Realism and sympathy are interrelated ideas of great importance to all of George Eliot’s fiction.
“Realism” is a tricky word to define. One thing it doesn’t mean (though this is how the term is sometimes used casually, and usually pejoratively) is a naïve belief that the real world can be directly transcribed into language. The great realist novels of the Victorian period include, besides Middlemarch, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Dickens’s Bleak House, and Trollope’s Barchester Towers: every one of these is savvy and self-reflexive about its relationship to reality (and, it’s worth adding, about the challenge of fixing on what is “real” in the first place).
19th-century realism is best understood as the opposite of “romance” — which also does not mean, in this context, what we typically mean by it today, but rather refers to fiction that is, in M. H. Abrams’s words, “more picturesque, fantastic, adventurous, or heroic than actuality.”* Eliot and her husband George Henry Lewes, both offered their own definitions of realism. In his essay “Realism in Art,” Lewes argued that realism is opposed to “falsism.” In her review of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Eliot stated,
The truth of infinite value that he teaches us is realism–the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature, and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling, in place of definite, substantial reality.
“The thorough acceptance of this doctrine,” she goes on, “would remould our life.”
Besides exemplifying her principles of realism, Eliot’s novels also include a number of eloquent statements about them. Tempting as it is to quote abundantly from them, I’ll include only one, from Chapter 17 of Adam Bede. This wonderful passage is particularly significant because it shows how Eliot linked realism and sympathy:
All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children — in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy. Paint us an angel, if you can, with a floating violet robe, and a face paled by the celestial light; paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face upward and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory; but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world — those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore, let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things — men who see beauty in these commonplace things, and delight in showing how kindly the light of heaven falls on them. There are few prophets in the world; few sublimely beautiful women; few heroes. I can’t afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities: I want a great deal of those feelings for my every-day fellow-men, especially for the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch for whom I have to make way with kindly courtesy.
Realist fiction, in other words, guides our sympathies towards ordinary, imperfect people. That extension of our sympathies, in turn, is the essence of morality — and thus aesthetics and ethics merge, in her thinking and in her novels.
*M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. (Harcourt Brace, 1999)