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Session Details

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Monday, 28 December

330. Alterity in George Eliot’s Ethics of Sympathy

7:15–8:30 p.m., 406, Philadelphia Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Thomas Albrecht, Tulane Univ.

Presider's Annotation:
George Eliot’s secular humanist ethics, her so-called ethics of sympathy, prescribes an active willingness on the part of her fictional characters (and also on the part of authors and readers) to open themselves up to—and to be moved into compassion by—the thoughts and feelings of other people. Eliot insists that if we manage to attain an accurate understanding of another person’s mind, an understanding undistorted by our own egotistic wishes and needs, our sympathy for that person will (or should) become activated, prompting and enabling us to feel and to act more generously towards them and ultimately towards other persons as well.

It is the purpose of our proposed panel to revisit Eliot’s ethics of sympathy, which remains a topic of considerable interest not only among Eliot scholars but also in Victorian and nineteenth-century Literary and Cultural Studies more generally, as well as in such interdisciplinary areas as nineteenth-century European Intellectual History, Literature and Ethics, and Literature and Religion.

The published scholarship on the ethics of sympathy has focused almost exclusively on 1) the numerous and various philosophical, scientific, and literary influences on Eliot’s ethical beliefs, and 2) the complementary and/or contradictory relationship between those beliefs and the alleged politics of Eliot’s novels. As an alternative to these well-trodden approaches, the papers comprising our panel consider Eliot’s notion of sympathy not in its intellectual-historical, literary-historical, or political contexts, but on its own terms, as it is articulated in Eliot’s fiction itself.

Beyond the shared topic of sympathy, the common thread that runs through all three papers is the theme of alterity. In Eliot’s ethical scheme, a key imperative for sympathy is to acknowledge and to respect the otherness of another person, his or her absolute difference from oneself and the absolute difference of his or her consciousness from one’s own. A well-known example from the novel Middlemarch is Eliot figuring her character Dorothea’s moral education as a gradual recognition that her husband “had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.” Each of the three papers on our panel examines how Eliot variously attempts to realize this ethical imperative in her novels.

1. “Foul-Weather Friends: Negotiating Alterity and Empathy in Adam Bede and Middlemarch,” Rebecca Mitchell, Univ. of Texas–Pan American

2. “Probable Feelings,” Tina Young Choi, York Univ., Keele

3. “The Styles of George Eliot: Between Sympathy and Irony,” Alicia Christoff, Princeton Univ.

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