This article on temporality, reading, and narrative form shows how George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss stretches on the affordances of the novel to highlight the tension between structure and flow that characterizes any act of textual analysis. This tension within readerly method, elaborated by Roland Barthes in S/Z, has only sharpened since the literary humanities' digital turn. Eliot's famous surprise ending restarts the world-historical clock and seems to come from nowhere; yet it also seems slowly and inevitably to have been building all along. The novel's famous flood event, seen in light of the ambiguous textual details or “advance mentions” anticipating it, turns out to radicalize the formal or properly aesthetic tension between duration and event, sequence and structure, that animates structuralist method no less than certain varieties of distant or machine reading. On this reading, a theory of time as gradual development (flow) sits in tension with a model that imagines short, sharp transitions between discrete temporal periods (structures), one “step” and another. Like Barthes, Eliot aims to think in both synchronic blocks and linear flows simultaneously. She goes further to link this antinomy of narrative experience to the political-aesthetic problem of historical change and modernization itself. Eliot thus harnesses the resources of the novel form to challenge models of reading that work, as all digital methods must, on dechronologized textual objects like databases, textual corpuses, or (at smaller scales) sentences or lexias.
Nathan K. Hensley is assistant professor of English at Georgetown University, where he works on nineteenth-century British literature, critical theory, and the novel. He codirects the Modernities Working Group and the upcoming Mellon-Sawyer Seminar “Approaching the Anthropocene: Global Culture and Planetary Change.” His book is Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (2016). His current project examines systems, action, and system failure in nineteenth-century literary thought.