Taste is, as Pierre Bourdieu argues in
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 (
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
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
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” (
Felix’s concern with cultivating human nature accords with Arnold’s idea of culture as “
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” (
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
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” (
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
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
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