Our deeds still travel with us from afar,
And what we have been makes us what we are. (Middlemarch, Chapter 70)
Determinism is another philosophical idea that greatly influenced George Eliot’s thinking and thus the form and content of her fiction.
Like “realism,” “determinism” is a word easily assumed to mean something it does not. In the context of George Eliot’s work, “determinism” must not be confused with “predestination”: her idea is not that everything in our lives follows a predetermined plan or inevitably follows a particular path, but that, in scholar George Levine’s words, “every event has its causal antecedents”:
George Eliot saw a deterministic universe as a marvelously complex unit in which all parts are intricately related to each other, where nothing is really isolable, and where past and future are both implicit in the present. Nothing in such a universe is explicable without reference to the time and place in which it occurs or exists. This suggested that one can never make a clear-cut break with the society in which one has been brought up, with one’s friends and relations, with one’s past. Any such break diminishes a man’s wholeness and is the result of his failure to recognize his ultimate dependence on others, their claims on him, and the consequent need for human solidarity. For George Eliot, every man’s life is at the center of a vast and complex web of causes,” a good many of which exert pressure on him from the outside and come into direct conflict with his own desires and motives.*
It’s helpful to think of her determinism as backwards, rather than forwards, looking; it encourages us to understand the history behind each situation, to see which decisions created it — but not to imagine that there could not have been different decisions leading to different situations.
In practice, in her fiction, this attitude means much detailed analysis of background — in Middlemarch, for instance, a good example is the extensive treatment of Mr. Bulstrode’s past. Mr. Bulstrode’s story also illustrates an important moral implication of this theory: because your current situation is the product of your past choices, you are responsible for it — and you cannot hope to evade the consequences of your actions.
*George Levine, “Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George Eliot.” PMLA 77:3 (June 1962).