Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot - Review

By Alison Goodlad
13 Dec 2007

Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot: The Mystery Beneath the Real, by Peter C. Hodgson, 256 pages, SCM Press.

Earlier this year I re-read George Eliot's Middlemarch, looking at it from a theological perspective (see Finding at-one-ment in Middlemarch), so I was delighted to discover Professor Peter Hodgson's book entitled Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot , which introduces a wider range of perspectives.

Hodgson's book, the core of which was given at the Samuel Ferguson Lectures at the University of Manchester in 2001, is an examination of the religious and theological themes that he sees running through George Eliot's novels. This dimension of her work has received scant consideration and is a resource that has been sadly neglected, so it is to open people's eyes to this aspect that is his mission in this book.

The opening chapter gives an over-view of George Eliot's own spiritual pilgrimage – helpful because a spiritual biography sets her novels within the context of her own struggles to find meaning. The central part of the book takes each of her novels in turn, providing a synopsis sufficient to identify the theological dimensions, which Hodgson then further expounds. The book concludes with a consideration of George Eliot in relation to post-modern theology.

Peter Hodgson is Charles G. Finney Professor of Theology, Emeritus, at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. He is the author of eleven books and a leading translator of the works of Hegel. In the Preface to his book on George Eliot, Hodgson makes it clear that he is approaching her work in his capacity as a theologian and is not claiming to be a literary critic. It is however this crossing over of the barriers between the different disciplines which seems to have such promise, and not only in the case of George Eliot.

And theology and fiction are much closer to each other than might at first be presumed, Hodgson suggests. 'Theology and art are both 'fiction' – a term drawing from the Latin verb fingere, 'to form,' 'imagine,' or 'invent' – in the sense that they entail a shaping, construing, configuring of the real in imaginative as opposed to empirical-descriptive modalities. They 'make things up,' but they do so for purposes of illuminating reality, not escaping from it into a fantasy world.' (p. 149) Hodgson also says 'The theologian is an artist, and the artist (at the higher reaches of imagination) a theologian.' (p. 29, my emphasis)

We have too long failed to appreciate the artist as theologian, and Hodgson's illuminating comments, and his treatment of George Eliot's novels, alerts us to the possibilities which are there for us to explore. And this is an exploration in which we can all take part, each uniquely contributing to the process of interpretation as we read the books, for Hodgson does not pretend to have said everything there is to say about the theology in the fiction of George Eliot. Hodgson tells us that he taught a seminar on the religion of George Eliot at his home university and 'was impressed at the diversity of insights that emerged from our discussions, and at the way in which students identified different passages that were especially illuminating. I was reminded of the inexhaustible wealth of these texts and of the modesty of my own effort to elucidate them.' (p. x)

I also believe that Hodgson is right in identifying George Eliot as someone particularly appropriate for our own times, for she continued to search for and to explore the possibilities of meaning and purpose in the world, but without ever coming to a definitive answer. 'It seems evident that George Eliot never arrived at any final or secure knowledge of religious meaning.' (p.2) At a time when people are suspicious of one overarching explanation or dogmatic statements, George Eliot shows us how it is still possible to think, to imagine, to feel, in constructive ways, even if we recognise 'that the only kind of redemption possible in this imperfect world is partial, fragmentary, and ambiguous.' (p.17) Although she is alive to the tragedy inherent in the world, she does not allow it to obliterate all other voices. 'To hear the sound of redemption above the roar of tragedy is the special gift of George Eliot's artistry.' (p. 121)

It is her realistic, yet compassionate, view of humanity that helps people to go forward in their own journey of forging meaning within the complexities, joys and sorrows of life. Because this comes to us, in George Eliot's writings, in the form of stories and not theory, there is an involvement of the whole person, not just the intellect, which thus makes for real change. Hodgson says 'She believed that people could be persuaded to act through 'the truth of feeling as the only universal bond of union,' rather than by abstract argument and doctrines. 'The reason why societies change slowly is, because individual men and women cannot have their natures changed by doctrine and can only be wrought on by little and little.' Here the artist has a peculiar role to play, for the artist is capable of evoking feeling and creating emotional bonds, of 'wroughting on' people.' (p. 19)

Peter Hodgson's book is designed for a non-specialist readership and is suitable for both those who have read George Eliot's works and those who have not, as the summaries of her novels which he provides ensures that all can follow the points being made. The aim of the book however is to be a stepping stone, to so enthuse people that they go back to George Eliot's novels (or read them for the first time), but reading them alive to the theological riches which are waiting to be discovered and savoured. The clarity of his exposition, his penetrating observations and his enthusiasm and warm appreciation of George Eliot will indeed, I believe, give people that desire to spend time with the novels and I wholeheartedly recommend Peter Hodgson's book Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot.

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© Alison Goodlad . The author is a member of St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Exeter, (www.stephenproject.org.uk/). She has worked in university administration and is currently engaged in theological studies.

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