Prevailing critical practice has tended to position tragedy as an influential but limited antecedent to the novel. The conditions of the bourgeois novelistic universe are seen to undermine and mitigate the effects of tragedy. The very occurrence of a tragic event precludes any further participation in the novelistic world, conceived of as the mundane territory of compromise and normalcy. In Armgart and Middlemarch George Eliot's engagement with the tragic form calls into question claims of the untenable coexistence of the tragic and the novelistic. In these works tragedy is a deliberate and vital influence, applied to guide the reader's response to the text but also to expose the possibilities for a modern sort of tragedy. Focusing on these works, this essay argues that the bourgeois novelistic universe can also be fertile ground for devastating tragic events, that the conflict between personal desire and social duty is reimagined to encompass a more quotidian type of tragic hero, and that in Eliot's reworking of tragedy, compromise is not its antithesis but its harbinger. The tragic figures of Armgart and Middlemarch, while distinct from classical models, nevertheless find themselves ensnared between their wills and their fates, and the limited choices of women represent a muted but authentic version of tragedy. In Eliot's work the seemingly narrow narratives of individual lives—a point frequently offered as evidence for the nontragic nature of Eliot's novels—prove to have universal resonance.
Alysia Kolentsis; Tragedy and Compromise in George Eliot's Armgart and Middlemarch. Genre 1 December 2016; 49 (3): 303–329. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-3659098
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