Esther and the Politics of Multiple Tastes in George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical

  • cc icon

    The purpose of this essay is to re-evaluate the significance of Esther regarding her enactment of sympathy, as opposed to critics’ contention that Felix Holt is a mouthpiece of George Eliot in the novel Felix Holt, the Radical. It examines how sympathy functions in subverting the discourses of moral imperatives and instrumental reason. In the novel, the hegemonic authority exercises its dominant power over working-class habits and female aesthetic tastes in order to discipline them under the categorical and preemptive imperatives of a morality sustained by Enlightenment reason. Felix Holt is a novel of feminine resistance against male desire to categorize women as morally inferior objects and as values of economic exchange. The novel presents Esther Lyon as the sympathetic agent of a hybridity that combines her natural aesthetic taste with her acquired moral taste. The hybridity of her tastes denotes Esther’s renewed feminine subjectivity, which empowers her to invest her libido in both the domestic and the public spheres. Eliot endorses Esther by revealing that the female subject is not only able to adjust herself to the moral, economic, political, and sexual discourses of patriarchy but is also able to resist them for the fulfillment of her libidinal desires and for the enlargement of her sympathy for others.


    tastes , culture , sympathy , moral reform , aesthetics , libido , female subjectivity

  • Regarding Felix Holt as a political novel dealing with the issue of the working-class participation in the mid-Victorian politics, critics have debated whether Felix Holt represents the voice of the working class. Most of them agree that Felix is simply a mouthpiece of the conservative George Eliot. Raymond Williams argues that Eliot’s appraisal of the working-class movements is negative because the novelist considers them foolish and inadequate, and even urges people to dissociate themselves from the popular movements. Although many critics have argued that Felix Holt is a representative of George Eliot’s social, political, and moral views, my contention is that Esther embodies Eliot’s concern with the significance of sympathy as the subversive force to undermine the dominant and patriarchal discourses of socio-political and economic powers. Eliot creates a feminine character of resistant sensibilities who cannot be controlled either by Felix’s autocratic positioning to subsume the other under the category of the uncivilized entity or by Harold’s pragmatic calculation to take advantage of the other as a means to achieve his own end. Instead of Felix, who appears to be a rigid public moralist, Esther is an aesthete of multiple sensibilities. She represents a hybrid of tastes that resists the homogeneity of Felix’s idea of cultivating the mind and that challenges Harold’s deceptive reason to transform the other into an instrumental object.

    Taste is, as Pierre Bourdieu argues in Distinction, “the practical operator of the transmutation of things into distinct and distinctive signs” through which a certain class condition is symbolically signified (174). Instead of having one specific symbolic signification of class position, however, Esther employs multiple tastes which ultimately assist her in resisting the ideological forces of patriarchy (or male tastes) to appropriate her for the achievement of their own purposes. Felix is a stock character who always relentlessly insists on and tries to perpetuate the reform of the spirit, whereas Esther develops and exhibits her multiple and heterogeneous characters and tastes in her relationships with her stepfather, Felix, Harold, and Mrs. Transome and in the course of the revelation of her identity and inheritance. The narrative of Felix Holt illuminates the operation of sympathy through Esther who has the ability to defy the ideologies of gender and political economy.

    Although he confidently proclaims himself as a radical in politics on the behalf of the working class, Felix lacks the agency of his political engagement; his rhetorical volubility is not effectively realized in his concrete actions, and he demonstrates a duplicity of his attitude toward the working class, a contradictory clash between his rhetoric of politics and his idea of the class. Felix, noble and sincere as he may be in his morality, exposes the limits of his idea of reform—the reform of culture in the working class—because, using his exclusive, inflexible, and egocentric judgment, he refuses to embrace the diverse modes of life. Felix’s rigid and inflexible selfassertion, however, is exemplified in his rebuke against Esther’s aesthetic tastes. When Esther expresses her preference for Byron’s poems, Felix regards the poet as a “misanthropic debauchee” and fulminates against Esther’s “roundabout euphuisms” (62, 63). He expresses his repugnance for her favorite gentlemen of “the Byronicbilious style” and “gentlemen like [her] Rénés” on the grounds that they live in the world of melancholia, idle suffering, and the infinite (intangible, unreal, and abstract) rather than of the finite (mundane, real, and concrete) (221). In light of the Carlylean moral earnestness, Felix sets his idea of “the finest fellow of all” against Esther’s Byronic gentlemen by arguing that his fellow would be “the man who had the most powers and the fewest selfish wants” and also would help the needed people in the miserable world (221). Felix’s aspiration for becoming such a fellow is so strong that he identifies himself with the sanctified and conceptualized humanitarian in his imaginary, which wipes out the demarcation between the ideal and the actual: “I do choose to withdraw myself from the push and the scramble for money and position,” he says, and “I care for the people who live now and will not be living when the long-run comes. As it is, I prefer going shares with the unlucky” (221, 222). Felix’s rhetoric of the virtuous human is self-contradictory because while he argues that the finest fellow is concerned with the concrete, actual, and worldly life, he construes the notion of such a human being in an abstract, unreal, and imaginary way: Felix’s self-fashioning of “the finest fellow of all” in his social and moral discourse fails to be specifically realized in the real world.

    Felix’s flaw arises from his absolute prioritization of the abstract ideal without consideration of diversity, unpredictability, and specificity of human activity, and from his coercive rhetoric of standardizing aesthetic, social, and political phenomena with a vision of his professional model. Felix’s denunciation of Esther’s reading of Chateaubriand’s book exemplifies another self-contradiction inherent in his rhetoric of a morally perfect self. When he criticizes Esther for her aesthetic sensibilities, calling them “idle fancy and selfish inclination for shirking [her father’s] teaching and giving [her] soul up to trifles” (108), he categorizes her tastes and refinement as simply “a littleness that shrank from severe truth” of the world in which “myriads of men and women are ground by wrong and misery, and tainted with pollution” (109). Felix’s edifying rationale for a larger self epitomizes the problem of valorizing his grandiose self of altruism as superior and legitimized by submerging Esther’s petty, worldly sensibilities under his own abstract sublimity. Felix’s selfglorifying ambition for altruistic vocation is even subservient to forming his distorted and male-dominated view of women by conceiving of them as inimical to the male professional achievement due to their triviality and cumbersomeness. He warns Esther not to become a hindrance to the male social reformer’s “manly” work:

    Felix’s misogynistic attack on women’s pettiness and their status as a threat to men’s public vocation is typical in the Victorian idea of reducing women to the anomalies that must be under surveillance and checked by the higher systems of rules and authorities. Felix’s self-denying ambition to devote himself to the requisite working-class admonishes Esther that the female inclination for trivialities such as her aesthetic tastes must be subordinated to the high drama of male professional vision aiming to widen its horizon for the public weal. Bourdieu’s idea of the dominant ideology of taste as a solidification of the class distinction can be adopted to explain, in a modified way, the case of the sexual politics exemplified in Felix’s denunciation of Esther’s aesthetic tastes. Bourdieu argues that although the dominant class regards the taste of high culture as open to anybody in any class, upper-class people exclusively appropriate the pleasures of the high culture, taking advantage of their cultural and material background which enables them to enjoy the aesthetic objects. The discourse of upper-class high culture contains a selfdeception because, ironically, appreciating the taste that transcends money actually costs money (Distinction 227-28). Bourdieu’s contention that “tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘sick-making’) of the tastes of others” debunks the myth of the dominant class ideology of taste by revealing that it humiliates the dominated by the dominant’s economic privilege over the other (56). The material advantage of the upper class humiliates the dominated so effectively that the economically unprivileged “are induced to accept the very standards by which they are dismissed as inferior” (Garson 28). Bourdieu’s examination of the material, economic condition as a prerequisite for the appreciation of aesthetic artifacts, on the one hand, is employed by Felix when he criticizes Esther’s elitism and her aristocratic tastes on the grounds that she is invested in the luxuries and fancy, ignorant of the “severe truth” of the outside world as well as of her identity as a daughter of a nonconformist church minister (109). On the other hand, Felix, as an advocate of morality and a social reformer, takes up the dominant discourse of the upper-middle class’ tastes of morality by excluding the aesthetic tastes of women and denouncing the working class for a lack of moral taste.

    Felix establishes another hierarchy of sexual inequality in his politics of morality by degrading women as inferior and anomalous in his attempt to equalize the aesthetic taste with an index of the morally deteriorated state of mind. Felix’s Bourdieuian critique of aesthetic elitism ironically challenges the nature of patriarchal, moral elitism deeply ingrained in his own discourse when it poses a threat to women behind its polarization of male nobleness/female triviality, moral taste/aesthetic taste, male altruism/female egoism. Felix’s consciousness of his own moral superiority over women’s bad taste and petty desires is corroborated by his male-dominated discourse of ethics, just as the upper-class consciousness of their superiority over other classes is supported by their economically dominant discourse of aesthetic taste. Like Savonarola in Romola, who emerges as an authoritative guide to Romola by urging her to sacrifice herself to the Florentine people, Felix assumes the position of a male mentor for Esther whom he deems to be living an inferior, vulgar, and materialistic existence. He embodies the law of an ethical imperative, or the Law of Father, which is transcendent, patriarchal, and dominant: “If a woman really believes herself to be a lower kind of being, she should place herself in subjection: she should be ruled by the thoughts of her father or husband” (108). In addition to putting premium on the moral strictness of the Hebraic culture, Felix transfers cultural values to the division of gender roles that patriarchy endorses instead of seeking to harmonize the values of morality and aesthetic beauty.

    Esther’s response to Felix’s misogynistic admonition ambivalently combines humiliation and pleasure, suggesting that she tries to sublimate a loss of her libidinal desire for worldly fashions for an expectation of a romantic pleasure. Though humiliated by his caustic language, Esther nevertheless feels herself “shaken in her selfcontentment,” with the assumption that Felix, infatuated with her, wants her to change because “she was worth more pains than the women of whom he took no notice” (110). When she conceives of Felix’s harsh admonition as a reflex of his romantic desire for her, Esther internalizes the aggressive Felix as a love object or the benevolent father-figure on whom she can rely; the internalization of the supervising and controlling figure from the external control reflects Esther’s effort to deflect her anxiety over the loss of a fatherfigure or the disappearance of the object of love in a more positive way. By imprisoning herself in the imagination of romantic love, she utilizes the internalizing mechanism as a means of warding off her fear of helplessness or loss of love. Esther’s romantic imprisonment suggests that she substitutes the charismatic image of Felix for her desire for material ornaments. By demonstrating his unifying vision of moral integrity, consistency, and inflexibility corroborated by his physiological characteristics, Felix successfully produces his aura, an authentic, unique image of himself, which mesmerizes and fascinates Esther, who configures him as the object of her love. When he tells Esther that most women, unless they are “Saint Theresas or Elizabeth Frys,” are likely to think of his social vision as madness, Felix implicitly uncovers the inscrutability of his own aura which mystifies him into a sublime object of politics and sexuality. The invocation of awe and mystery through the references of religion and philanthropy characterizes Felix’s self-abstraction and ambiguity about his identity. The twenty-six-year-old Felix’s physical characteristics are portrayed as attractive, arresting, and charismatic when he delivers an impromptu speech to the Duffield audience on nomination day:

    Although it can be arguable whether or not Felix’s physical characteristics serve as the metaphoric representation of an authoritative “voice” of the novel, he is depicted as a character of self-sameness, transparency, and homogeneity, displaying a correspondence between his physicality and his moral spirituality. Felix tries to expand his individual correspondence between physiognomy and personality to the level of state politics on the assumption that the cultivation of the human mind must precede the physical systems of politics. By comparing “the water or steam” to “the nature of things,” Felix demonstrates that the operation of state politics (the engine) relies on the movement of the nature of the human mind (the steam-water): “all the schemes about voting, and districts, and annual Parliaments, and the rest, are engines, and the water or steam—the force that is to work them—must come out of human nature— out of men’s passions, feelings, desires” (250). When examining the perception of resistance, Herbert Spencer proposes in The Principles of Psychology a correspondence between bodily movement and mental activity, arguing that the perception of muscular tension “consists in the establishment of a relation between the muscular sensation itself and that state of consciousness which we call will” (242-43). In Felix Holt, the hero’s arresting voice conveys the cadence of morality as exemplified in his appearance to the audience on nomination day. However, the unifying correspondence between body and mind renders Felix dogmatic, inflexible, and autonomous, ignoring the resistant, recalcitrant, and heterogeneous existence of the other outside that he cannot control by homogenizing the world.

    Felix’s utopian vision—transforming the public by way of creating the perfect citizen for the ideal condition of the state—reveals his optimistic view of progress in society; however, it is ironically built upon his dystopian and negative diagnosis of the reality of the working classes. Although he equates himself with other working people by proclaiming “I’m a workingman myself” (249), Felix contradicts himself through his contempt for the working class by describing them as having an animalistic and irrational existence. When Rufus says that it is necessary to “free men from the stifled life of political nullity, and bring them into what Milton calls ‘the liberal air,’” Felix expresses his cynical, misanthropic, and scornful opinion of the working class: “But while Caliban is Caliban, though you multiply him by a million, he’ll worship every Trinculo that carries a bottle. I forget, though—you don’t read Shakespeare, Mr. Lyon” (226). Dichotomizing himself by his moral standards from those he otherwise calls his working-class fellows, Felix idealizes himself as “a demagogue of a new sort; an honest one” who can tell them that “they are blind and foolish” (224). Just as Matthew Arnold divides the classes, such as “Barbarians” (the aristocracy) and the “raw and half-developed” Populace equivalent to savages (the working class) (143), Felix, referring to the working class as “Caliban,” is not free from that moral consciousness of the Enlightenment that is laden with, as Robert J. C. Young points out, an “anthropological account of culture which had adapted historical differences into the differences between European and non-European societies” (59). His discourse of moral reform thus rests on the premises of self-denial, self-contradiction, or self-alienation from his proclaimed identity with the working class.

    Moreover, the differentiation of the “best” self of culture from the “savage” other of non-culture is accompanied by the colonial desire to wield its affirmative imperial power over the colonized. Felix’s inclination of the working-classes with an emphasis placed on the moral citizenship stems from the affiliation between the idea of cultural hierarchy and the Victorian’s tacit assumption about the working class as anthropologically inferior savages. As Edward Said argues, the Arnoldian notion of culture exemplifies the case of “affiliation,” a hegemonic association between the idea of culture and state power, “an active identification between culture and the state” (World 174). Furthermore, the discourse of culture serves as “a deterrent to rampant disorder,” which ultimately aims to legitimize and rationalize the suppression of the working class in domestic politics as well as “the subordination and victimization of the native” abroad (Said, Culture 130, 131). Although his method of moral reform sounds vague and undefined, Felix is prompted by a good intention to help the working class change their frames of mind for the betterment of their life. His discourse reflecting Arnoldian culture, however, is controlled by the underlying logic of a power relation: domination and subordination. By affiliating himself with the ideological discourse of the dominant social group’s moral taste, Felix, consciously or unconsciously, demonstrates a duplicity and contradiction implicit in his political identity as a working-class radical.

    Felix’s concern with cultivating human nature accords with Arnold’s idea of culture as “a study of perfection,” or the force of “the moral and social passion for doing good” (Culture and Anarchy 91). To highlight the significance of cultivating human nature as the crux of state politics, Felix articulates Arnold’s aspiration for human perfection as “a harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature” (94). By setting the idea of culture as the basis of state politics against “animality,” Arnold endows culture with “an authority” and “a firm State-power” in the nation as well as in the individual (135). For Arnold, culture aims to embody the ideal of the best self, the perfection of human nature–“sweetness and light”—in state politics (112). When the state is composed of the collective unity of the individuals in their best selves, and thereby embodying the cultured individual, it incarnates a culture of humanity. Insofar as culture aims to transform the individual member of the state into a “best” self, culture is, as Terry Eagleton points out, “a kind of ethical pedagogy which will fit us for political citizenship by liberating the ideal or collective self buried within each of us, a self which finds supreme representation in the universal realm of the state” (7). To characterize the nature of the best self, Arnold uses the words, “united, impersonal, at harmony” (134). He firmly believes that the impersonalized and harmonious entity in the whole unit of society can be an antidote to the anarchy of society. Claiming that “culture suggests the idea of the State,” Arnold tries to establish the culture of the best self or the idealized collective self (135). Central to the function of criticism is the angst of political practice and engagement implicated in Arnold’s idea of culture; for Arnold, criticism, like culture, is involved with an activity of the mind immune from the world of practice. Arnold contends in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” that the objective of criticism is “to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world” (268), and that the rule of criticism is “disinterestedness,” which is to follow “a free play of the mind” by “keeping aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things,’” by “steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas” (270).

    Felix’s idea of the Arnoldian culture takes ascendancy over Esther’s “native tendencies towards luxury, fastidiousness, and scorn of mock gentility” by conceiving of them as a combination of the Barbarians’ attachment to the outward beauty and the Philistine’s desire for pursuing materialistic enjoyment (110). According to Arnold, the Barbarians are the shallow people of the aristocratic class who try to gratify their appetite for the external beauty, fashion, and manners: the culture of the Barbarians is “an exterior culture mainly” and consists “principally in outward gifts and graces, in looks, manners, accomplishments, prowess” (141). Furthermore, the Philistines are the vulgar people of the middle class who seek to gain material wealth, “people who believe most that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being very rich, and who most give their lives and thoughts to becoming rich” (Culture and Anarchy 97). In his ambitious attempt to “withdraw [himself] from the push and the scramble for money and position” (221), however, Felix can be understood as one of the Arnoldian aliens who seeks to achieve the human perfection beyond the boundary of his class ideology: “persons who are mainly led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection” (Culture and Anarchy 146). From his radical, or the Arnoldian alien, point of view, Felix regards Esther’s taste for luxury and aristocratic sensibilities as a mixture of the staunch individualism of the Barbarians and the vulgarity of the Philistines.

    By condemning Esther’s aristocratic pretensions in the position of the mastering super-ego, Felix severe, intolerant, and authoritative voice of social justice keeps heightening the sense of discipline and punishment in her conscience. Just as the Freudian concept of civilization is “a necessary course of development from the family to humanity as a whole,” entailing “an increase of the sense of guilt” in the individual (Freud 96), so does Felix’s idea of culture threaten Esther to diminish her appetite for aesthetic sensibilities and fashion, and to erase her individual self for the benefit of the public. Acknowledging that her worldly taste and aesthetic sensibilities are inferior and antagonistic to Felix’s discourse of moral seriousness, Esther exposes herself to the surveillance of the conscience, or a feeling of guilt, which makes her feel “haunted by self-criticism” and “dogged by inward questions” (110). Felix’s rhetoric of morality forces Esther to transform her identity from the aesthetic to the ethical subject. Felix desires what Simon Critchley calls “the demand of the good” which becomes “the fundamental principle of the subject’s articulation” (20). In addition to crushing Esther’s aestheticism, Felix’s moral diatribe against her attachment to materiality demonstrates its power to constitute her ethical subjectivity, by which she may suffer from a guilty conscience when she sets her aesthetic subjectivity against the standards of the best self. The purpose of Felix’s moral injunction thus is to make Esther ashamed of her transgression, or her failure, of the demand of the good.

    The riot on the election day of North Loamshire, however, represents the frustration of Felix’s confident attempt to achieve and realize his vision of morality amid the Arnoldian Populace. His moral optimism sustained by the harmonic unity of the body and the mind is countered by the chaotic forces of the rabble, which destabilizes Felix’s desire for normalizing and subordinating them under the power of the Enlightenment. The mob, by bombarding with turnips and potatoes and by ransacking weapons and missiles from the hardware shop, is a rather extreme representation of a harsh and challenging reality of a world that hampers Felix’s utopian project of reforming the mind of the masses. Intolerant of the “savage roar” of the mob and its “reckless disorder,” Felix assumes the attitude of a mob-leader who intends to safeguard the town by leading the rabble out to the north side (265). Felix’s appearance as a mock leader of the mob dramatically suggests his concentrated power to lead the threatening presence of the social outcasts away from the center to the periphery. The centripetal ambition to marginalize the violent “other” by using centrifugal force is coterminous with the cunning stratagem implicit in the enlightenment of culture, which works by suppressing the dangerous other under the name of historical progress. When he tries to subsume the politics of the working class under the category of ethics by emphasizing the need for the making of well-tamed and educated citizens, Felix employs the colonialist’s discourse of legitimizing the subjugation of the colonized as well as, in Eagleton’s terms, “the rhetoric of the civics class”: “Those who proclaim the need for a period of ethical incubation to prepare men and women for political citizenship include those who deny colonial peoples the right to self-government until they are ‘civilized’ enough to exercise it responsibly” (7).

    Felix’s killing of Constable Tucker indicates that the hero’s repugnance against violence in his moral consciousness is subverted by the violent power of his physicality, which had been suppressed but was always ready to be used. The unity between the mind and the body with reference to Felix’s morality is ironically perpetuated in another correspondence between his perception of his own physical power and the strength of his body: “Felix had a terrible arm: he knew that he was dangerous; and he avoided the conditions that might cause him exasperation, as he would have avoided intoxicating drinks if he had been in danger of intemperance” (243). Earlier, Felix’s moral earnestness in desiring to exert his influence over Esther was informed by his violent nature when he expressed his desire to cut off her locks: “I should like to come and scold her every day, and make her cry and cut her fine hair off” (65). That Felix is “potentially violent toward everyone” (Bode 778) turns out to be true in his killing of Tucker although it occurred accidentally when the constable mistook Felix’s efforts to rescue Spratt from the mob for an attempt to execute him.

    Felix’s trial highlights the function of sympathy, or fellowfeeling, in moving beyond the limits of enlightenment culture, which Felix advocates due to his uncompromising and somewhat egoistic pride of moral consciousness. From the legal point of view, Felix cannot escape from the fact that he has killed the constable. Although his willingness to reform society was strong, and his motive to redirect the rioting mob was benevolent, Felix was not able to rescue himself from consequences of the incident before the law. He encounters a dilemma occasioned by a disjuncture between intention and consequence; his moral consciousness tending to simplify the status quo and human matters in society by he dominant ideology of an enlightened citizenry is undermined by the incongruity between his idealization of education and the harsh reality or contingency of the order of things. He is frustrated by his own act of drawing the mob away that leads to unpleasant, unexpected, and contingent consequences: “the multitudinous small wickednesses of small selfish ends, really undirected towards any larger result, had issued in widely-shared mischief that might yet be hideous” (270).

    The Treby Magna courtroom scene of Felix Holt additionally endorses Esther’s sympathy for the patriarchal hero who once denigrated her for her trivial feminine sensibilities. Esther’s testimony to Felix’s integrity registers the effectiveness of female power motivated by fellow-feeling over the rigorous and strict formulas of patriarchy. One may argue that Esther’s reverential testimony for Felix serves as an index of her abandoning her own female independence, embracing instead “the patriarchal role of Felix’s submissive instrument” (Harsh 164), but the trial scene highlights that Esther’s feminine aesthetic sensibilities subvert Felix’s rigid masculine rhetoric of a culture of ideas. By helping to rescue Felix through her “trivial” feminine aestheticism and materialism, which Felix had previously denigrated as antithetical to his noble vocation of culture and education, Esther establishes the authenticity of her aesthetic values, which destabilize the narrow-mindedness and aggressiveness of Felix’s masculine and disinterested intellect. Blending her aesthetic tastes with her ethical tastes, which are motivated by a feeling of sympathy, Esther embodies what Cohen calls a sort of “aesthetic-ethic hybridization” that defies a clear-cut and hierarchical demarcation of class and gender roles (148). Being convicted with manslaughter and sentenced to a four-yearimprisonment, however, Felix is ironically exonerated by the feminine and ornamental beauty of Esther that he once compared to that of a “peacock” and wished to expunge from his desire by cutting off her fine hair (65). Esther’s virtues—beauty, modesty, and bravery—and her sympathy for Felix trigger Sir Maximus Debarry’s effort with his brother the Rector Mr. Lingon to pardon the imprisoned hero:

    Esther’s appeal to feeling in the trial scene appears to be, as Philip Fisher argues, the best example of “the sentimental melodrama of the surprise witness” or “an exercise in legal and political fairy tales that well deserves Cinderella as its presiding figure” (153-54), but the trial scene demonstrates more emphatically Esther’s engagement in the arena of the public dominated by the patriarchal rule of justice and reason. The impingement of Esther’s private, emotional, and aesthetic sensibilities upon the public, rational, and legal judgment registers her attempt to resolve the problems of the division of the sexes (male publicity/female domesticity) as well as the bifurcation of tastes (moral taste/aesthetic taste). Through Esther’s voluntary action to serve as a witness for Felix, Eliot highlights the dynamics implied by the configuration of sympathy that challenge the stereotypical notion of the division of labor corresponding to the difference of the sexes: “When a woman feels purely and nobly, that ardour of hers which breaks through formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs, makes one of her most precious influences” (375). Eliot’s concern with the aesthetic strain dramatized in Esther’s character is the novelist’s resistance to molding the narrative of her novel into a frame of theory or philosophy. In a letter to Frederic Harrison, a Positivist lawyer who asked her to write a Positivist novel, Eliot insisted upon the importance of aesthetic quality of narrative as a medium of representing the complexity of life rather than the dramatization of theoretical or philosophical didacticism: “I think aesthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity. But if it ceases to be purely aesthetic—if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram—it becomes the most offensive of all teaching” (Letters 4:300).

    The woman’s lot for Esther is realized in her use of feeling, specifically committed to the enlargement of sympathy for rescuing Felix from legal punishment as well as, earlier in the novel, for understanding her stepfather Rufus Lyon, who has confessed to her a story of his relationship with her mother. Furthermore, her individual lot is faced with a drastic change when a secret of the past is uncovered concerning the terms for her inheritance of the Transome estate. The sudden change of her social status as the heiress of the estate puts her in a dilemma that will determine her future. Her choice is not only bound up with the narrative of romance regarding whom she will select for her marriage partner, Harold or Felix, but is also deeply bound up with a set of values entailing the question of which values she will prioritize, either pragmatic materiality or ethical morality. Historical continuity depends upon Esther’s decision; if she chooses not to inherit the estate, her blood and legal lineage will be ruptured. If she chooses to live in a pragmatic life in Transome Court, this will bring about another rupture of her moral lineage in connection with Rufus and Felix. Thus Esther’s “choice of histories” explains her crucial role in determining both continuity and discontinuity intertwined with her consciousness of a set of value systems (Bodenheimer 226).

    Harold, another self-proclaimed radical in the story, emerges a destructive and anarchic force; he politically aims to “obliterate tradition” under the pretext of change after he has returned from Smyrna in Asia Minor to Treby Magna of England upon the news that he will become an heir due to the death of his imbecilic older brother Durfey. The subordination of the members of the family in Transome Court to the spectacle of power relations breaks down the boundary between the scenes of peace and security in the Victorian household and those of competition and insecurity in the Victorian commercial marketplace. The bleakness of the Transome family dominated by power struggles and economic interests instantiate what Jeff Nunokawa calls the “ubiquitous insecurity” of Victorian domesticity under threat of the “pervasive condition of commodification” (5). Harold’s pragmatic reason uninformed by morality induces him to treat Esther as a means to his end of securing social and economic comforts. Esther’s awareness of Victorian gender ideology, namely, that her lot is determined “by the love she accepts” (342), paradoxically functions as a subversion of that ideology by defeating Harold’s male desire for perpetuating his social, political, and economic security through fetishizing Esther as a valuable capital and sequestering her as an Angel in the House.

    Although she has been simultaneously treated as a morally inferior object by Felix and as a materially fetishized object by Harold, Esther asserts the primacy of her self as a female subject over the two males by subverting the moralistic and materialistic ideologies of patriarchy. Esther’s uncanny moral illumination—“the sign of a dangerous judgment”—dazzles and baffles Harold’s imperialist’s desire for appropriating and dominating her:

    Esther is the female subject who can be at once controllable and uncontrollable. Esther’s deployment of a double discourse of aesthetic and moral tastes characterizes her female subjectivity. Her double discourse of the tastes is charged with a similarly double political consciousness that defies both a public moralist’s attempt to enlighten her on the assumption that she is a morally inferior object and a pragmatic egoist’s attempt to win her favor on the grounds that she is an economically valuable object.

    In effect, Esther’s choice of Felix over Harold for her marriage partner marks the female supremacy of moral and aesthetic values over those of materiality. Eliot’s portrayal of love and marriage highlights the way in which Esther’s tastes dynamically struggle with a system of values in what Deleuze and Guattari call, in Anti-Oedipus, “the social investments of the libido” (352). Rather than conceptualize desire in terms of a void or lack of an object, Deleuze and Guattari conceive of it as an unbound and unconscious energy that can be invested for social production, contending “that the social field is immediately invested by desire, that it is the historically determined product of desire, and that libido has no need of any mediation or sublimation, any psychic operation, any transformation, in order to invade and invest the productive forces and the relations of production” (29). Indeed, Eliot’s portrayal of the marriage plot in this story underscores Esther’s investment in romantic, aesthetic, and moral values instead of the valorization of social class or economic condition.

    Esther, however, does not completely exclude the value of economic capital even when she resigns her claim to the Transome estate. When she tells Felix that her decision to leave Transome Court is based on moral deliberation, Esther also demonstrates the acumen of her economic judgment by securing a modest amount of her inheritance for Felix’s mother and for her stepfather Rufus. Esther’s choice of Felix does not simply foreground the superiority of Felix’s morality over her aesthetic temperament; rather, their partnership rests on a complementary relationship, or what Alison Booth calls “the strange balance of power in the ideology of influence” (156), highlighting a composite of moral, aesthetic, and economic tastes. Moreover, the hybrid aspects of their relationship subvert the clearcut division between Felix as the teacher and Esther as his proselyte: “You [Felix] think you are to do everything. You don’t know how clever I am. I mean to go on teaching a great many things” (397).

    In addition to the reason for her to choose Felix as her partner, Esther’s libidinal desire for affection in the familiar setting—in particular, her demand for love between mother and daughter—serves as another reason for her to relinquish her legal right to the Transome estate. Against the social expectations of a heiress’s claims to economic benefits, Esther’s libido for the circulation of affection between mother and daughter is enacted in Felix Holt when she expresses her sympathy for Mrs. Transome, who “had never yet in her life asked for compassion—had never thrown herself in faith on an unproffered love” (392). Esther’s sympathy for Mrs. Transome arises from her ability to understand, through her experience of decision-making and her observation of the dejected lady in Transome Court, how a woman’s lot would be determined in a male-dominated society. Mrs. Transome has confined herself within the realm of female consciousness, driven by her proud, sexual, and anarchic desires. Esther’s sympathy for Mrs. Transome is honed by her acute aesthetic sensitivity and keen vision of woman’s lot, as the narrator of Middlemarch observes, that enable her to hear the “roar which lies on the other side of silence” “like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat” (189). By sympathizing with Mrs. Transome, Esther transforms her role from a daughter who desired to have maternal affection into a symbolic mother who can offer maternal solace to Mrs. Transome. Esther’s dim memory of her infantile attachment to her mother Annette provokes her not only to conceive of Mrs. Transome as a substitute for her dead mother—“I shall seem to have a mother again. Do let me.” (394)—but also to revive the primal scene of the mother-daughter relationship through her enactment of sympathy for the dejected female gentry, Mrs. Transome.

    Eliot seemingly portrays, as Bonnie Zimmerman argues, an interrelation between childless women and their cursed life: “Women who step beyond the social and biological limitations of womankind, who desire to transcend the ordinary ‘lot of woman’ by any means no matter how admirable, who defy sexual standards, who rebel rather than submit: these women are visited with the curse of sterility” (83). But Zimmerman’s contention that rebellious women, in particular, are cursed to be sterile simplifies Eliot’s narrative plot regarding the complexities of female characters’ rebellious agency in challenging the patriarchal system of society. Without considering the subversive power implicated in Esther’s enactment of multiple tastes, the literary critic would be engaging in a hasty generalization to say that the traditional and stereotypical model of dutiful women in the domestic sphere is blessed with fertility in opposition to defiant women as cursed with barrenness.

    To sum up, in Felix Holt, Esther is the central character who has the moral and aesthetic sympathy of transcending the limits of Enlightenment reason, which homogenizes otherness and unifies the world with conformity. In contrast to such an Enlightenment reason, Esther, imbued with moral consciousness, can monitor herself with self-reflexivity, defy the materially oriented and banal life, and frustrate any cunning ruse of reason that might treat her as an instrumental means to an end. When Mrs. Transome expresses her enmity against men by saying that they are “selfish and cruel” and that they only seek for “their own pleasure and their own pride,” Esther’s response to Mrs. Transome—“‘Not all,’ said Esther” (393)—implies a radical challenge to a general category of Men; unlike the aristocratic lady’s view of the male-female relationship simply as warlike antagonism, Esther is willing to understand men one by one as part of an innumerable series of exceptions. Therefore, Esther’s brief remarks succinctly epitomize her optimistic and sympathetic confidence in resisting the hegemonic powers of appropriation and domination after she comes to understand the double meaning of woman’s lot both inside and outside the Victorian ideology of gender.

  • 1. Arnold Matthew 1967 Culture and Anarchy. 1869 google
  • 2. Arnold Matthew 1962 “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” 1864. Lectures and Essays in Criticism. google
  • 3. Bode Rita 1995 “Power and Submission in Felix Holt, the Radical” [Studies in English Literature 1500-1900] Vol.35 P.769-88 google doi
  • 4. Bodenheimer Rosemarie 1988 The Politics of Story in Victorian Social Fiction. google
  • 5. Booth Alison 1992 “Not All Men Are Selfish and Cruel: Felix Holt as a Feminist Novel.” Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art. Ed. Anthony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor. P.143-60 google
  • 6. Bourdieu Pierre 1984 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. google
  • 7. Carlyle Thomas 2000 Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh in Three Books. Ed. Mark Engel and Roger L. Tarr. google
  • 8. Cohen Monica F. 1998 Professional Domesticity in the Victorian Novel: Women, Work and Home. google
  • 9. Critchley Simon 2007 Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. google
  • 10. Deleuze Gilles, Felix Guattari 1983 Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. google
  • 11. Eagleton Terry 2000 The Idea of Culture. google
  • 12. Eliot George 1980 Felix Holt, the Radical. 1866. Ed. Fred C. Thomson. google
  • 13. Eliot George The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. P.1954-78 google
  • 14. Eliot George 1986 Middlemarch. 1872. Ed. David Carroll. google
  • 15. Fisher Philip 1981 Making Up Society: The Novels of George Eliot. google
  • 16. Freud Sigmund 1961 Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. google
  • 17. Garson Marjorie 2007 Moral Taste: Aesthetics, Subjectivity, and Social Power in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. google
  • 18. Harsh Constance D. 1994 Subversive Heroines: Feminist Resolutions of Social Crisis in the Condition-of-England Novel. google
  • 19. Nunokawa Jeff 1994 The Afterlife of Property: Domestic Security and the Victorian Novel. google
  • 20. Said Edward W. 1993 Culture and Imperialism. google
  • 21. Said Edward W. 1983 The World, the Text, and the Critic. google
  • 22. Spencer Herbert 1896 The Principles of Psychology. 1855. google
  • 23. Williams Raymond 1958 Culture and Society: 1780-1950. google
  • 24. Young Robert J. C. 1995 Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. google
  • 25. Zimmerman Bonnie 1980 “‘The Mother’s History’ in George Eliot’s Life, Literature and Political Ideology.” The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E.M. Broner. P.81-94 google