Abstraction and the Subject of Novel Reading: Drifting through Romola


Two compelling recent accounts of ctional characterization, perhaps unsurpris-ingly, take George Eliot as their exemplary case. In fact, in the work by Audrey Jaffe and Catherine Gallagher I'm referring to, Eliot's method of making characters is all about exemplarity itself. To be sure, Jaffe's The Affective Life of the Average Man and Gallagher's " George Eliot: Immanent Victorian " differ in many particulars, most profoundly about the issue of how Eliot asks us to feel about the typicality of her characters: Gallagher describes Eliot's project as " making us want. .. the quotidian " (73), while Jaffe argues that in Middlemarch " likeness anxiety takes on tragic proportions. " But whether we conceive of typicality as a condition the novels recommend to us or as a nightmarish vision of undifferentiation the novels make us fear, it seems clear that Eliot's protagonists take their characteristic shape—their shape as characters—by oscillating between the conditions of radical individuality and radical generality. Jaffe and Gallagher both concentrate on Middlemarch, and it is worth noting that in that novel modern character measures itself not only against a vision of the general or the quotidian but also against a gold standard of epic plenitude. I'm referring to the presentation in the novel's prelude of Dorothea Brooke as a modern—and thus cruelly diminished and averaged out—version of Saint The-resa. This dynamic, whereby we come to know characters by the epic precedents they fail adequately to revive, is given its most overt delineation in Middlemarch, but it features elsewhere in Eliot's work. We might think of how Adam Bede's Dinah Morris is presented as " St. Catherine in a quaker dress " (64), of the Meyrick girls' fanciful likening of Daniel Deronda to Prince Camaralzaman (579), or of the comparison , offered by The Mill on the Floss's narrator, of Maggie Tulliver to Sappho (320). If to be a character in Eliot is to be a unit of measurement of a falling off from a recognized standard, these examples make clear that the relation of character to standard is often gured across a historical chasm. Character is not only a deviation from a norm but a distinctively modern derivation from a distant past. What is most striking to me is that these characters' relation to their precedents also comes to gure our relationship as readers to the characters. To be a character in Eliot—intelligently, exhaustively attended to—has its …

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@inproceedings{KURNICK2010AbstractionAT, title={Abstraction and the Subject of Novel Reading: Drifting through Romola}, author={DAVID KURNICK and A. B. Jaffe}, year={2010} }