Collections > Electronic Theses and Dissertations > "A Vision of Human Claims": George Eliot’s Challenge to Victorian Selfishness

In this project, I examine the construction of a new concept of selfishness in literary texts of late nineteenth-century England, and it shows that George Eliot advocated for an improved understanding of the problems of selfishness and the ways to work through them. I examine late nineteenth-century England's failure to recognize its anxiety under the post-Adam Smith regime of "enlightened self-interest." I focus on the various discourses revolving around the term "selfish" as a way of getting at a number of vexed relationships between authors working from outsider positions and addressing their own, sometimes undesired, distance. I suggest a broader understanding of the ways that artists like Eliot function as critics of their society while simultaneously serving as screens for the projection of those same social anxieties which they allow us to theorize. And I explain that selfishness, as such, is broadly misunderstood both because it covers so much theoretical territory and because interpretations of it have been too limited. Instead of using a purely biographical approach, I work mostly through Eliot's fiction not only because it is her greatest literary production, but also because the fictional and novelistic forms gave her the greatest freedom to showcase embattled selfhood in an unforgiving and unsympathetic world. I choose the Scenes of Clerical Life, "The Lifted Veil," The Mill on the Floss, and Daniel Deronda as my specific texts for two reasons. First, there is the chronological/biographical impulse. The short stories were her first attempts at fiction; The Mill on the Floss was an early and admittedly autobiographical work; and Daniel Deronda was her last novel. Second, there is the thematic impulse. The short stories all pit lone figures against crowds who do not understand them; The Mill on the Floss enriches the theme by developing Maggie Tulliver as a tragic heroine who dreams of escaping the destiny of "egoism," and Daniel Deronda shows how dedication to the right cause or person can move someone from self-preoccupation to something greater.