The oblique interrelations of characters through complex social networks—the Empire of the Little which so much occupies mid-nineteenth-century realism—constituted for fiction a “new social continent,” as Fredric Jameson has suggested. But this continent has more than one discoverer, and George Eliot's Middlemarch stakes its claim as a novel not only alongside, but also beyond, sensibilities and modes sociological, that other explorer of the “new social continent.” This essay shows that the novel's desire to secure its difference from sociological practices is strong enough to write itself into Middlemarch's plot, registering its effects in the novel's depiction of the debased or merely sociological outlooks of some within its pages. Those characters (like Rosamond Vincy) whom Eliot represents as too allied with sociological “ways of seeing” become casualties of a border contest between literature and science, their fates bearing the mark of Middlemarch's concern to maintain the specificity of the novelistic even in its proximity to the sociological. With this in mind, we will see how the realist novel's project of self-differentiation—its claims to offer forms of insight distinct from those of the emergent human sciences—is served by Middlemarch's unlikely investment in “noisiness” over intelligibility in apprehensions of the social world, inverting the social scientific clarity promised in the book's subtitle, A Study of Provincial Life. The novel's realism is achieved, I argue, in part through its demotions of sociological insight, even at the level of character, as if sociological acuity were after all not quite what one wanted from reading, or even within, a realist novel like Middlemarch. Eliot's brief for the realist novel is mixed: both sociological enough to apprehend the social landscape of modernity and novelistic enough to make the failures of sociological knowledge and sensibilities one of its central dramas.
Gage McWeeny; The Sociology of the Novel: George Eliot's Strangers. Novel 1 November 2009; 42 (3): 538–545. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2009-053
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