René Girard’s mimetic theory opens up ways to make sense of the tension between the progressive politics of George Eliot and the conservative moralism of her narratives.
In this innovative study, Bernadette Waterman Ward offers an original rereading of George Eliot’s work through the lens of René Girard’s theories of mimetic desire, violence, and the sacred. It is a fruitful mapping of a twentieth-century theorist onto a nineteenth-century novelist, revealing Eliot’s understanding of imitative desire, rivalry, idol-making, and sacrificial victimization as critical elements of the social mechanism. While the unresolved tensions between Eliot’s realism and her desire to believe in gradual social amelioration have often been studied, Ward is especially adept at articulating the details of such conflict in Eliot’s early novels. In particular, Ward emphasizes the clash between the ruthless mechanisms of mimetic desire and the idea of progress, or, as Eliot stated, “growing good”; Eliot’s Christian sympathy for sacrificial victims against her general rejection of Christianity; and her resort to “Nemesis” to evade the systemic injustice of the social sphere. The “angels” in the title are characters who appear to offer a humanist way forward in the absence of religious belief. They are represented, in Girardian terms, as figures who try to rise above the snares of the mimetic machine to imitate Christ’s self-sacrifice but are finally rendered ineffectual. Very few studies have tackled Eliot’s short fiction and narrative poetry. Eliot’s Angels gives the short fiction its due, and it will appeal to scholars of mimetic and literary theory, Victorianists, and students of the novel.