Themes Ideas thought and Religion of George Eliot

Themes Ideas thought and Religion of George Eliot

Themes Ideas thought and Religion of George Eliot : The fact is that George Eliot was an intellectual, a rationalist whom the irrational and the supernatural in orthodox Christian belief could not satisfy.

Themes Ideas thought and Religion of George Eliot

Not an Atheist

Mary Ann was brought up as an orthodox Christian, and had been considerably influenced by her Evangelist aunt Mrs. Elizabeth Evans. She was a regular church-goer in her youth. However, later in life when she came into contact with the Brays and other intellectuals of the age, she lost faith in orthodox Christianity, and stopped going to church. It was only under pressure from her ailing father that she again took to church-going. But she did never again believe in the Christian concept of God, Heaven and Hell, and in the Immortality of the human soul. This has exposed her to the charge of being irreligious, an agnostic. Thus David Cecil says, “George Eliot was not religious.” But a close study of her life, her letters and her works shows that there can he nothing farther from the truth.

Her Rationalism—Re-interpretation of Christianity

The fact is that George Eliot was an intellectual, a rationalist whom the irrational and the supernatural in orthodox Christian belief could not satisfy. She was in touch with the latest scientific, religious and philosophical thought of the age. As Basil Willey stresses, “Probably no English writer of the time, and certainly no novelist, more fully epitomizes the century; her development is a paradigm, her intellectual biography a graph of its most decided trends. You are reading Themes Ideas thought and Religion of George Eliot. 

Starting from evangelical Christianity, the curve passes through doubt to a re-interpreted Christ and a religion of humanity: beginning with God, it ends in Duty.” No one was more thoroughly abreast of the newst thought, the latest French or German theory, the last interpretation of dogma, the most up-to-date results in anthropology, medicine, biology or sociology; it is she who first translated Strauss’s Life of Jesus and Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity; if a Mackay writes The Progress of the Intellect (1850), it is Miss Evans who must review it for the Westminster. 

From the very outset she showed the instinct—which was deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the century as a whole—to see both sides of any question: to tolerate the ordinary while admiring the ideal, to cling to the old while accepting the new, to retain the core of tradition while mentally criticizing their forms. This conservative-reforming impulse is the leading motif of her life, her life-long quest was to achieve a synthesis of these two opposites, to harmonise the Static and Dynamic Principles, Tradition and Enlightenment, the Heart and the Head. It is this tension which is the basis of all her novels. It was this which has exposed her to the charge of being irreligious, for she criticised the forms of orthodox faith, but all the time, remained true to the essentials of that faith.

Loss of Faith in the Supernal: No Moral Revolt

Wagenknecht in the Calvacade of the English Novel rightly points out, “George Eliot’s revolt against her inherited faith was based on intellectual ground alone; at no time was there a moral revolt. It was inevitable, therefore, that being what she was, she should have spent the rest of her life trying to preserve the Christian morality without supernatural sanctions. The rationalist in her could not accept the Christian concept of God; and she regarded any faith in the supernal as inconceivable, she regarded the concept of the immortality of the soul as unbelievable. She represents the whole predicament of the religious temperament cut off by rationalism from the traditional objects of veneration, and the traditional intellectual formulations.

She was not, of course, a practising Christian, but in her estrangement from the religion about Jesus she was none the further from the religion of Jesus. She knew the hunger and thirst after righteousness, and the need for renunciation—the need to lose one’s life in order to gain it. And, though her religious consciousness was pre-eminently moral, it was not exclusively so; she also had the faculty of reverence, the capacity to acknowledge the reality of the unseen.” That she was deeply religious is clearly brought out by her letter to Madam Bodichon, “I have very little sympathy with Free thinkers as a class, and have lost all interest in mere antagonism to religious doctrines. I care only to know, if possible, the lasting meaning that lies in all religious doctrine from the beginning till now.”

Religion of Love

According to Wagenknecht, “It was no accident that while George Eliot was the major English novelist who did not profess the Christian religion, none other should ever have set forth the Christian ethic with such intellectual power. Her intellect robbed her of God, but she made no God of the intellect. Love was the most imperious need of her nature at all times, from her childhood when like Maggie Tulliver she gave her young adoration to her brother, Isaac Evans, until the last year of her life, when she trusted her decline to J.W. Cross. Adam Bede speaks for her as well as for himself when he says, ‘It isn’t notion that sets people doing the right thing—it’s feeling: and, again, that feeling’s a sort of knowledge.’ The same philosophy lies at the heart of Daniel Deronda, so different from Adam Bede in other ways.”

Faith in Human Values

George Eliot was no clamorous atheist, she soon outgrew the first zest of her emancipation and refused to bear a label, even the rationalist, positivist label; she simply waited patiently for more light. She found it difficult to believe that men had brought forth sublimer thoughts than the universe itself; and her faith in free will always separated her from the thorough-going naturalists. Dorothea Brooke identifies herself with the divine power against evil; and George Eliot herself speaks of the breath of God within us.’ She refused to reject human values and take molecular physics as her dominant guide.

Some might have been happy on that basis; George Eliot was not. It has often been pointed out that she never made loss of faith the principal theme of a novel. This was partly, as we have seen, because she was no iconoclast: it was partly because as an artist she had her roots in the world of her believing youth; it was partly because she never reached the certitude of unbelief.

The Mystic Note

This problem of faith concerns more than Marian Evans, the woman; we must understand it, if we are to understand George Eliot, the novelist. She was great only to the extent that memory and her natural goodness made it possible for her to rise above her unfaith. If you had asked her what she thought of mysticism, she would have replied that she feared and distrusted it. But probably no one ever succeeded in being a great writer without having something of the mystic in him; so it is not surprising to learn that George Eliot told John Walter Cross that in all that she considered her best writing, there was a not herself which took possession of her, and that she felt her own personality to be merely the instrument through which this spirit, as it were, was acting.

Moral Approach to Religion: Stress on Duty

George Eliot was no athiest, and no agnostic. Only her approach to religion was moral. She moralised religion or it is the moral aspect of religion which appeals to her most. She finds ‘Duty’, peremptory and absolute. This makes all her novels, ‘criticism of life.’ As David Cecil points out, “Now this criticism was exclusively and consistently a moral criticism. George Eliot, though she was a thinker, was not a particularly original thinker. And her conception of life was that held by the dominant school of thought in advanced circles of her day. She was a thoroughgoing Victorian rationalist.

The progress of thought and discovery made it impossible for her to believe in the supernatural; she had given up the Puritan theology of her childhood. But the moral code founded on that Puritan theology had soaked itself too deeply into the fibre of her thought and feeling for her to give it up as well. She might not believe in heaven and hell and miracles, but she believed in right and wrong and man’s paramount obligation to follow right, as strictly as if she were Bunyan himself. And her standards of right and wrong were the Puritan standards. She admired truthfulness and chastity and industry and self-restraint; she disapproved loose living and recklessness and deceit and self-indulgence.”

Faith in Free Will and Right Conduct

She believed in free will. She thought every man’s character was in his own hands to mould into the right shape or the wrong; and she thought that all his strength should be put forward to mould it right. Matthew Arnold thought that conduct was three-fourths of life; George Eliot went further, she thought it was four-fourths. Activities were right insofar as they
assisted you to be good, they were wrong insofar as they prevented you. And such activities were neither right nor wrong, were frivolous, unworthy of the attention of a serious person.

Another fundamental of her philosophy is a conviction that life is just. She was sure that those who live a virtuous life are essentially contented. However well meaning you might be or however lucky, she was sure that you cannot escape the consequences of your own actions; that your sins find you out, that the slightest slip will be visited on you, if not immediately then in times to come.

Moral Conflict the Basis of Her Novels

“It is in the light of these views that George Eliot constructs her novels. The ideas which are their germ are all moral ideas; the conflicts which are the mainspring of their action are always moral conflicts. They divide themselves into two classes. In some, Janet’s Repentance, Adam Bede, Silas Marner, the moral course is clear. The characters are in a position to do what they think right, only they are tempted to do something wrong instead; and the conflict turns on the struggle between their weaknesses.

In Silas Marner, Silas is a naturally affectionate, unselfish character warped by a love of money, but ultimately redeemed by his love for the child Eppie. Godfrey is a kindly well-meaning young man, marred by his inability to admit the disagreeable truth about himself; Arthur Donnithrone in Adam Bede is such another, only he is mastered by his weakness to resist the temptations of the flesh. Hetty is a vain, weak, little egoist, whose vanity and weakness bring her nearly to the gallows; Janet Dempster is a generous idealistic character saved from drink and despair by the influence of an evangelical preacher.

Conflict Between Individual Aspiration and Repressive Environment

In The Mill on the Floss George Eliot confronts another problem. How should one act, if one wants to do right but cannot find a satisfactory method of doing it? Maggie Tulliver thirsts after righteousness, but she finds no way to satisfy her thirst in a materialistic, provincial world in which she lives and such efforts as she makes only result in annoying everyone around her. “Part of Middlemarch is concerned with a similar theme. Dorothea Brooke wants to live a life of self-sacrifice for the good of others, but she cannot find scope for it in humdrum Middlemarch. She shows us the cosmic process, not just in a single drama but in several; not only in an individual but in a whole society.

The principles of moral strength and weakness which in her view are the determining forces of life, exhibit themselves at their work in the lives of four diverse and typical representatives of the human race. In addition to that of Dorothea, an idealist, we follow the career of Lydgate, a brilliant young doctor, of Mr. Bulstrode, a nuritan merchant, and Fred Vincy, an average young man. And we see how Lydgate’s high ambition is frustrated by his inability to resist the influence of his selfish wife, how Mr. Blustrode’s desperate attempts to live a virtuous and beneficent life, are rendered vain by some secret sin, how Fred Vincy is first brought to disaster by self-indulgence and then restored to the right path by a marriage with a good woman.”   —(David Cecil)

The Moral Aspect

George Eliot’s serious characters are envisaged exclusively in their moral aspect. They are portraits of the inner man, of the principles of his conduct—his besetting sinhis presiding virtue. Such a portrait inevitably omits many of those aspects of man—his manner, his mood, his face—which made living most of the great figures of fiction. All the same, George Eliot’s concentration on the moral side of human nature is the chief source of her peculiar glory, the kernel of her precious, unique contribution to our literature.


To conclude with the words of A.E. Baker, “She emancipated herself from the Evangelical creed in which she had been brought up, but she was always religious-mind. The phase of rationalism through which she passed after abandoning the belief in heaven and hell of her Evangelical upbringing did not last long. Pantheism she found unsatisfying and she resigned herself to the conviction that there is no answer to our cravings for a definite faith. You are reading Themes Ideas thought and Religion of George Eliot.  But hundreds of passages in her novels imply that she could never eradicate a profound sense, not merely of divine immanence, but of divine trans­cendence.

Her puritanism, her worship of duty, rested all her life upon the consciousness of an inner reality, which adherents to the creeds readily identified with the Divine. The monitor within represented something higher than ourselves, whether of another order of being or simply the loftiest ideal conceivable to man. The latter question remains inscrutable; but the terms in which she constantly speaks of duty and conscience, and the Supreme Power, which fashioned us, are the terms of one who could hardly help believing.” 

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