Critical Essay Direct Address and Authorial Comment


The author makes extensive use of direct address to comment on the action or on characters, either in her own voice or in that of the narrator.

This is a technique which is little used in present-day fiction. It has been almost entirely supplanted by Henry James's concept of the novel as a separate self-contained world which makes no reference to author or reader. However, it was standard technique in Eliot's day for the author to address the reader.

Such comment is combined with an omniscient point of view in order to help the reader better understand the characters and their problems. In this novel the author is aiming specifically at enlarging the reader's understanding of the complexities of human life. George Eliot once wrote, "The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is, that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring, human creatures." Her technique is appropriate to this aim.

The author's comments are often an analysis of a character or of society. Consider Book I, Chapter 12: "the mind of St. Ogg's did not look extensively before or after. It inherited a long past without thinking of it, and had no eyes for the spirits that walked the streets . . . . The days were gone when people could be greatly wrought upon by their faith, still less change it: the Catholics were formidable because they would lay hold of government and property, and burn men alive; not because any sane and honest parishioner of St. Ogg's could be brought to believe in the Pope . . . . Dissent was an inheritance along with a superior pew and a business connection . . . ." Such comment can produce an intimacy as deep as that given by internal representation of a character's thoughts. It also helps to place the character in a detailed social context. Eliot said it was her habit to "strive after as full a vision of the medium in which a character moves as of the character itself."

The author's comments help the reader to maintain the proper attitude to the characters. When Maggie is swept away by the writings of Thomas à Kempis, the author provides a mature analysis of her immature reaction: "She had not perceived — how could she until she had lived longer? — the inmost truth of the old monk's outpourings, that renunciation remains sorrow, though a sorrow borne willingly. Maggie was still panting for happiness, and was in ecstasy because she had found the key to it" (Book IV, Chapter 3).

Often the author speaks on behalf of characters who are inarticulate in themselves. Mrs. Tulliver is consistently explained to us, although usually in an ironic manner. Nevertheless, the author's attitude is one of sympathy, not satire. This is true even when she speaks for characters who are generally capable of expressing themselves. She continually strives to put the reader in sympathy with all the characters, to help him realize the complexity of all human relationships. Stephen may be taken as an example: "It is clear to you, I hope, that Stephen was not a hypocrite — capable of deliberate doubleness for a selfish end; and yet his fluctuations between the indulgence of a feeling and the systematic concealment of it, might have made a good case in support of Philip's accusation" (Book VI, Chapter 9).

The author often addresses the reader to add judgments of her own to the raw data of the story. That is, she presents the world after a process of thought and consideration. This being the case, the quality of the judgments becomes important. One of the fine points of the novel is the soundness of the author's observations on society and on people, on human emotions and relationships. Often enough these are commonplaces, but they are rarely commonplace. The author has a knack for making common truths satisfying. From Book IV, Chapter 2: "There is something sustaining in the very agitation that accompanies the first shocks of trouble, just as an acute pain is often a stimulus, and produces an excitement which is transient strength. It is in the slow, changed life that follows — in the time when sorrow has become stale, and has no longer an emotive intensity that counteracts its pain — in the time when day follows day in dull unexpectant sameness, and trial is a dreary routine; — it is then that despair threatens; it is then that the peremptory hunger of the soul is felt, and eye and ear are strained after some unlearned secret of our existence, which shall give to endurance the nature of satisfaction."

Frequently the comments are used as technical points — to shift the point of view, to underline character or action, to give the effect of passage of time. More than once they provide a key to the imagery being used. But normally they are meant to involve the reader, to connect the world of the novel with his own. For this reason they should not engage him in debate or distract him. On occasion they fail, but the occasions are rare. The failures are due to archness, aggressiveness, or florid rhetoric. Chapter 12 of Book I contains a case which falls flat through straining after humor: " . . . the black ships unlade themselves of their burthens from the far north, and carry away, in exchange, the precious inland products, the well-crushed cheese and the soft fleeces, which my refined readers have doubtless become acquainted with through the medium of the best classic pastorals." However, for the most part the comments are delightful in themselves. They contain much of the humor of the book. The author shows a sure comic touch in such lines as: "Such glances and tones bring the breath of poetry with them into a room that is half-stifling with glaring gas and hard flirtation"; or, "They didn't know there was any other religion, except that of chapel-goers, which appeared to run in families, like asthma." Like these, the comments are generally ironic and often witty. They should not be seen as blemishes in the novel, but as an integral and important part of the author's technique.