Un-idealized Generalizations: George Eliot’s Implicit Criticism of Riehl in “The Natural History of German Life”


Idealized painting of Russian peasant life, 1889. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History,'” Fionnuala Dillane challenges those who would seek to forge a unified theory of writing for Eliot from her comments about realism in “The Natural History of German Life.” She quotes Michael Wolff, stating that Eliot “does not have a ‘theology of aesthetics'” (261); rather, Eliot’s “discomfort with the role of authoritative cultural commentator” and questioning spirit shrunk from spouting certainties in an uncertain world (241). While I believe that Dillane rightly urges critics to avoid proof-texting Eliot, I believe that Eliot’s thesis statement affirms her implicit criticism of Riehl’s generalization and her desire to see a more realistic portrayal of the poor.
Dillane argues that Eliot’s editors at the Westminster assigned her the review of Riehl, and that Eliot passively complied– because, like most journalists today, she probably wanted to keep her job. However, I don’t believe that her editors’ constraints stopped her from passively critiquing Riehl. The oft-quoted passages on writing and realism, I believe, stretch beyond what Dillane calls “an attempt to win over an English audience often hostile to relatively unknown German writers” (248-249). In these passages, she sets up her criteria for a successful representation:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals found on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such a s a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves. (110)
Eliot goes on to list several artistic (not sociological) works, and writes that these stories of individuals do more “towards linking the higher classes with the lower… than hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations” (110). If falsification is, as she goes on to claim, the cardinal sin of representation, then the author who generalizes unfairly is duly condemned.
A couple points here are noteworthy: First, why acclaim the novelist and the artist in a review of a sociological treatise? Second, why condemn generalization so strongly, and then proceed to glowingly summarize an author who does just that? While Eliot praises the author who can engage her readers’ sympathies with individuals through art, she characterizes Riehl’s work as doing just the opposite. She summarizes and highlights his generalizations at length (e.g. “The peasant, in Germany as elsewhere, is a born grumbler” (123) or the Communist peasant living near the city who “has here been corrupted into beastiality by the disturbance of his instincts, while he is as yet incapable of principles,” (125) etc.) Far be it from us to sympathize with such lower, animalistic human beings, who are somehow incapable of morality or justified grievances! Rather than the sympathetic but realistic (and individualized) picture of the poor that Eliot envisions in the realist novel, Riehl’s poor are too far removed from the reader, and too far generalized in a corrupt direction.
If she was indeed bound by her editors’ constraints to write a positive review, Eliot subversively leaves her readers to draw their own conclusions, to tease out the latent dissonance between words and actions. Thus, while “The Natural History of German Life” should not perhaps be the sole proof-text for Eliot’s theories of representation, it should not be completely discarded, either.
Works Cited
Dillane, Fionnuala. “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History’: Marian Evans, ‘the People,’ and the Periodical.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.3 (2009): 244-266.
Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” In Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1990.

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