I have noticed an interesting affective moment that recurs again and again in George Eliot’s fiction. The typical scene involves the struggle of a man to resist his attraction to, and involvement with, a woman he knows he should keep his distance from. Then, despite his good intentions, he witnesses her tears and instantly loses his head in a passionate capitulation to his desire.
For instance, in Adam Bede, Arthur Donnithorne tries to resist Hetty Sorrel’s charms but one look at the pretty buttermaker’s tears destroy all his efforts and rationalization to resist her. When Hetty meets Arthur at the Hermitage, she begins to cry and her tears and her “long dewy lashes” seem to tempt him into speaking tenderly to her and setting into motion the relationship that leads to tragedy (131).
In Middlemarch, the moment when Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy become engaged, despite his intentions to remain unfettered in service of his research, is occasioned by her tears and “helpless quivering” (259). Eliot writes that “Lydgate, forgetting everything else, completely mastered by the outrush of tenderness at the sudden belief that this sweet young creature depended on him for her joy, actually put his arms round her, folding her gently and protectingly … and kissed each of the two large tears” (259).
The tears of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, Gwendolyn Harleth in Daniel Deronda, and Esther Lyon in Felix Holt each have similar effects on the men who are drawn to them against their own will. In many of these cases, the tears of the woman are often described as somehow overcoming the intentions of the man and causing him waver in his resolve.
These moments leave me wondering about the libidinal currency of tears in Eliot’s fiction. Furthermore, how do these emotional interactions fit into Eliot’s understanding of the value of empathy? After all, Arthur’s involvement with Hetty and Lydgate’s marriage to Rosamond lead to very negative results. Are these moments of potential empathetic connection somehow corrupted by the way they are bound up with desire, gender, and ego?
Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Penguin, 1980.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Broadview, 2004.