s view lies in science and positivism, which rose in the nineteenth century. According to Hennell, all the effect we can see have a cause which precedes them. By examination, we can discover a particular connection of a certain effect and cause. This sequence is what we call laws of nature, and Hennell says “[a]dmit the laws of nature to be, and what necessity for God?” (Hennell, 445). Then, he turns his attention to the Bible. Supernatural and miraculous events are out of the law of nature, which are supposed to be unchangeable from the past to the present. Because miracles do not occur in the present, they should not have occurred in the past. What is more, through the detailed analysis of the four Gospels, he realizes that the authors of the four Gospels were not eye-witnesses of the miracles, but they edited the Gospels in their own way long after the miracles occurred, for it is obvious that each Gospel differs from the others and is deliberately modified to intensify its effect. Therefore, it is impossible to expect the historical accuracy of the Gospels. However, what Henell intends is not to disclose a deliberate deceit in the Gospels, but to indicate that they are composed of the sincere faith of people. The Hebrew race underwent the political hardship for many centuries, and it was natural for them to mount the expectation of their savior. Hennell infers that the death of Jesus left a so great shock that they venerated him by highlighting the incidents of his life and creating the illusion of his resurrection. Hence Hennell admits “the appearance of simplicity, earnestness, and reality” of the Gospels, and regards them as “the most beautiful fictions” (193) produced by imagination. That is, although Hennell finds the Gospels inaccurate scientifically and historically, he still shows his respect for the origins of Christianity.
David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu is also the book that seems to inculcate a secular idea in Eliot, but Strauss gives Eliot a new perspective of the Bible. The original book was published in 1835 and it was translated into The Life of Jesus in 1848 by Eliot. This is the zenith of the Higher Criticism which had been done by German theologians, and Strauss concludes that the miracles of Jesus are not a truth but a myth. According to him, there are two existing interpretation for the narratives in the Bible, an allegorical interpretation and a rationalist interpretation; the former believes in the supernatural events in the Bible, and the latter deny the supernatural but regard the narratives in the Bible as historical facts. The mythical interpretation is the third way, which accepts the divine meaning of the supernatural events yet pays attention to the “the spirit of a people or a community” (Strauss, 48), while the allegorical interpretation always turns to deity. One of the examples that Strauss clearly shows the necessity of the mythical interpretation is his examination of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Neither the allegorical nor rational interpretation fully explain His illumination. The allegorical interpretation ascribes the illumination to the purpose of glorifying Jesus, but what should be glorified is His spiritual glory, such as His words and deeds. Thus, this physical glorification is “very insignificant, nay, almost childish” (3). The rationalists assume that it is a mere dream, but it is unlikely that each disciple sees the same dream. Moreover, if it were a dream. Jesus would not have told his disciples not to disclose what they saw. It is hard to prove the validity of the event, which the two interpretations try to maintain, because the gospel of Johannes does not mention. Pointing out the problems of the two views, Strauss suggests the mythical interpretation that the glorification is the people’s expectation of Messiah. In fact, the illumination of Moses is also told in the Old Testament, and the glory of Moses is similar to that of Jesus. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that the illumination reflects the feeling of people at that age. Strauss concludes the chapter with his argument that while the existing two interpretations lose the true idea of the narrative by “sacrifice[ing] the essence to form”, the mythical interpretation can tell that “to what sentiments and thoughts of the first Christian community it owes its origin, and why the authors of the gospels included so important a passage in their memories” (21). After all, though Strauss describes the narratives in the Bible as myths, it does not mean that they are fictions which were consciously made. Rather, they were a symbol which spontaneously occurred because they reflect the state and feeling of the people at that time. Focusing on human instead of the supernatural is akin to the idea of Feuerbach, which will be discussed. Although the translation of this book appeared to depress Eliot―she called herself “Strauss-sick” (GEL,1:206) during the work, his idea helps Eliot to develop the thought on human-centered religion.
There is no doubt that the translation of Feuerbach’s Das Wasen des Christentums in 1853 infuses Eliot with a secular thought. Nevertheless, it is also the fact that Feuerbach’s idea of love leads her to think of a new religion. As stated earlier, Feuerbach argues that God is the projection of men and people merely worship an object which is alienated from them. The humanness of God is proved again when he analyses the Incarnation. God is embodied in the flesh by alienating his deity from himself. Yet He became a man not for himself but for loving human. Feuerbach stresses that His love for humans is not different from our love, because a man loves a man humanly, and therefore no one can love a man without loving him humanely. If it is the case, the truth of the Incarnation is that a man was deified rather than God became a man, and it is a phenomenon where human’s wish is embodied. Then, Feuerbach questions; “Who then is our Saviour and Redeemer? God or Love? Love; for God as God has not saved, but Love, which transcends the difference between the divine and human personality” (Feuerbach, 53). He deepens the discussion on love. So far, in Christianity love is tainted and limited by faith. Faith isolates God from man and makes love false and superficial because love “should be immediate” (268); if one interposes God between the other and himself, one would love the other not for the other but for faith and as a result it “annihilate the very soul of love” (268). That is, love has been the medium for achieving the faith in God, but now that God is proved to be a projection of man, there is no need for faith. Rather, love itself should be a purpose of religion. The following passage tells us the essence of love Feuerbach suggests; “love knows not how to make its object happier than by rejoicing it with its personal presence, by letting itself be seen…Happiness lies in the mere sight of the beloved one. The glance is the certainty of love” (56). For Feuerbach, love cannot exist without the presence of people who love and who are loved. Rather than worshipping a spiritual and invisible substance, being with other and looking into the other’s eyes are true love, and only love can save human. The great sympathy of Eliot with this idea can be shown by a letter Eliot gave to Mr. and Mrs. Bray in 1853;
I began to feel for other people’s wants and sorrows a little more than I used to do. Heaven helps us! Said the old religion; the new one, from its very lack of that faith, will teach us all the more to help one another (GEL, 2:82).
Eliot realizes that in the world where God no longer exists, it is only a human that can help and save a human. Feuerbach’s idea that love is to see other’s eyes gives her insight into the essence of love.
- Eliot’s Religiosity in “Janet’s Repentance”
In Part 2, I would like to examine “Janet’s repentance”, which is one of the stories in Scenes of Clerical Life. It is her first collection of stories published in 1857. By examining “Janet’s repentance”, we will be able to see how her thought formed by the books which were analyzed in part 1 is reflected in the theme of this novel.
Considering that Eliot criticized Evangelicalism in Dr. Cuming, the fact that Janet, who supports Anglican Church with her husband, finally turns Evangelicalism appears to be contradictory. However, Eliot clarified her intention of this story in the letter to her friend;
The Collision in this drama is not at all between “bigotted churchmanship” and evangelicalism, but between irreligion and religion. Religion, in this case, happens to be represented by evangelicalism […] I thought I had made it apparent in my sketch of Milby feelings on the advent of Mr. Tryan that the conflict lay between immorality and morality ―irreligion and religion (GEL, 2;347)
What Eliot intends is to emphasize the necessity of religion itself regardless of religious sects. However, it might be her nostalgia to make evangelicalism a representation of religion. The story sets in England in the 1830s, during which Eliot herself was evangelical and evangelicalism had not been authorized yet. Looking back on her childhood, Eliot might identify the former evangelicalism with a human-centered religion that she is seeking.
First, we will look at in what way Janet is saved by Tryan. Janet. Dempster is a lawyer in Milby which is an old-fashioned, rustic country town. He supports Anglican Church, which has been practiced in Milby, and he is against Tryan who brought Evangelicalism to the town. His wife Janet was the most beautiful and smartest girl in Milby, but after married him, Janet “stands up for everything her husband says and does” (SCL, 42). As a short-tempered man, Dempster often abuses her drunkenly, and it makes her to drink in turn. One night, Janet is shut out of the house by her drunken husband and takes refuge in her neighbor, who supports Tryan. In desperation, Janet decides to meet Tryan and consults him. When Janet confesses what happened to her life, Tryan realizes that “the first thing Janet needed was to be assured of sympathy” (169). After she stops talking, Tryan confesses how sinful he was in the past and shows understanding in her situation. Janet comes to trust in him and promises to follow what Tryan told to her. This is the moment Janet and Tryan open their hearts, and the narration tells that “blessed influence of one true loving human soul on another!” (178). It is implied that Janet will be changed by the influence of Tryan. Shortly after that, Dempster is seriously injured due to an accident. She nurses him carefully until he dies. Although she has stopped to drink after encountering Tryan, her fatigue and desperation drive her to get alcohol again. After all, she manages to control herself, and asks Tryan for help;
Then, poor Janet poured forth her sad tale of temptation and despondency; and even while she was confessing she felt half her burden removed. The act of confiding in human sympathy, the consciousness that a fellow-being was listening to her with pity, prepared her soul for that stronger leap by which faith grasps the idea of the Devine sympathy. (227)
It is suggested that Tryan listens to her with sympathy, which rescues her all the more. The narrator’s description of her way home at that night shows that Janet is truly saved;
That walk in the dewy starlight remained forever in Janet’s memory as one of those baptism epochs, when the soul, dipped in the sacred waters of joy and peace, rises from them with new energies, with more unalterable longings. (229)
Dew symbolizes a purification of Janet, who is now free from desire for alcohol. Although Eliot uses religious words such as “baptism” and “sacred”, it is not God that saves Janet, but Tryan, a human full of sympathy. In the end, Tryan dies due to his illness. The narrator tells us a sequel to Janet’s life. Janet is described as “memorial” of Tryan, and she devotes her later life to charity. Her memory of being treated with sympathy inspires her to help others. Succeeding to Tryan’s will and his passion, Janet will become a savior of someone, like Tryan became her savior. This is how the chain of human sympathy spreads to the world. Eliot tries to tell an ideal religion that Eliot longed for by making Tryan a savior of Janet.
The second point which is worth analyzing is the description of Tryan’s eyes and its function. First, Tryan’s look is illustrated impressively. She happens to see Tryan for the first time when he talks with a sickly girl. Janet expected that he was a self-satisfied teacher with a superficial passion, but the attitude of Tryan toward the girl is that of a man who shares suffering and pain. Janet is so impressed that she gazes at him. Their eyes meet when he leaves the girl and the narrator explains that “[t]here is a power in the direct glance of a sincere and loving human soul, which will more to dissipate prejudice and kindle charity than the most elaborate arguments” (129). A few months later she decides to meet him after she was shut out by her husband, and the first thing she vividly remembers is his merciful look. When he enters a room, “[h]er heart gave a great leap, as her eyes met his once more. […] there was all the sincerity, all the sadness, all the deep pity in them her memory had told of” (165). From these descriptions, it is shown that Janet is impressed by Tryan’s look. Then, as Janet is talking, she gradually opens her heart, which is implied by her casting her eyes on Tryan. While she is telling him how miserable her married life has been, she “clasped her hands tightly, and looked at Mr. Tryan with eager questioning eyes” (168). He understands her tragic situation, and he confesses his past sin in turn to share suffering. Listening to his story, Janet’s eyes “fix[ed] on him with the look of rapt expectation, with which one clinging to a slippery summit of rock, while the waves are rising higher and higher, watches the boat that has put from shore to his rescue” (172). This metaphor implies that Janet is on the edge of corruption because of her alcoholic life, but she senses the arrival of her savior. As Janet has been hungry for affection because of the harsh abuse, she feels loved all the more for the presence of the person who is near her and listens to her. Tryan’s impressive look assures her of his hearty love because as Feuerbach says, the glance is the certainty of love.
The advent of Tryan changes not only Janet but also the town, Milby. It is told by the narrator that Milby was a typical country town whose people were exclusive and held class consciousness. Their moral standard was not high, and they felt more comfortable when they looked down on each other. Nevertheless, people were basically good-natured, and there were some “purity, gentleness, and unselfishness” in Milby (25). Tryan’s appearance at such an old-fashioned town caused a confusion at first. The town is divided into the Tryan party and the anti-Tryan party. The opponents of Tryan, led by Dempster, support Anglican Church and consider Tryan to be bogus with a fault doctrine. They conduct a campaign against Tryan, and the conflict between them is continued for a few months. However, the narrator tells that the opponents lost in the end, and people come to keep a distance from them while more and more people hear Tryan’s teaching. What people respect about Tryan is his strong sense of mission. He believes that it is the will of God that sends him to Milby, and he works hard for Milby in exchange for his health. Although he was nobly born, he lives frugally. He lives in an area where the poor live, and he goes to work on foot instead of owning his own horse. In addition, he is so devoted to others. When Janet comes to his house after she felt a temptation to drink, he “felt a stronger wish than ever that his fragile life might last out for him to see Janet’s restoration thoroughly established…he would not cease to watch over her until life forsook him” (229). Through these altruistic acts by Tryan, “idea of duty, that recognition of something to be lived for beyond the mere satisfaction of self” (112) is brought into Milby society. In fact, all the people who do a good deed in this drama are Tryan party; Mrs. Pettifer helps Janet when she is shut out by her husband; Mr. Jeroum always worries about a sickly Tryan and participates in a charitable work; people who hear Tryan’s preach are surprised at Janet’s presence in the preach at first, yet they welcome her warmly and some of them voluntarily greet her. Thus, Tryan’s evangelicalism cultivates people’s sense of morality. It is true that Tryan is a very religious man; the narrator points out that Tryan “made the mistake of identifying Christianity with a narrow doctrinal system…he saw God’s work too exclusively in antagonism to the world, the flesh, and the devil” (114). Despite these faults due to his religiosity, his virtuous heart and self-sacrificed spirit inspire the soul of Milby and develop their moral standard.
Since she read Hennell’s text, her desire to peruse the truth of the world drives her to read other texts that deny Christianity, and therefore it seems that Eliot’s religiosity extinguishes. However, Hennell and Strauss’s books teach her that religion is a product of expectations for Messiah by ancient people, and Mackay’s view makes her realize that religion should advance as humans make a progress. Feuerbach’s idea of love becomes a central spirit of a new religion which Eliot seeks, a religion for human. This is how her religiosity is renewed rather than being eliminated. It is manifested in “Janet’s Repentance”, where she establishes a human-centered religion. With his great sympathy and his merciful look, Tryan saves Janet.
In conclusion, although Eliot abandoned Christianity, her sentiment on religion was never extinguished. Her remaining religiosity encouraged her to think of a new religion, a religion for humanity. Hennell, Strauss, and Feuerbach are thought to have helped Eliot secularize herself, but in fact their ideas became the elements of Eliot’s new religion; Hennell and Strauss respect humans whose feelings were the origin of religion, and Feuerbach argues that love between human can be a savior and a look is proof of love. Eliot’s writings are also important because in “Mackay” she confirms that religion needs to develop, and in “Dr. Cumming” she develops the idea of love. Eliot applies the idea that only a human can save another human to “Janet’s Repentance”. She describes the way an evangelical teacher Tryan saves Janet not by faith for God, but with his sympathy, and it is implied that his sympathy will be succeeded in people in Milby. Although Eliot lived a different life from her religious childhood, her thought was always inspired by the intense religiosity which young Mary had cultivated, and Eliot wrote novels as a mean to express her remaining religiosity.
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