Human-animal elision: a Darwinian universe in George Eliot's novels

Helen Kingstone

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Animals are everywhere in George Eliot’s novels. Occasionally these are ‘real’ animals (Dorothea’s rejected pet dog, or the poached leveret that tests Mr Brooke’s benevolence). But far more often, they are imaginary: Casaubon’s rivals ‘Carp’, ‘Pike’ and ‘Tench’; Mrs Transome’s fellow-aristocrats ‘the Herons of Fenshore’ and ‘Badgers of Hillbury’; the overwhelming multiplicity of ‘ordinary human life’ like ‘the squirrel’s heart beat’. Eliot is often viewed as an over-strictly realist writer, but in her two ‘Reform Act’ novels, Felix Holt (1866) and Middlemarch (1871-72), she does something disconcertingly comic.

This paper will draw new attention to the strange and often surprising elisions between human and animal species in these novels, to ask why she does it, and what its implications might be. Recent research (Pielak, 2012) has highlighted the extent of ‘animetaphor’ in Eliot’s fiction, but this elision goes beyond metaphor to metonymy.

This technique is most obviously a recognition of the Darwinian framework in which scientifically-engaged thinkers necessarily viewed the world by the 1860s and 1870s. But it is also part of her novels’ commitment to acting as an alternative history of their pre-Reform moment. Eliot insists that even ‘unhistoric’ individuals are part of history: how far does this doctrine extend? History assumes an unbridgeable difference between humans and other species, but Eliot repeatedly probes this assumption.

These novels are also interventions in contemporary history. In a period seeking grand narratives, when historians were trying to professionalise, many avoided it altogether, and the period within living memory was dispersed into other genres. Novelists managed it by shrinking their scale to the provincial. But Eliot still invokes the problem of overwhelming multiplicity, and gives it expression in human-animal elision. By demoting the human race to one species among many, Eliot heightens that sense of unfilterable multiplicity which is the challenge of contemporary-history-writing.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015
EventReassessing Women's Writing of the 1860s and 1870s - ICVWW, Canterbury Christchurch University, Canterbury, United Kingdom
Duration: 6 Jul 20157 Jul 2015

Academic conference

Academic conferenceReassessing Women's Writing of the 1860s and 1870s
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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