Emotional Rescue: Shame and the Depressive Posture in George Eliot

by Joseph Adamson

June 29, 2009


Vulnerability to both shame and the longing for approval and love is the core of what Silvan Tomkins has called the “depressive posture,” one that is found frequently among certain types of highly creative personalities. As Tomkins describes the depressive’s relationship to the other, as first formed in the parent-child dyad, the parent shows great affection and love to the child but also alternately distances her with shame, anger, and contempt when she is perceived as offending or falling short, thus creating a strong corrective identification with the parent. Thus arises a magnified greed for both love and respect, in which the latter become fatefully tied to achievement. The quest for love and respect through communion, concern, control, and achievement underlies the major themes of George Eliot’s life and work. The dynamic nature of this depressive drama is particularly well illustrated in Eliot’s last great novel, Daniel Deronda.


At the beginning of her career as a novelist, when the identity of George Eliot still remained a secret, acting as her agent George Henry Lewes wrote a letter to John Blackwood which included, and not for the first time, a cautionary note about the author’s particular susceptibility to criticism:

Entre nous let me hint that unless you have any serious objection to make to Eliot’s stories, don’t make any. He is so easily discouraged, so diffident of himself, that not being prompted by necessity to write, he will close the series in the belief that his writing is not relished. I laugh at him for his diffidence and tell him it’s a proof he is not an author (Letters 2: 363-64).

Eliot’s “diffidence” is a theme sounded throughout her life. In these early years of publication Lewes took pains to make Blackwood aware of his friend’s unusual sensitivity and easily “shaken confidence,” her anxiety about “excellence” and fear of “failure” (2: 276-77). Even twenty years later, at the height of her success and celebrity as installments of Daniel Deronda began to appear, Lewes continued to shield her. He cautioned Blackwood’s son, when he was to lunch with them, not to mention any “criticisms” of the novel: “Mrs. Lewes is so easily discouraged and so ready to believe and exaggerate whatever is said against her books that I not only keep reviews from her but do not even talk of them to her” (6: 218). To Blackwood himself, long educated in the matter, he spoke yet again of the lengths he went to ensure that “nothing comes to her ears or eyes that would sound or read like objection, being so well aware of how she would lay hold of it as a proof of her forebodings being justified. And I don’t let her see even the enthusiastic criticisms, for many reasons” (6: 219). Eliot’s deep-seated vulnerability, her fear that her readers would not “relish” what she wrote remained as intransigent as ever. She continued to be as prone to depression and longing for approval as she was to feeling criticized and depressed even in the face of praise.

In spite of Lewes’s teasing remark about her unfitness for authorship, her very susceptibility is in fact a proof that she was very much the sort of person who becomes an author, someone with a magnified need to excite and hold the interest of others with her writings. Silvan Tomkins, whose affect and script theory will be the theoretical basis of this paper, observes:

In contrast to the paranoid, such an individual’s deepest hope is to achieve communion with others, to be as close physically as possible, to talk with others, to excite them, to please them, and to do what will evoke both love and respect from them. Perhaps the clearest difference is found in the attitudes toward the eyes. One is afraid lest human eyes see him; the other is afraid lest human eyes not look at him. (Affect 3: 339)

For this very reason however—the magnified desire to evoke love and respect—the depressive is also someone who suffers from an exaggerated fear of criticism or disdain, the fear that the eyes that do look will be harsh and contemptuous. Indeed, the susceptibility we find in Eliot calls to mind Tomkins’s description of the ambivalent feelings of many depressives when faced with an “unknown audience.” He cites the example of July Garland, a celebrated and seasoned performer from early childhood, who suffered from stage fright when she appeared on television later in her life:

The unknown audience is a blank screen which can be endowed with whatever type of threat seems most imminent and most dangerous to the performer. Although the depressive is vulnerable to fear in the face of an unknown and uncertain audience, ordinarily such fear is the fear of contempt, of loss of love, and of the state of depression. It is for this reason that fear is readily reduced by the positive responsiveness of the audience. This is quite a different fear than that of the paranoid actor who fears a physical attack which humiliates as it hurts. (330-331)

This vulnerability to both magnified shame and the longing for approbation and love is the core of what Tomkins has identified as the depressive posture, one that is found frequently among certain types of highly creative personalities. Eliot suffered throughout her life from depression, severe emotional lows accompanied with hypochondria, psychosomatic symptoms such as severe headaches, and periods of seclusion. These bouts, not surprisingly—as is true of any garden-variety depressive—appear to have been triggered by emotionally stressful events, such as her painful rejection by Herbert Spencer, or the anxiety of being outed from beneath the mask of George Eliot during the widespread acclaim for Adam Bede. In the latter case, in light of the scandal attached to her liaison with Lewes, her dread of being exposed seems to have been particularly magnified. Eliot spoke of wanting to transfer her newly occupied house in London “to some one who likes houses full of eyes all round him” (Letters 3: 118). The same period was the occasion of another entre nous from Lewes, this time in a postscript he added to a letter Eliot wrote to Barbara Bodichon: “Please don’t write or tell Marian anything unpleasant that you hear unless it is important for her to hear it. She is so very sensitive, and has such a tendency to dwell on and believe in unpleasant ideas that I always keep them from her. What other people would disregard or despise sinks into her mind” (3: 105). Even when the attention was celebratory, it awakened great anxiety. As Tomkins points out, when shame is magnified by a socialization in which criticism alternates with praise, the individual will be vulnerable not just to “the retrieval of longing for approval when criticism and blame penetrate his psychic epidermis” but also to the evoking of “criticism, blame, and humiliation” when he is met with “unexpected praise” (Affect 4: 221). Hence Lewes’s decision to shield his partner from exposure to even enthusiastic reviews.

Acutely sensitive to criticism of herself, she was also, as Haight observes, “always uneasy in criticizing others “ (292). Rosemarie Bodenheimer shrewdly observes “how closely her ban on evil speaking was connected to a fear of exposure to others’ judgment of herself,” so much so that “throughout her life [she] wrote elaborate notes of remorseful apology to people with whom she had allowed herself to speak harshly or critically of others” (120, 119). Like Daniel Deronda, she was someone in whom the “sense of injury,” the hurt of disdain and humiliation, “breeds—not the will to inflict injuries and climb over them as a ladder, but a hatred of all injury” (Deronda 178).

Eliot had a need to withdraw and seclude herself during such crises. She was notably susceptible to depression during the intense periods of research and writing of her novels: necessarily isolated from others, she struggled with the self-doubt that came with the ordeal of arduous intellectual labour. These were difficult periods in which the joys of communion were sacrificed for the uncertain recovery of the hoped-for love and admiration that seemed only to come with the acclamation won by achievement wrested yet again. The depressive, as Tomkins writes, “will work hard and long to keep the loving eyes of the other on himself.” However, for this very reason, the intense wish for achievement, almost by necessity, is frequently breached by the intolerable spectre of failure and depression, “the terror,” in Tomkins’s words, “of evoking contempt rather than love and respect, and so being plunged into hopeless depression” (Affect 3: 322, 330). Eliot chastised herself throughout her life for the “strong egoism,” as she puts it in one letter, “[which] has caused me so much melancholy,” for the “fastidious yet hungry ambition” (5: 125) which she felt had robbed her of much personal peace. However, as Bodenheimer observes of these self-accusations, “[d]efining ambition as a personal hunger that feeds melancholy, she inverted, in conformity with her moral code, the connection she may have known as a deeper truth: that her melancholy was a source of her artistic drive” (163). The depressive cannot shake off the deeply rooted belief that love and respect can be won only by achieving excellence, and hence this subjection to the double yoke of ambition and a peremptory “hunger of the heart,” that “need of being loved,” as Eliot says of her most tragic heroine Maggie Tulliver, “the strongest need in poor Maggie’s nature” (Mill 42, 41).

Tomkins’s theory of affect is, as he describes it, a bio-psycho-social theory. It starts with a view of the affect system as a set of innate programs activated by neural stimulation and working in tandem with other systems within the human organism. These programs are transformed by learning and therefore subject almost from birth to complex interpersonal and social determinants as well as to the contingencies of individual response. Tomkins elaborates a quasi-dramaturgical model of personality to describe these complex transformations. As he sees it, the individual is involved, from childhood on, in the open-ended creation of her own personality as she tests out and chooses the myriad scripts by which she responds to her environment. Scripts are essentially improvised rules for predicting, interpreting, and responding to specific types or families of affect-laden scenes. These strategies are compressed and stored in memory in a habitual or skilled way, and are experienced as unconscious for this very reason; at the same time, scripts are open-ended and progressive in their development, and are capable of significant change over time. Fundamental to script theory is the recognition that human beings themselves think and act according to theories, sets of hypotheses and corresponding schemes about how best to respond to exemplary scenes, scenes which are significant and memorable precisely because they are infused with dense affect, positive and negative. “Through scripts,” Tomkins writes, “a human being experiences the world in organized scenes, some close to, some remote from, the heart’s desire. He does not live to think or to feel but to optimize the world as he experiences it from scene to scene” (Affect 4:9)

The depressive posture, as Tomkins understands it, is a variety of nuclear script developed as a response to magnified scenes of shame and distress. Nuclear scripts, the core or nucleus of an individual’s personality, are devoted to the solving of problematic nuclear scenes, scenes “which are conjointly believed necessary to solve but are nonetheless insoluble” (Exploring 376) and which therefore affect the individual in a particularly compelling way: “A nuclear scene is one or several scenes in which a very good scene turns very bad. A nuclear script is one which attempts to reverse the nuclear scene, to turn the very bad scene into the very good scene again. It succeeds only partially and temporarily, followed invariably by an apparent replay of the nuclear scene in which the good scene again turns bad” (376). Such good scenes—for example, the prospect of victory over painful scenes of sibling rivalry—inevitably become idealized scenes, irresistibly seductive and yet impossible to fulfill. Thus they come to “matter more than anything else, and they never stop seizing the individual. They are the good scenes we can never totally or permanently achieve or possess” (Affect 3: 96). Tomkins uses as an illustration

the classic triangular scene (either due to the arrival of a sibling or the presence of the father) in the family romance. The male child who loves his mother excessively can neither totally possess her (given an unwanted rival) nor totally renounce her. He is often destined, however, to keep trying and, characteristically, to keep failing. Why does he not learn then that he would be happier to make his peace with both his mother and with his rival? Many human beings do just this, but to the extent to which the male child can neither possess nor renounce, he remains a perpetual victim. (Affect 3: 96)

In the depressive posture or nuclear script the two most important magnified affects are shame and distress. Shame is unique as a negative affect because it lends itself to repairing the damage done to the good scene of communion or interest. Only occurring in the context of positive affect, activated by and magnifying any temporary impediment to interest or enjoyment, shame leaves the individual torn between the wish to remove herself from the object of interest or communion and the equally powerful wish to return to it. Thus the depressive, Tomkins argues, is implicitly oriented towards the other, even when protectively hiding and isolating herself out of shame, for the underlying wish remains, ultimately, to recover the good scene of joy and excitement: to enjoy and be excited by others and for them to enjoy and be excited by oneself. Such a posture, he postulates, is the outcome of a socialization which is both loving and controlling or demanding. As Tomkins describes the depressive’s relationship to the other, as first formed in the parent-child dyad, the parent shows great affection and love to the child but also alternately distances her with shame, anger, and contempt when she is perceived as offending or falling short, thus creating a strong corrective identification with the parent. There consequently arises a greed, a magnified wish for both love and respect, in which love and respect becomes fatefully tied to achievement, and the wish for both must be satisfied: love without respect, respect without love, neither is enough to sustain the depressive on its own.

When a child has been intensely loved, she feels all the more shame and distress when she incurs the parent’s anger or contempt and is criticized or distanced. For the depressive, there is exile but also the prospect of paradise, the irresistible seduction of love and respect regained. As Tomkins suggestively puts it, the child is not banished from the garden, but “driven into that corner in the Garden of Eden which is hell in heaven” (Affect 3: 322). Contrary to the psychoanalytic insistence on the link between depression and orality, Tomkins insists that what the depressive aims at is not oral gratification but a maximizing of “the twin affects of excitement and enjoyment simultaneously in others and in himself and in minimizing the anguish and humiliation and the attenuation of all effort which occurs when the positive communion is ruptured” (322). The child experiences the rejection and distancing of the parent’s criticism and contempt as an intolerable state of exile, and thus craves the intense positive affect that is recovered when the parental face again shines upon the self. As an adult the depressive often finds himself relating to his own child or to others in the way he himself was socialized: “So is forged the depressive dyad in which there is great reward punctuated by severe depression. The depressive creates other depressives by repeating the relationship which created his own character” (325). As a grownup he now seeks to win love and respect either, like the depressive child, by doing something that keeps the rapt eyes of others on him, or, like a depressive parent, by exercising control of others and showing concern for them and their success or failure. Not surprisingly, then, depressives predominate among particular types of creative people, “such as the great actors, the great educators, the great jurists, the great statesmen, the great writers, in short, among all those who are concerned conjointly with man, with control of man, and with excellence in goodness or in achievement which excites man” (325). The intense longing for love and respect through communion, concern, control, and the achievement of excellence underlies the great themes of Eliot’s life and work.

Eliot had a very strong attachment to her father, Robert Evans, whom she described, on his death, as “the one deep strong love I have ever known” (Letters 1: 284). He was a talented and ambitious man, a skilled artisan who rose to a position of significant authority as the manager of a large country estate. Eliot’s pride and affection for him are evident in the idealized depictions of the title characters Adam Bede and Felix Holt, as well as Caleb Garth in Middlemarch, all sympathetic, essentially noble characters, physically strong, gifted, and of unimpeachable probity. Her intense identification with her father, and also with her brother Isaac, contrasts with the little we know of her mother, a figure never really dwelled on by Eliot, but who seems to have invidiously favoured her other two children, as in certain painful ways her father did too. This polarization in identification with her parents is reflected in her work—particularly in The Mill on the Floss—where more or less idealized father-daughter dyadic relationships predominate in contrast with, when the mother is not absent entirely, weak, complaining or rejecting maternal figures. Evans was a proud and exacting individual, who, from all accounts, as his daughter got older, became more critical of her and begrudging in his notes of approval. When Eliot was nursing him in his final illness, Cara Bray wrote to Sara Hennell that “he takes opportunities now of saying kind things to Mary Ann, contrary to his wont. Poor girl, it shows how rare they are by the gratitude with which she repeats the commonest expressions of kindness” (qtd. in Haight 66).

The most idealized depictions of father-daughter dyadic relationships— in Silas Marner (Silas and Eppie Marner), Felix Holt (Rufus and Esther Lyon), and Middlemarch (Caleb and Mary Garth)—are devoid of sharp paternal criticism and disapprobation. Significantly, in two of these cases, Eppie and Esther, the daughter is adopted and so removed from Eliot’s personal situation, in contrast with Mary Garth, who shares with the author a physical plainness, sharp wit, and a father whose business is running a large estate. The indulgent Rufus Lyon may hope for a more serious turn of mind from his daughter, but it is Felix Holt who makes Esther feel the humiliation of criticism and correction, and leads her to “the first self-questioning, the first voluntary subjection, the first longing to acquire strength of greater motives and obey the more strenuous role” (264). This simply indicates, however, that Esther’s lover is also a parental surrogate. More fully developed father-daughter dyads in Eliot’s work are marked by an uneasy combination of love and censure. In Romola, the heroine’s devotion to her father Bardo is consistently met with only rare tenderness and relentless demandingness and frequent belittling of his daughter’s achievement as a female. Edward Tulliver, in The Mill, is a warm and loving father when his daughter is a little girl, but obtuse and disparaging of her as a female; his humiliating downfall and descent into a sullen and angry depressiveness ultimately recasts the relationship so that the young woman, as in the Romola-Bardo dyad, finds herself the devoted caretaker of a defeated and downcast father, exactly as Eliot’s relationship with her own father ended.

Evans had a strong sense of moral and social propriety, and showed himself capable of intransigent, contemptuous rejection and distancing when, as he saw it, his daughter had sinned and needed correction. When, in her early twenties, she and her father quarrelled over her refusal any longer to attend church, he refused to see her or have her in his home until she mended her disobedience. Father and daughter both held their ground for months. Her father remained immovable even in face of an impassioned letter she wrote to him setting down “the real nature of [her] sentiments” and ardently pleading for a reciprocity of love and respect. The tone of this letter of 28 February 1842 shares the intensity of the appeals of many of her conflicted heroines, torn between strongly held loyalties and faced with a lack of sympathy and what they feel is unjust moral censure: “. . . the prospect of contempt and rejection,” she declares, “shall not make me swerve from my determination so much as a hair’s breadth until I feel that I ought to do so” (1: 128, 129). It appears, not surprisingly, to have been Eliot who blinked first and sought a compromise in order to restore loving relations. The use of the threat of contempt and rejection was just as pronounced, perhaps more, in her brother Isaac, who after learning of her relationship with Lewes refused to communicate with her any longer and, after more than twenty years, only broke silence, and then with only the tersest of notes, when learning of her marriage to John Cross.

The psychoanalyst Léon Wurmser speaks of “the tyrannis of her father and especially her brother, of their rigid adherence to an authoritarian, implacable conscience.” The day before his death, Eliot wrote of her father very much along these lines, though cast in a strongly idealized light that depicts him as “a part of [her] moral nature,” as an indispensable corrective influence on her own impulsive expansiveness: “Where shall I be without my Father? It will seem as if a part of my moral nature was gone. I had a horrid vision of myself last night becoming earthly sensual and devilish for want of that purifying restraining influence” (Letters 1: 284). In defending her controversial liaison with Lewes, Charles Bray commented on this craving in Eliot for a corrective male figure to lean on, and who might lean on her: “As a daughter she was the most devoted I ever knew, and she is just as likely to devote herself to some one other, in preference to all the world, and without reference either to the regularity or legality of the connection” (qtd. in Bodenheimer 114, 90).

The feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin sheds light on such female devotion. In her analysis of the susceptibility of many women to “ideal love” she cites as an exemplary case Dorothea Brooke’s infatuation with the unlikely Casaubon, explaining it as an expression of Dorothea’s thwarted ambitions “as a would-be Saint Theresa”: “. . . in ideal love, as in other forms of masochism, acts of self-abnegation are in fact meant to secure access to the glory and power of the other. Often, when we look for the roots of this ideal love, we find that the parental constellation reveals a split between the missing father of excitement and the present, but devalued mother” (116). Such a split is a conspicuous aspect of Eliot’s formative years, and indeed the strength of her early identification with her father and brother is one of the likely sources of the motivation that enabled her to succeed in her intellectual ambitions in spite of the highly disadvantageous social arrangements for women. At the same time, given her intense need for attachment to a supportive male figure, the courage to fulfil those ambitions seems to have required a felicitous analogue to the great love she had for her father. It does not seem accidental that it was only after her union with Lewes that she was able to risk the creative adventure which was to transform her into the extraordinary writer who took the male pseudonym of George Eliot.


Of crucial importance in Eliot’s development was the decision of her father to send her to a boarding-school run by Maria Lewis, who for thirteen years was a central figure for her and with whom she carried on an active correspondence. There she was given great affection and respect from a female mentor that were not available, it appears, from her mother. One senses in the depiction of Maggie Tulliver’s intense longing for love and admiration in The Mill a portrait very close to Eliot’s own personality, which, given her exceptional intellect, was a fertile ground for the interpersonal rewards of the educational dynamic. In her early years Eliot formed very intense identificatory relationships with a series of figures who often served as mentors, such as Lewis and the Brays. These relationships, conforming to a pattern of sudden intense enchantment, dramatic ideological crisis, and gradual disenchantment, seem to have spurred the eager expansiveness behind her shyness and accelerated her intellectual development. Maria Lewis responded to Mary Ann’s exceptional gifts and strongly encouraged them. The details of Eliot’s experience at the Nuneaton school run by the Franklin sisters, where she was a star pupil called on to perform as a model for others, similarly suggest her intense, if ambivalent responsiveness to the loving but controlling and demanding nature of the educational dynamic; indeed, this ambivalence—her “diffidence” once again—towards the expectations placed on her was also the source of emotional outbursts under the severe pressure of shame and distress (see Haight 11). The educational dynamic, Tomkins observes, is one to which the depressive personality is particularly drawn, precisely because it lends itself to a dyadic relationship very much like that of the depressive parent and child, in which there is a strong corrective identification with the parental surrogate. In both the depressive educator and the depressive student the two longings of the depressive are fully mobilized: the deep wish for both love and respect, and the tying of that wish to achievement. Thus, as in the parent-child dyad, the depressive is extremely vulnerable to both the seductive prospect of capturing and holding the other’s excited and joyful attention and the terror of meeting contempt and rejection, of losing the other’s love and respect.

This susceptibility is apparent in the pattern of Eliot’s early romantic relations, and was a vulnerability she herself recognized. At the age of twenty-one, when still caught up in the evangelical piety of her mentor Maria Lewis, she wrote to the latter of her intense romantic yearnings and clashing painful consciousness of herself as “a negation of all that finds love and esteem” and as someone therefore in need of “rigid discipline” (1: 51). In another letter she speaks of “a voice of foreboding” telling her that “‘[t]he bliss of reciprocated affection is not allotted to you under any form,’” since “‘a consciousness of possessing the fervent love of any human being would soon become your heaven, therefore it would be your curse’” (1: 70). She thus converts the fear of never knowing such bliss into a pious necessity, lest it seduce her away from a “better portion,” that is, an unmarried life of pious excellence. We see here one of the general features of nuclear scripts in general, characterized as they are by the conjunction of greed and cowardice, seduction and intimidation. Here the idealized scene of fulfilled romantic yearning is set in conflict with the fear that the idealized scene will be inevitably breached by the bad scene of shame and rejection. Eliot bewails here the urgency of a longing for love that she dreads will cause her great anguish and feels under great duress to correct.

This foreboding proved prophetic. As a young woman, she was easily seduced by the prospect of intense positive communion with those with whom she felt a connection and whom she admired, leaving her when checked and distanced susceptible to acute feelings of rejection. She fell into a series of crushes on male mentor figures—Rufus Brabant, John Chapman, and Herbert Spencer—all quickly ending with her in disgrace or in the position of the abject clinging lover. She was particularly sensitive to the fear that her homeliness—a feature touched on, often callously, by so many of her contemporaries—presented an insuperable impediment to her finding any physical fulfilment in love, in spite of the admiration and even awe she inspired in others by her intellectual gifts. Most remarkable perhaps was the severe depression she fell into when Spencer rebuffed her romantic advances in favour of simple friendship. However shocking it may seem to some, perhaps most particularly to feminist admirers of her work, the now famous letter pleading with Spencer not to abandon her captures poignantly the dependence of the depressive, male or female, on the love and respect of the other. After making a remarkably forthright and humiliating demand for the assurance of not being abandoned even at the cost of losing respect, she defends herself at the end of the letter by disavowing the humiliating judgment on her that such a display of naked emotional need, as she well knew, might well evoke in others: “I suppose no woman ever before wrote such a letter as this—but I am not ashamed of it, for I am conscious that in the light of reason and true refinement I am worthy of your respect and tenderness, whatever gross men or vulgar-minded women might think of me” (8: 57).

This intense longing for a relationship with a man who would be her all in all is, of course, one of the major themes of Eliot’s fiction. Indeed, the abjection expressed in her letter to Spencer brings vividly to mind both Janet Dempser’s dependence on Tom Tryan in “Janet’s Repentance,” in Scenes from Clerical Life, Eliot’s first work of fiction, and Gwendolen Harleth’s clinging relationship to Daniel Deronda in her last great work. Gwendolen’s case is particularly noteworthy because of the heroine’s stance, in the first part of the novel, of undisputed preeminence and splendid isolation, which then contrasts dramatically with her later disillusionment and desperate attachment to Deronda. In the depth of her crisis, after the death of Grandcourt, Gwendolen “did not image [Deronda] otherwise than always within her reach, her supreme need of him blinding her to the separateness of his life” (795-96). Deronda, for his part, experiences Gwendolen’s appeal to him for rescue in her moment of supreme crisis as “no longer a matter of argument…but of penetrating consciousness, that Gwendolen’s soul clung to his with a passionate need. We do not argue the existence of the anger or the scorn that thrills through us in a voice; we simply feel it, and it admits of no disproof. Deronda felt this woman’s destiny hanging on his over a precipice of despair” (765). Eliot’s words in her letter to Spencer are words which could just as easily be Gwendolen’s to Deronda: “You curse the destiny which has made the feeling concentrate itself on you, but if you will only have patience with me you shall not curse it long. You will find that I can be satisfied with very little, if I am delivered from the dread of losing it” (8: 57). Spencer may, indeed, have cursed Eliot’s dependence on him at the time, or at least regretted it. Deronda can hardly be said to do so in Gwendolen’s case, however “susceptible to the danger that another's heart might feel larger demands on him than he would be able to fulfill” (765), since Eliot’s own magnified need for him meets a compelling need in himself, summons a “script” or posture of his own. It was a distinct need of Eliot’s as well: a need to be needed and to help.

Her brief affair with John Chapman is an example. When her intimacy with the dashing editor of The Westminister Review was abruptly thwarted by the female competition in his household, she sadly but willingly accommodated herself to mere friendship. Continuing to shoulder the bulk of intellectual work for the journal with neither credit nor compensation, she gained at least the assurance of some attachment in the form of gratitude and regard. Like her handling of the later impasse with Spencer, this response was entirely characteristic of her personality, and provides an instructive example of what Tomkins means by a scene and a script. A good scene of intimacy is breached by conflict and turns bad, resulting in magnified shame, humiliation, and distress. There then follows an attempt to reverse the bad scene. “She was much grieved,” Chapman wrote in his diary, “and expressed herself prepared to atone in any way she could for the pains she has caused, and put herself in my hands prepared to accept any arrangement” (qtd. in Haight 89-90). After much anguish and hope for solution comes resignation and the decision to repair the damage as much as possible by some alternative arrangement to the longed-for good scene. Here what served the purpose were Chapman’s own need for help and, not just Eliot’s willingness, but her impulse and need to give it. As Haight puts it: “He undoubtedly needed her, and she needed to be needed” (91).

This impulse exemplifies a core family of scenes and type of script in Eliot’s fiction. In The Mill the theme is allegorized in the legend of Ogg the boatman, who did not “‘question and wrangle with the heart’s need’” (125) when in spite of high winds he ferried a poor helpless woman and her child across the river Floss—a not-to-subtle foreshadowing of the conclusion of the novel when Maggie attempts to rescue her estranged brother Tom from the flood and they drown, reconciled, in each other’s arms. Romola illustrates the same response: after escaping Florence and drifting ashore in a boat she is brought back to consciousness by the cry of a hungry child in distress; she comes to its rescue and then leads survivors of a plague to rebuild their community. Similarly, it is a child’s distress that defines the turning-point in Silas Marner and results in Silas’s reconciliation with the human community from which he has been estranged. In light of the role of memory in his transformation, Silas’s response is particularly illuminating. The discovery of Eppie in the place of his hoarded gold awakens deeply buried memories of how he cared for his mother and sister as a young boy, rewarding scenes which he then reenacts by comforting and feeding the child and eventually adopting her as his daughter. This type of response deeply informs Eliot’s fiction, and is a variety of what Tomkins calls a shame-damage-reparation script: one that is “expressed… in helping behavior in which one enacts an idealized good scene, ‘saving’ both the self and the other” (Exploring 384).


There is a recurrent type of plot in Eliot’s fiction which might be outlined as follows: an ardent young woman alternates in her longings, to quote the Prelude to Middlemarch, “between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood” (3); her expansiveness leads her into moral error when she is seduced by or marries a man she terribly misjudged, suffers great humiliation and guilt, and falls into severe depression; the young woman is subsequently rescued by a compassionate and morally serious man with whom she correctively identifies and who helps her to use her suffering to re-establish her life on an enhanced footing of moral excellence. I have called this type of plot, in a related study of shame and tragedy in The Mill on the Floss, “the prodigal daughter pattern” (Adamson 330). An allusion to the prodigal son occurs at the beginning of the novel when Maggie is feeling guilty for her neglect of her brother Tom’s rabbits, which she discovers have died just as he is about to return home from school; in a state of anxiety at her brother’s possible reaction, she becomes absorbed in an engraving of the parable, which “caused her to feel more than usual pity for the career of this weak young man” (32).

The details of the parable are worth recalling: a young man foolishly leaves home with his father’s inheritance, squanders it, hits bottom, and, finally repenting in humiliation and anguish, returns home to atone and ask for forgiveness; at this point he is embraced by his joyous father, who forgives him without a word and celebrates his homecoming by killing the fatted calf, to the disgust and envy of the elder sibling, who believes that his brother should be punished for his misdeeds. The basic lines here are that of a damage-reparation script, in the form of a reconciliation fantasy: the son is loved by his estranged parent in spite of the loss of respect incurred by his shameful errors, contrary to the wishes of the elder sibling, just as Maggie Tulliver is loved by her father as a young girl whenever the rest of her family, particularly her normative brother, are disgusted with her behavior, judge her for her errors and heap ridicule and shame on her. The best example is Maggie’s flight to the gypsies, after her jealous quarrel with Tom and Lucy; she fantasizes that she will be respected by the gypsies for her great learning and be made their queen, even if she is not loved by her own family; quickly disenchanted and frightened, she makes her way back home and is met on the road by her father, who has been anxiously looking for her; he forgives her without question, and, on their return, forbids any teasing or mention of the episode, thus protecting his daughter from further humiliation.

I will limit any substantial discussion of how such a posture applies to Eliot’s work to her last great novel, Daniel Deronda. But it is worth adducing as a prototype the basic plot of “Janet’s Repentance,” one of her earliest pieces of fiction. The “prodigal daughter” in the story is Janet Dempster, a once beautiful and promising young woman who, after her marriage to a rising young lawyer in town, is severely abused and repeatedly battered by her brutal and alcoholic husband, turns to drink herself to numb her pain, and then is wracked with anguish, shame and guilt when she finally has the strength to leave him. These feelings are intensified when her husband is subsequently injured in a reckless accident while driving his carriage and dies days later in an agonizing state of delirium. The rescuing figure offering sympathy and moral correction is the evangelical minister Tom Tryan, a man reviled by her husband for his charismatic following and perceived piety in the community, and whose own life, Janet comes to discover, has been spent in atonement for a shameful error in his own past. An intimate and loving bond is formed between them, and after he succumbs to illness she cares for and nurses him tenderly until his death. In his memory, she dedicates her life to “a solemn service of gratitude and patient effort” (349). It is worth noting, in spite of obvious differences, how close the kernel of this story is to that of the triangle of Gwendolen, Grandcourt, and Deronda.

In Middlemarch, the depressive young woman is Dorothea Brooke, whose ardent expansiveness quixotically leads her into a loveless marriage. Here the depressive dyadic fantasy is explicit, and is indeed represented as a fantasy: Dorothea falls in love with a man old enough to be her father and whom she reveres in her imagination as a scholar of great learning, as a Milton or a Hooker, someone who through his wise direction will enable her to achieve the higher good she seeks in life, but also reward her with both love and admiration for her achievements. Dorothea discovers too late that the man she dressed in her imagination is a frightened pedant with few human sympathies. When her misplaced desires for love and respect are crushed by her husband’s remoteness and disregard, she experiences a terrible disenchantment and falls into depression. This moment, as Barbara Hardy has shown, is a recurrent scene in Eliot’s fiction: the blank awakening to reality, consistently associated with the bleakness of a “disenchanted day-lit room” (256), imagery which first appears in a letter by Eliot written to Sara Hennell on 4 June 1848, during a state of depression while tending her invalid father.

Dorothea’s passionate dreams for closeness and intimacy are, in the end, realized in her marriage to Will Ladislaw. But, like Romola, her dreams of higher achievement and the respect that comes with it are never fulfilled, and it is this failure which has understandably disappointed many feminist readers. In Deronda Eliot turns to an upper-class male protagonist, and the vocational theme is now placed front and centre. It is central not only to the resolution of the title character’s story, but even, I would argue, to the posture that Gwendolen, however tentatively, has adopted at the end of the novel, with her desire, as she writes to Deronda on his wedding-day, “that [she] may live to be one of the best of women, who make others glad that they were born” (810). It is this, of course, that Deronda has made her: glad that he was born, and, as she says in the same letter, better for having known him. (The syntax of Eliot’s phrasing here is somewhat ambiguous, but this would seem to be the meaning.) Such an aspiration may not involve a public or official role, but it is nonetheless a calling: a deeply motivated attitude of mindfulness on behalf of others that promises to determine the shape of a life. The point seems to be that Gwendolen’s story is not to be resolved through romantic love, at least not at the end of the novel; unlike Dorothea, she is not remarried and, in order to recover what Tomkins calls the “good scene,” she must first atone for the damage she has caused. The prototype is, again, Janet’s Repentance. The course ahead for Gwendolen is charted by her personal experience of a great moral teacher with whom she has ardently and correctively identified, not unlike, at least in its basic form, the adolescent Maggie Tulliver’s ardent devotion to her “supreme” and “Invisible Teacher” (290), Thomas à Kempis. In emulation of Deronda, she will, it is suggested, become herself a teacher and dedicate herself to the troubles of others and to the bettering of lives other than her own, to rescuing those whose errors, as hers did, may have led them into guilt and anguish. Maggie’s pious devotion, of course, corresponding to Eliot’s own evangelical phase as an adolescent, is presented ultimately as an untenable self-deception: a false compromise solution bridging over a period of emotional conflict and depression in her young life. Maggie’s case, indeed, is similar to that of Romola, whose attachment to a great corrective Teacher, Savonarola, and her fervent enchantment with a religosity that ultimately cannot be sustained, prove to be an unrealistic way of bridging over a period of depression and insoluble conflict. Such attachments, intense enchantments, and subsequent disenchantments, were, as we have noted, very much the pattern of Eliot’s own creative development. Whether it is presented as a false projection that is prelude to further collisions, or as an adult wisdom, like Janet Dempster’s, that is epilogue to a tragic experience, the fundamental wish for love and respect and the posture of corrective identification in relation to an “invisible teacher” remain much the same.

One of the most striking aspects of Gwendolen Harleth as a character is that in one significant regard she does not fit the pattern of a Janet Dempster, Maggie Tulliver, Romola de’ Bardi, or Dorothea Brooke. Gwendolen’s error in marrying Grandcourt is not one of passionate expansiveness but of cold calculation aimed at avoiding having to take a position as a governess, essentially that of a servant, and thus face a dramatic social demotion. Gwendolen is initially in an attitude of narcissistic self-sufficiency. Carl T. Rotenberg observes that “[her] emotional conflicts in relation to men arise out of the loss of her father early in life, coupled with indifference to her as a child on the part of paternal surrogates” (259). In addition, there is the primary role of her mother, who out of guilt, anxiety, and her own fear of abandonment creates a dysfunctional dynamic in the family system, in which Gwendolen plays the part of princess to her Cinderella-like stepsisters: she is a “spoiled child” largely because of her socialization, spoiled by the enjoyment of tribute and deference from others from her early childhood on, taught by indulgence to regard herself as entitled where others are not. She begins the novel in a state of “moral stupidity,” as Eliot liked to call this phase: “taking the world as an udder to feed [her] supreme sel[f]” (211). Psychologically, at the beginning of the novel she is close to Rosamund Vincy or Tito Melema as a character type; like them, her chief strategies in life are a seemingly instinctive avoidance of anything that threatens her pleasure or enjoyment, such as the intolerable strain of obligations to others that would involve any possible hardship to herself. It is a bold stroke on Eliot’s part to have organized half of her novel around a character whose obnoxiousness hardly invites unqualified sympathy on the part of the reader, and who is led into a miserable and humiliating marriage not by an impulsive and expansive wish for love and admiration, but by the wish to ward off the threat to a grandiose position of entitlement that is already taken for granted.

In this way Gwendolen relates to one of two depressive types of idealized scenes or fantasies which Tomkins points out are beautifully dramatized in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. One is the fantasy that one is a pauper: unconditionally loved for who one is by a true friend who at the risk of his own life helps one out of one difficulty after another, even though as the lowest of the low one has lost respect in the eyes of society. Another is the fantasy that one is the prince: unconditionally respected and admired so much by others that one can easily do without love or friendship. It is this latter “manic” fantasy which defines the creation of a character like Gwendolen, who seems to believe that as long as she holds her preeminence she can have no need of love; indeed, the avowed need or demand of it from others is threatening to her. Tomkins insists, however, on the inherent vulnerability of either of these fantasies for the depressive, for whom love has become “tied to excellence, or achievement, or morality. . . . Just as the prince finds true love as a pauper, so the manic finds true respect whether he is loved or not. But these are imperfect and at best transient solutions for the depressive. He must in the end become a prince who is also truly loved. He cannot remain a pauper even with love, and he cannot remain a prince without love” (323-24).

The first step in Gwendolen’s transformation from spoiled child to morally conscious young woman is, like Dorothea’s, the destruction of her fantasy and the descent into disenchantment and depression. When Gwendolen, now married and in a state of depression, meets Deronda for the second time—if we are counting the humiliating encounter with him in the casino at Leubronn as the first—the situation is analogous to the meeting of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw in Rome, with Grandcourt as the tyrannical husband in Deronda occupying the position of Casaubon. In the later novel, however, the romantic potential of the relationship between Gwendolen and Deronda is ultimately subsumed by one of disinterested care and attentiveness on the latter’s part. The intimacy between the two, whether romantic or not, is a culmination of the intense dyadic units which form the core of dramatic plotting in Eliot’s main story-lines, in which a depressive young woman seeks the love and correction of a male figure on whom she projects the aura of what Jacques Lacan has called the sujet supposé savoir: the subject who is supposed to know, the idealized teacher in possession of wisdom and knowledge.

Gwendolen’s eventual dependence on Deronda is, however, a posture already latent in her initial encounter with him in the casino, in the opening episode of the novel, when an intrigued Deronda observes her from a detached position At this point she projects on him an attitude of superiority and superciliousness, and feels humiliated and angered by what she interprets as his critical “evil eye,” and then subsequently by the presumption of his act of rescue in retrieving the jewellery she pawned and returning it with a card of ironic admonishment. In her assumption of preeminence, she interprets the gesture as an arrogant show of his moral superiority and a humiliating criticism of her superficialness and carelessness. All is changed after her marriage to Grandcourt, and she finds herself now in an unrelenting state of subjection and severe depression, with nowhere to turn. In her next meeting with Deronda, in the Abbey at Diplow, her mind is agitated now by “the voice of an uneasy longing to be judged by Deronda with unmixed admiration—a longing which had its seed in her first resentment at his critical glance. Why did she care so much about the opinion of this man who was ‘nothing of any consequence’?” (331)

Characteristic of the depressive posture here is Gwendolen’s desire for Deronda’s admiration. More than a simple narcissistic wish for tribute, it is awakened by a searching interest on his part that combines concern and criticism, sympathy and correction, an attitude which, as the narrator reminds us at the end of the novel, defined his stance even in his first encounter with her at Leubronn: “That mission of Deronda to Gwendolen had begun with what she had felt to be his judgment of her at the gaming-table” (763). What changes from this first encounter is the more direct presence and affective broadcasting of Deronda’s look, face, and voice, the three main sites of affective communication, as Eliot was clearly aware: “a look so gravely penetrating that it had a keener edge for her than his ironical smile at her losses”; a face which “had that disturbing kind of form and expression which threatens to affect opinion—as if one’s standard were somehow wrong”; and a voice, which “was to Grandcourt’s tonelesss drawl, which had been in her ears every day, as the deep notes of a violoncello to the broken discourse of poultry and other lazy gentry in the afternoon sunshine” (331). In particular, Gwendolen picks up from Deronda the acute sense that somehow she is deeply sympathized with, but also keenly judged, “as if one’s standard was somehow wrong.”

Such a feeling, as Tomkins notes, is characteristic of the relationship with the depressive, which is never an easy one:

The depressive, like his parent before him, is not altogether a comfortable person for others with whom he interacts. As a friend or parent or lover or educator he is somewhat labile between his affirmations of intimacy and his controlling, judging, and censuring of others. His warmth and genuine concern for the welfare of others seduces them into an easy intimacy which may then be painfully ruptured when the depressive readily finds fault with the other. The other is now too deeply committed and too impressed with the depressive’s sincerity to disregard the disappointment and censure from the other and is thereby seduced further into attempting to make restitution, to atone, and to please the other. (325)

The readiness to judge and “find fault with the other,” as Tomkins puts it, may not seem entirely to fit Deronda, who seems to express more tenderness and concern “for the welfare of others” than criticism. But Gwendolen’s anxiety or sense that she falls short and must atone or redeem herself in his eyes is by no means simply a projection on her part. In relation to her, Deronda is in a critical and corrective role from the beginning. There is a sharing of depressive fantasies here: to be rescued by Deronda she must also be corrected and fundamentally atone for who she is—she must be transformed by her teacher.

The most striking example of this process of seduction is Felix Holt’s courtship of Esther Lyon, marked as it is by an interest and attentiveness expressed from the very beginning in the form of sharp criticism and contempt of the other’s mode of behaviour and preoccupations. Indeed, the very wording of the directives Deronda gives Gwendolen for her moral betterment could just as easily have been made by Felix to Esther: “Look on other lives besides your own. See what their troubles are, and how they are borne. Try to care about something in this vast world besides the gratification of small selfish desires. Try to care for what is best in thought and action—something that is good above the accidents of your own lot” (446). Felix’s posture is very much that of the depressive educator, as Tomkins describes the script, who has “come to play the parental role and seek substitute children whom [he] may alternately reprove and reward” (Affect 3: 331). As Felix is both lover and demanding teacher, so Esther is both his lover and painfully beset student, who, often stung by his criticism, ultimately responds in spite of herself by ardently seeking his love and admiration. Very much like Gwendolen in her first encounter with Deronda, she is at first simply insulted and resentful of Felix’s blunt criticism and ridiculing of her unexamined attitudes and values. But like Gwendolen she is also deeply affected by the sincere concern and interest in her that the criticism implies, and by the time she tries to defend herself as worthy of love and respect against the humiliation of his fault-finding and apparent contempt, it is only a sign that she has fallen under his corrective influence, and already begun to internalize his judgment. Indeed, she defines the relationship in her own mind precisely in terms of someone who has almost a parental authority over her that is both loving and corrective. “He was like no one else to her: he had seemed to bring at once a law, and the love that gave strength to obey the law. Yet the next moment, stung by his independence of her, she denied that she loved him; she had only longed for a moral support under the negations of her life. If she were not to have that support, all effort seemed useless” (265). She now accepts his authority to criticize her views and way of life, and now seeks his love and approval in return for her efforts to improve her life and to become a better person. Humiliated and angered, however, by his brusqueness and apparent independence of her, she feels vulnerable, and tries to deny that she loves him and that his opinion so dearly matters. In a state of dependence like Gwendolen, she cannot imagine any further effort of self-correction independent of him.

An earlier passage in the same novel beautifully captures both the rewards and the peculiar uncomfortableness of the depressive’s momentous influence on the other:

So fast does a little leaven spread within us—so incalculable is the effect of one personality on another. Behind all Esther’s thoughts, like an unacknowledged yet constraining presence, there was the sense, that if Felix Holt were to love her, her life would be exalted into something quite new—into a sort of difficult blessedness, such as one may imagine in beings who are conscious of painfully growing into the possession of higher powers. (228)

As Esther feels both loved and criticized by her lover, so Felix “had thought a great deal of Esther with a mixture of strong disapproval and strong liking, which both together made a feeling the reverse of indifference” (228). This combination of disapproval and love defines the depressive dyad, in which, as Tomkins observes, “there is great reward punctuated by severe depression. The depressive exerts a great influence on the lives of all he touches because he combines great reward with great punishment, which ultimately heightens the intensity of the affective rewards he offers others “ (325). The “difficult blessedness” of this influence, this “effect of one personality on another,” is one of the great themes of Eliot’s novels, from the beginning of her writing career. Tom Tryan, Dinah Morris, Savonarola, Felix Holt, Deronda are all such personalities, whose heightening effects on others as great moral teachers are emphasized, and often with the implication that to the ardent student the depressive torch is consecrated and passed on, as it is from Tom Tryan to Janet, from Deronda to Gwendolen.


The uneasy mix of the fear of contempt and the longing for admiration is also fully apparent in Gwendolen’s ambivalence towards the composer Klesmer whose “admiration unmixed with criticism” (107), she also seeks and whose critical opinion she fears. Indeed, when she first meets and speaks with Deronda at Diplow, she makes the comparison, experiencing Deronda’s “gravely penetrating” gaze as a look that had even “a keener edge than Klesmer’s judgment” (330). At the Archery Meeting, she feels assured of her preeminence in the eyes of all those she meets, is pleased enough to be “the central object of that pretty picture.” But her vanity makes her vulnerable. The narrator observes that “vanity is as ill at ease under indifference as tenderness is under a love which it cannot return; and the unconquered Klesmer threw a trace of his malign power even across her pleasant consciousness that Mr. Grandcourt was seeing her to the utmost advantage, and was probably giving her an admiration unmixed with criticism” (107). As Bernard Paris puts it, her “incessant need for affirmation makes her extremely dependent on the approbation of others . . .” (117). This narcissistic need for tribute explains the effect of her gaze on others, as Deronda feels when he first meets her, and asks himself: “Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?” (7) And thus in the presence of both Klesmer and Deronda she feels insecure and subjected to the “malign power” of an exasperatingly indifferent or critical eye. Her later meeting with Klesmer after the financial downfall of her family, when she seeks his advice on becoming a performer—one of the depressive vocations singled out by Tomkins—is another painful stage in her disenchantment, as his bluntly honest appraisal of her superficial talents is unmarked by the deeper engagement which characterizes Deronda, who from the beginning—even in the casino—treats her very much as someone for whom he is somehow morally responsible.

After her disastrous marriage to Grandcourt, Deronda becomes Gwendolen’s confessor, her therapist, her moral mentor and instructor, her Great Teacher, in short—an epitome of the figure Eliot was to become among her acolytes, who projected on her person an uncanny aura of moral charisma. As was Eliot’s aim in her fiction, Daniel shows Gwendolen the way to elevate and enlarge her life by turning away from the mirror of the self to a window looking out at the situation of others. The love and respect to which, as a “spoiled child,” she simply assumed entitlement, she now feels, looking to him, she must work hard and long to recover. Corrective identification with a parental surrogate is explicit here, as Deronda’s voice and image, in the course of their relationship, make their way under Gwendolen’s skin and are, in her supreme moment of crisis on board the yacht with Grandcourt, desperately recruited to save her from her murderous impulses: “. . . if ever she thought of definite help, it took the form of Deronda’s presence and words, of the sympathy he might have for her, of the direction he might give her.” She clings to his voice and image “for rescue,” and her ultimate thought is that she will not mind the anguish if she “‘can keep from getting wicked’” (674).

After her husband’s death, Gwendolen is haunted by her morally ambiguous role in his drowning, and becomes all the more attached to Deronda. She is described in one of their last meetings as “[l]ooking like a melancholy statue” of her former self, “whose laughter had once been so ready when others were grave” (771). The narrator makes a particular point here of encouraging understanding and sympathy for Gwendolen’s clinging attitude to Daniel, a gesture characteristic of Eliot’s narrators, but all the more revealing here perhaps in light of her own vulnerability to just such humiliating scenes of dependence on men whose love and respect she longed for: “It is only by remembering the searching anguish which had changed the aspect of the world for her that we can understand her behaviour to Deronda—the unreflecting openness, nay, the importunate pleading, with which she expressed her dependence on him.”

Removed to Offendene, Gwendolen looks forward to another meeting with Deronda. Having confided to him her guilt and despair, his words and image now come to her like a directing vision inhabiting her innermost thoughts:

She was now dwelling on every word of Deronda’s that pointed to her past deliverance from the worst evil in herself and the worst infliction of it on others, and on every word that carried a force to resist self-despair. But she was also upborne by the prospect of soon seeing him again: she did not imagine him otherwise than always within her reach, her supreme need of him blinding her to the separateness of his life.... And the future which she turned her face to with a willing step was one where she would be continually assimilating herself to some type that he would hold before her. Had he not first risen on her vision as a corrective presence which she had recognized in the beginning with resentment, and at last with entire love and trust? (795-96)

Gwendolen imagines Deronda as holding before her “some type” by which to gauge herself self-critically, and to which she would approximate herself as closely as possible, as a teacher offers a model, and the model of himself, like an ego ideal, for the student’s self-correction. According to Wurmser, Deronda’s image here acts like the “almost hallucinatory presence of a superego structure.” His “corrective presence” in Gwendolen’s mind recalls the image of the “constraining presence” (228) of Holt in Esther’s thoughts, as well as the earlier image of Deronda’s “presence and words” (674) which Gwendolen believes are all that “can keep her from getting wicked” in the midst of her crisis aboard the yacht. An attentive student of Eliot’s life and work cannot help but think of the words she wrote, on the occasion of her father’s death, concerning the fear that in his absence she would now be in danger of “becoming earthly sensual and devilish for want of that purifying restraining influence” (Letters 1: 284).

By the end of the novel, Gwendolen is forced by circumstances—by both his marriage and his chosen mission—to face the necessity of freeing herself of her own “supreme need “ of Deronda and accepting the “separateness of his life” (796). That his corrective influence will now take a different, internalized form is suggested by his almost Christ-like words to her when she breaks down at the news of his marriage to Mirah. In his very absence, he tells her, "[he] shall be more with [her] than [he] used to be” (806). It is suggested that her will to recover and to live depends on her emulating, indeed, the very posture he modelled in his relationship with her, of “look[ing] on other lives besides [her] own and see[ing] what their troubles are, and how they are borne” (446). In her letter to Deronda on his wedding day, she returns to his words that she is destined to be “among the best of women” (769), and responds, however open-endedly, by committing herself to the task, in atonement, it is implied, for the suffering she has caused herself and others—very much as Janet Dempster is said, at the end of that story, to have become, after his death, his living “memorial,” a woman “rescued from self-despair, strengthened with divine hopes, and now looking back on years of purity and helpful labour” (350).

A sign that Gwendolen has reached a new and significant stage in her moral development is her distress at having caused Deronda so much pain, reflecting as it does her much stronger sense of him now as a separate being who grieves at the thought that he cannot help her any longer in her ordeal:

I have remembered your words—that I may live to be one of the best of women, who make others glad that they were born. I do not yet see how that can be, but you know better than I. If it ever comes true, it will be because you helped me. I only thought of myself, and I made you grieve. It hurts me now to think of your grief. You must not grieve any more for me. It is better—it shall be better with me because I have known you. (810)

It may be, as Paris has strongly argued, that Gwendolen’s circumstances and her abject and “desolate state” at the end of the novel make her prospects seem “bleak” (175, 159), that the letter she writes to Deronda on the day of his wedding is not entirely convincing and undermines Eliot’s affirmative rhetoric concerning her future. The compelling fantasy driving the nuclear script doubtless peers through the gap between the wished-for and the plausible in every one of Eliot’s works, hence the not-always satisfactory nature of her novels’ conclusions. On the other hand, the narrator’s hopes for Gwendolen are perfectly consistent with what must have been Eliot’s own experiences of desolation and hopelessness in the wake of losses and rejection, experiences from which she rebounded to find both love and great achievement.


In the depressive posture so often informing a teacher-student or mentor-disciple relationship, there are two ways, according to Tomkins, in which the “the depressive drama” may be played out by the teacher. He may represent himself as the child and the students as “substitute parents,” in which “he oscillates between good and bad performances in which he and his students are alternately transported and depressed” (Affect 3: 332). It is a version of this drama that we can recognize in Eliot’s periodic anxieties and depressions associated with the writing and reception of her novels, in her exaggerated fear that her writing would meet with contempt or criticism. The other way the drama may play out is that the teacher, casting his students as children, censures them “for their ignorance,” and “love[s] and respect[s] them for their efforts to meet his highest expectations.” In the end, it is Deronda’s highest expectations of Gwendolen—to become one of the “best of women”—that motivate her to accept his independence from her and to resolve to do for others what he has done for her, thus recasting the scene and script. Admittedly, Gwendolen’s fate remains uncertain at the conclusion of the novel. It is nonetheless true that a recasting of the depressive dynamic is implied by her final words: she who in her erring came to long for Deronda’s “unmixed admiration” now aspires to be the one who is needed and helps erring others like herself, to become the very type of corrective presence by whose combination of love and censure she was captivated in the first place, and thus to replay the “nuclear scene” with the roles reversed.

The depressive dynamic is apparent in the charismatic role Eliot played for others at the height of her celebrity. After Middlemarch she became for many the Great Teacher, bringing her “more letters than any other aspect of the book” (Haight 451). One of her admirers, Elma Stuart, in a note accompanying a gift to Eliot, expressed her gratitude by saying that “[w]hat for years, you have been to me, how you have comforted my sorrows, peopled my loneliness, added to my happiness, and bettered in every way my whole nature, you can never know: till the Great Day of Squaring comes” (qtd. in Haight 451). The terms of this description of Eliot’s intensely transformative effect on one of her admirers—comfort, communion, happiness, and, ultimately, the bettering of one’s self and moral nature—are echoed by others. As a particularly good example Haight points to the testimony of a Mrs Ponsonby, a mature woman who had “lived all her life in Court circles” and was “no schoolgirl to be overawed by a famous name. Like the rest, she felt some charismatic force that no acting, no stage management could possibly explain. Deep sincerity underlay it, and genuine human interest” (451). As she later confessed to Eliot in a lengthy letter, she felt the latter was “in possession of some secret” which made it possible for her to combine with sympathy for modern scientific thought “a warmth of approval for moral greatness and beauty and purity in the high ideal you would set before us” (qtd. in Haight 454). Intense warmth and sympathy combined with deep concern and the highest expectations of the other as a person—these are the very elements at play in the posture that ties Gwendolen so intensely to Deronda.

Eliot’s success as a writer, which made her a guiding light for her contemporaries, was doubtless due to many factors, but the motivation, or as Eliot liked to call it, the ardency behind that achievement was deeply rooted in her desperate longing for both love and respect. Deronda’s posture as both a teacher and a leader are born of the same burning desire to repair the damage done to his sense of himself as a child. Motivated by his own feelings of injury, Deronda enacts with Gwendolen a classic shame-damage-reparation script, specifically a helping script, in which the self, by identification with the distressed and humiliated other, helps the other and in so doing repairs the damage to himself and recovers the good scene. It is the same fantasy which is at play in Deronda’s vocational quest: the projection of an idealized scene in which he sets out to repair the damage done to an entire people and enact the recovery of the good scene for all, and not just himself, in a restored homeland. The humiliation Deronda suffers from in his upbringing concerns “the tinge of dishonour in his lot” (178), the knowledge that there is “something about his birth which threw him out from the class of gentlemen to which the baronet [his adoptive parent Hugh Malinger] belonged” (170). He is all the more susceptible to the shame precisely because of the very “ardent clinging nature” (169), the “inborn lovingness” (171) that ties him to his uncle and those around him. In spite of exaggerations of its toxicity by other theorists, Tomkins insists that shame is essentially “an affluent emotion”:

It arises only in the context of a strong bond with the other. You cannot be ashamed, per se, unless you find the other exciting or enjoyable in some way, and you wish to maintain that bond. . . . if you see a face where shame is dominant, one thing you may be sure of is that it is a positively-oriented human being, either one give to much love or much excitement. The shame response tells you that for the time being there has been an experienced impediment to that affluence. Thus the damage-reparative scripts map extraordinarily well to the dynamic structure of shame as I understand that affect to be. So if you have a script which speaks of a return to a promised land, as was true for Marx, and as is true in nuclear reparative scripts based upon sibling rivalry, then you know that bond, which was damaged by shame, is always believed to be reparable and recoverable. That is a very optimistic view of the human scene. (Exploring 392-93)

The link between love and shame, as described here by Tomkins, sheds great light on both Eliot’s strong sense of ties in her life, her susceptibility to humiliation and dread of criticism, and her intense longing for both love and esteem. The same link is apparent in Deronda’s attitude to others and in his ultimate choice of vocation, both shaped by his deep concern for and wish to help others, especially those in a state of shame and distress. Encouraged at one point by Sir Hugo to adopt the vocation of a performer, a professional singer, when he is in fact, ostensibly, a gentleman, Deronda feels a humiliating confusion in the filial relationship he had taken for granted, an injury to the bond he assumed tied him to his adoptive parent—a painful ambiguity that the eventual discovery of the identity of his mother and his Jewish identity comes to explain. This sense of injury and shame he felt as a boy, the narrator notes, might have turned “a self-centred, unloving nature into an Ishmaelite. But in the rarer sort, who presently see their own frustrated claim as one among a myriad, the inexorable sorrow takes the form of fellowship and makes the imagination tender” (175). Thus it is that Daniel’s “sorrow”—his shame and distress—turns him towards rather than away from others, and impels him to rescue and help others. The impulse is exemplified in his attachment to Hans Meyrink at Cambridge, which brings him to sacrifice his own advancement for the sake of his friend: “Daniel had the stamp of rarity in a subdued fervor of sympathy, an activity of imagination on behalf of others which did not show itself effusively, but was continually seen in acts of considerateness that struck his companions as moral eccentricity” (178).

This sympathy is deeply rooted in empathy. His unwalled responsiveness to the sorrow of others is repeatedly underscored at key moments of the novel. He is often pierced by another’s cry of distress: Mirah’s, that of his mother Leonora who abandoned him, Mordecai’s, and of course Gwendolen’s. When Mordecai pours out his vision to Deronda in their first intense meeting, the two of them locked in “as intense a consciousness as if they had been two undeclared lovers” (495), the narrator describes this empathic gift in the most eloquent terms:

The more exquisite quality of Deronda's nature—that keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness which ran along with his speculative tendency—was never more thoroughly tested. He felt nothing that could be called belief in the validity of Mordecai's impressions concerning him or in the probability of any greatly effective issue: what he felt was a profound sensibility to a cry from the depths of another soul; and accompanying that, the summons to be receptive instead of superciliously prejudging. Receptiveness is a rare and massive power, like fortitude; and this state of mind now gave Deronda's face its utmost expression of calm benignant force—an expression which nourished Mordecai’s confidence and made an open way before him. (496)

This receptive gift or power suggests, as Rotenberg has shown, close analogies between Deronda’s tactfully receptive relationship to Gwendolen and the therapeutic approach of psychoanalytic self psychology in which the role of empathy is central. Deronda’s acute sense of urgency at others’ shame and distress is at its most poignant in relation to Gwendolen’s abject plea that he not abandon her, the cry of “her words of insistance that he must ‘remain near her—must not forsake her’—continually recurr[ing] to him with the clearness and importunity of imagined sounds, such as Dante has said pierce us like arrows whose points carry the sharpness of pity” (622). This receiving power and the correlative wish, in response to the broadcast of shame and distress, to remedy and repair what hurts the other, these are a core part of the personalities of Eliot’s most important characters—Dinah Morris, Maggie Tulliver, Romola de’ Bardi, Dorothea Brooke—and it is this feature in particular which gives Deronda, as a man, a distinctly feminine quality.

Deronda triumphs in fulfilling his nuclear script on both interpersonal and vocational fronts: he finds love with Mirah, whom he meets when he rescues her from suicide and from a life of continued shame and misery; his first words to her are: “"Don't be afraid. . . . You are unhappy. . . . Pray, trust me. . . . Tell me what I can do to help you” (190; emphasis added). By the same turn of the plot, he eventually finds his vocation in the discovery of his original identity as a Jew. As a boy, in a conversation with his tutor, Deronda rejects the destiny of “‘a Porson or a Leibnitz’” and announces his ambition to become “a greater leader, like Pericles or Washington” (173). Through his relationship with Mirah’s brother Mordecai, who elects and anoints him, becoming his spiritual teacher and mentor, he emerges by the end of the novel as a future statesman and the messianic leader of a proto-Zionist movement. Deronda’s relationship with Mordecai constitutes another depressive dyad, of a different variety from his relationship with Gwendolen. Here the mentor-teacher-prophet, the Elijah figure, looks to the apprentice-student-Messiah as his own salvation, as the fulfilment of his own dreams of repaired shame; reciprocally, Daniel comes, by the end of the novel, to embrace the role set for him by Mordecai: that of the Mosaic leader who will vindicate an historically wronged people and repair their humiliation by leading them out of exile and bringing them to the promised land, thus healing the shame of their long history of persecution. “One finds the depressive,” as Tomkins writes, “particularly among the great actors, the great educators, the great jurists, the great statesmen, the great writers—in short, among all those who are concerned conjointly with communion with man, with control of man, and with excellence in goodness or in achievement which excites man” (325).

It was doubtless, among other things, Eliot’s own sensibility to shame and rejection, to criticism and humiliation, her own “depressive posture,” that led her to identify with a stigmatized people marked out in history for insult and contempt, and drew her to the theme of her last great work. The depressive, Tomkins points out, for whom love has been fatefully tied to achievement, can live on neither ambition nor love alone. Like Eliot herself, whose capacity to write her works of fiction seems to have required the love of someone like Lewes, of one who to her was “all in all,” so Deronda, like Felix Holt with Esther, is blessed with a vocation that is inseparable from the love he finds with Mirah. In contrast, Gwendolen, like Janet Dempster, dramatizes the depressive’s terrible dependence on the love and respect of the other, but also the intense corrective identification that one day may make a Great Teacher of an abject and clinging lover.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Joseph Adamson "Emotional Rescue: Shame and the Depressive Posture in George Eliot". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/adamson-emotional_rescue_shame_and_the_depressiv. July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2009, Published: June 29, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Joseph Adamson