Altruism's Conquest of Modern Generalisation in George Eliot

Frank Christianson

in Philanthropy in British and American Fiction

Published by Edinburgh University Press

Published in print November 2007 | ISBN: 9780748625086
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780748652068 | DOI:
Altruism's Conquest of Modern Generalisation in George Eliot

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This chapter argues that George Eliot's preoccupation with philanthropy in her most aesthetically self-conscious works helps us to better understand the emergence of altruism as a social ethic which played a prominent role in middle-class self-definition in the mid- to late Victorian period. Eliot turns to the figure of philanthropy in novels such as The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda and, most directly, Middlemarch, as an important barometer of social change. The chapter shows the ways philanthropy allows Eliot to question Victorian social and moral theories as part of her literary polemics. Eliot's own aesthetic project consists of an effort to acquire and share ‘a real knowledge of the people’. She uses the concluding chapters of Middlemarch to introduce her alternative vision of philanthropy. Eliot's articulation of partiality, sympathy and moral agency constitutes a practical and conceptual basis for philanthropy.

Keywords: altruism; George Eliot; philanthropy; Mill on Floss; Daniel Deronda; Middlemarch; partiality; sympathy; moral agency

Chapter.  12804 words. 

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies

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