George Eliot--Proto-Psychoanalyst

by Carl T. Rotenberg

November 30, 2000


In the novel, Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, George Eliot depicts essential aspects of a treatment dyad in her portrayal of the relationship between Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda. The author of this article speculates on the possible influence of George Eliot on Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic concepts he described decades after the publication of the novel. The attributes of the therapeutic relationship denoted by Eliot include: a listening perspective, suspension of moral criticism, attunement to shifting affective and cognitive states, tolerance of contradictions, resistance, the significance of empathic attunement, unconscious processes, and the fundamentals of transference. Eliot describes the difference between an enacted romantic relationship vs. a therapeutic relationship, in which the treater's needs are renounced for the sake of the healing effects of the relationship


"Was she beautiful or not beautiful? . . . Was the good or evil genius dominant in those beams?" (Daniel Deronda, Ch. 1)

"`I wonder whether one oftener learns to love real objects through their representations, or the representation through the real objects,' he said." (Daniel Deronda, Ch. 35)

George Eliot and Freud

    While reading George Eliot's fiction, particularly Daniel Deronda (1876), I was impressed by similarities between George Eliot and Freud and began to wonder if Freud had been influenced by Eliot in some way. There is no evidence of their ever having met, but both were powerful proponents of the healing power of human relationships. Indeed, Daniel Deronda, published when Freud was twenty-two years old, describes a relationship between its protagonists that in many ways prefigures brief psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy.

    Investigation has revealed that Freud was in fact an admirer of George Eliot. It is well-known that he was a voracious reader in several languages, including English. In 1875, his father sent him to England to reward his academic success in the gymnasium. At this time, George Eliot's fame was at its height, and her novels were on everyone's lips. Middlemarch, which had been published in 1872, seems to have made a deep impression on Freud. He had its "four volumes lying in front" of him when he wrote to Martha Bernays in August of 1885 (Jones, 1953, I, p. 168); and, according to Jones, he found that it "illuminated important aspects of his relations" with his fiancée (p. 174). It is conceivable that this illumination influenced his later theories about love relationships. In 1882, Freud expressed amazement at the depiction in Daniel Deronda of intimate ways among Jews that "we speak of only among ourselves" (Jones, 1953, I, p. 174). There is a reference to Eliot's novel Adam Bede in The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900, p. 290). Freud thought so highly of George Eliot that he gave her books to friends as gifts, to his sister-in-law, Minna, for example, in 1885 (Jones, 1953, I, p. 131). George Eliot may have influenced Freud in his thinking about character structure, love relationships, and identity, both personal and social.

    The extent of Eliot's influence on Freud is unclear, but it is clear that they were similar in many ways. Like Freud, Eliot was an astute observer of the details of human behavior, especially those expressing subtleties of psychological motivation. Herbert Spencer, her intimate friend in the early 1850s, wrote in his Autobiography that before she became a novelist, he had seen in her "many, if not all, of the needful qualifications in high degrees--quick observation, great power of analysis, unusual and rapid intuition into others' states of mind, deep and broad sympathies, wit and humor, and wide culture" (Haight, 1968, p. 120). George Eliot often portrayed the ways in which significant emotions reveal themselves in seemingly tiny, inadvertent ways, thus demonstrating her intuitive awareness of unconscious nonverbal expression and communication. Had she lived to read Freud's work on parapraxes and the psychopathology of everyday life, she would have greeted it with a sense of familiarity.

    Like Freud, Eliot was drawn to the complexities and internal contradictions of human beings. With few exceptions, her characters have psychological flaws and conflicts; they are not all-bad or all-good. She understood the force of superego pressures vis-a-vis impulse. She excelled at portraying interpersonal interactions from the perspectives of the participating individuals, moving back and forth between them. She not only conveyed the details of a social scene as observed by an outsider; she also showed how the scene was experienced subjectively by each of its participants.

    Again like Freud, George Eliot was sensitive to the ways in which childhood experiences can set the stage for psychological organization later in life. In Daniel Deronda, for example, both the protagonists are provided with childhood developmental configurations that help to explain the psychological conflicts that drive their behavior as adults. Daniel's identity problems evolve out of a painful awareness of early maternal rejection that is "forgotten" until it is corroborated later in the novel. Eliot even provides an early "screen memory" of transient early bliss followed by painful maternal rejection. Trying to recall his origins, Daniel strains "to discern something in that early twilight" and has "a dim sense of having been kissed very much, and surrounded by thin, cloudy scented drapery, till his fingers caught in something hard, which hurt him, and he began to cry" (Ch. 16). (This remarkable passage appears to have all the qualities of a screen memory as described later by psychoanalysis. It is an apparent memory that operates, through symbolization, condensation, and secondary elaboration, as in a dream. Screen memories signify not merely a single event but an early object- relational experience that becomes a way of subjectively organizing personal experiences throughout life. Condensed in this screen memory, we see a dim sense of loving, gratifying fusion with a caretaking other, contrasted with a conflicting configuration, the "hard" cruelty of rejection and separation. The implications of this for Daniel's early maternal rejection are evident.) Gwendolen's 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. Indeed, Eliot's understanding of the conscious and unconscious effects of early experiences seems remarkably sophisticated.

Gwendolen and Daniel

    At the center of Daniel Deronda is a therapeutic relationship in which a person with heightened self-centeredness and guilty homicidal fantasies engages in a healing interaction with an empathic other who helps her to resolve her conflicts, to heal her deeply divided self, and to go on living. Although Gwendolen endows Daniel with superego qualities, including magical ones, from the time of their first encounter when she is gambling at a European resort, it is after she becomes involved with Grandcourt that she develops the psychological symptoms that lead her to seek him out.

    The marriage of Gwendolen and Grandcourt is doomed from the start. Grandcourt's wish to marry Gwendolen is not based on love but on his desire to dominate and subjugate her. Eliot does not draw Gwendolen one-sidedly as a victim, however, since she depicts her acceptance of Grandcourt's proposal in equally negative terms, as motivated by her need to be involved with a man whose power she can contest and whom she has fantasies of dominating. Eliot suggests that Gwendolen is developmentally predisposed to be mistrustful of genuine romantic love and that her affective defense against the experience of love, probably also of sexuality, is boredom.

    Gwendolen marries Grandcourt under circumstances that fill her with anxiety and guilt. She is made fully aware of his potential for cruelty to women by his desertion of his mistress, Lydia Glasher, whom he had induced to leave her husband and with whom he has fathered four children. Lydia curses Gwendolen on the night of the wedding, and Gwendolen is tormented by the thought that in securing her own economic good fortune, she is taking what rightfully belongs to this woman and her children. After the marriage, Gwendolen develops a hatred of Grandcourt that is based on her growing experience of him as sexually sadistic and morally venomous. Her repugnance toward Grandcourt as a violator is metaphorically condensed in her image of him "as a dangerous serpent ornamentally coiled in her cabin without invitation" (Ch. 54).

    As a result of her feelings of humiliation and guilt, Gwendolen develops conscious and unconscious homicidal wishes towards her husband, as well as destructive impulses towards herself. She experiences foreboding, depression, dream-like states, symptomatic impulses to destructive acting out, murderous dreams, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, manifest anxiety, and obsessional self-recrimination.

    What about Daniel? He is introduced as a man who moves, like Gwendolen, among the British aristocracy. As we later learn, Daniel's sense of entitlement in this social class is far from secure. His birth and parental origins are shrouded in mystery. He was raised by a guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger, who we later learn had courted his mother, a famous opera singer. We share Daniel's experiences as he discovers that he was born of Jewish parents and that his mother gave him up in his second year of life for the sake of pursuing her career. She also wanted to protect him against the fate of being a Jew. Do we see here a fictional rendering of the insight that early suffering is a preparation for the later development of personal traits of empathy and compassion for others? Daniel is a person in search of a core identity. Was he an Englishman or a Jew, or was he both? If both, how could he reconcile this conflict? He is a person who has no place in society, a wanderer, a man uprooted from his origins who must define his identity for himself.

    Daniel is described as having a "calm and somewhat self-repressed exterior," beneath which there is a "fervor which made him easily find poetry and romance among the events of everyday life" (Ch. 19). Perhaps it is this quality that draws his attention at the beginning of the novel to Gwendolen, who is gambling at a European spa while in a mood of profound disillusionment. Daniel notes that she has lost her money and has pawned her necklace, a symbolic expression of her tendency to put at risk valued aspects of her self. In an action laden with symbolic meaning, he anonymously redeems her necklace, thus enabling her to pay for her return to England. Their first contact, then, is one in which Daniel responds to Gwendolen's need to be extricated from a humiliating predicament. His generous effort to help her recover her dignity sets the stage for the emotional healing relationship that follows. He identifies himself with the role of rescuer or healer.

    Daniel and Gwendolen meet almost accidentally on several other occasions, though as their relationship develops and her need of Daniel intensifies, Gwendolen increasingly seeks to place herself in situation where she will encounter him. Meeting Daniel becomes increasingly difficult, since Grandcourt misconstrues her interest in Daniel as vulgarly romantic and angrily seeks to keep them apart. Grandcourt denies being motivated by jealousy and claims that he is simply concerned about appearances. He takes Gwendolen on a yachting voyage in the Mediterranean in order to render further meetings with Daniel impossible. Grandcourt's behavior corresponds to a practice that we often see clinically in abusive marriages: the perpetrator works hard to discourage contacts between his spouse and any social supports. Grandcourt drowns in a boating accident while he and Gwendolen are alone together, thus freeing Gwendolen of him and fulfilling her guilty homicidal fantasies. Gwendolen is in anguish over the feeling that she is somehow responsible for this dreadful event.

    In his meetings with Gwendolen, Daniel's role is to be a healing other. He is empathic, responsive, and available. He offers her nothing substantial other than the availability of a sympathetic listener to whom she can recount her inner states. He is attracted to her yet does not see her as a commodity. He appears to present her with a form of object-relations experience that is new to her. She overcomes her reserve and increasingly and unburdens her soul to him, while Daniel listens, consoles, gives moral support, and examines his own unspoken inner reactions. At times he remains tactfully and eloquently silent. While he occasionally offers advice, it is clear from Eliot's account that Gwendolen's most meaningful experience of Daniel is that of being listened to compassionately. Within the context of this experience, she can heal from the trauma of her relationship with Grandcourt and face the future with her self somewhat restored. Egoism is transformed into more meaningful relationships with others. Daniel's relationship to Gwendolen consists of a caring concern interlaced with a muted eroticism that is kept in the background. His primary motive seems to be a fascination with this "wretched creature," coupled with a satisfaction that derives from helping her redeem herself and reestablish her sense of having meaningful goals.

Daniel Deronda and Psychoanalysis

    George Eliot's depiction of the interaction between Daniel and Gwendolen seems prescient of the analytic relationship. This is a relationship between two people in which the inner torment of one is ameliorated by the verbal interventions of another in a series of meetings that seem to exist only for that purpose. Moral judgment is suspended while the details of inner experience are apprehended, understood, and explained. The seeds of Freud's scientific theories, such as the dual instinct theory or the theory of psychosexual development, do not appear explicitly in this novel. What this work foresees is the interpersonal context that evolved into the psychoanalytic treatment frame.

    More specifically, we can see the presence of the proto-psychoanalytic in Daniel Deronda in its rendering of (i) the unconscious, (ii) empathic introspection and the listening perspective, (iii) transference, and (iv) principles of therapeutic change.

The Proto-Psychoanalytic: i. The Unconscious

    As Peter Gay (1988) points out, conceptions of the unconscious, as a phenomenon and as a system, have a long history before Freud. Plato, for example, envisioned the soul as represented by two winged horses, one beautiful and noble, one coarse, pulling in divergent directions, beyond the control of the charioteer. Gay notes the exploration of the unconscious in romantic writers such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Goethe, and Schiller, and also in the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In "The Aspern Papers," Henry James connected the idea of the unconscious with dream (Gay, 1988, p. 128).

    Explicit notions of the unconscious appeared in scientific writings of the nineteenth century. Eduard von Hartmann, the physiological psychologist, published a book, The Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869), that was read by George Eliot's partner, George Henry Lewes, when it first appeared. Von Hartmann wrote about hierarchical levels of organization in the human organism. He argued that reflex action proves the "purposive organization of the nervous system in which the lower energies are kept . . . prepared and always ready for action, but at the same time are held in check by the superior authorities . . . until the moment seems to have arrived for unchaining these energies by a nod" from these authorities (Shuttleworth, 1981, p. 287).

    In his Problems of Life and Mind, Lewes used the image of a web to express his theory that the mind does not always follow the serial logical processes of conscious thought. "The attitude of the Sensorium is a fluctuating attitude which successively . . . . brings now one and the other point into daylight, leaving others momentarily obscured though still impressing the sentient organism" (quoted by Shuttleworth, 1981, p. 298). In Lewes's view, there is a ceaseless action of unconscious mentation operating beneath the surface of consciousness that determines behavior. Since Lewes was working on his book with Eliot's assistance at the time she was writing Daniel Deronda, his ideas about unconscious thinking more than likely influenced her narrative descriptions.

    Freud's conception of the psychological power of the unconscious went far beyond anything formulated before him. A defining feature of the unconscious for him was that it creates and perpetuates psychological conflict, as the need to keep matters unconscious generates forces of repression. In the Eliot/Lewes formulation, there is often no absolute distinction between conscious and unconscious thinking; rather, there are gradations through which the two kinds of thinking can intermingle with each other: "Fantasies moved within her like ghosts, making no break in her more acknowledged consciousness and finding no obstruction in it: dark rays doing their work invisibly in the broad light" (Ch. 48).

    Sometimes Eliot does describe an unconscious modified by defense, i.e., with the presence of conflict: "The thought of his [Grandcourt's] dying would not subsist; it turned as with a dream-change into the terror that she should die with his throttling fingers on her neck avenging that thought" (Ch. 48). Here we have a description of the unconscious

    operation of defense, a turning against the self of an unwanted but conscious impulse. At other times, Eliot explicitly refers to psychological conflict, though not to the presence of conflicting psychic agencies, as in Freud. For example, she describes the psychological conflict that arises out of coexisting unconscious thoughts and feelings. She notes "the play of various, nay contrary tendencies. For MacBeth's rhetoric about the impossibility of being many opposite things in the same moment, referred to the clumsy necessities of action and not to the subtler possibilities of feeling . . . we cannot kill and not kill in the same moment; but a moment is room wide enough for the loyal and mean desire, for the outlash of a murderous thought and the sharp backward stroke of repentance" (Ch. 4).

    Gwendolen experiences Grandcourt's death as a criminal fulfillment of her conscious murderous fantasies, but her confessional outpouring to Deronda describes a climactic moment suffused with all levels of unconscious thought, memory, and feeling:

"The rope," he called out in a voice--not his own--I hear it now--and I stooped for the rope--I felt I must--I felt sure he could swim, and he would come back whether or not, and I dreaded him. That was in my mind--he would come back. But he was gone down again, and I had the rope in my hand--no, there he was again--his face above the water--and he cried again--and I held my hand, and my heart said, "Die!"--and he sank; and I felt "It is done--I am wicked, I am lost!"--and I had the rope in my hand--no, there he was again, his face above the water--and he cried again, and I had the rope in my hand--no there he was again--his face above the water--and he cried again--and my heart said, "Die!--and he sank; and I felt "It is done--I am wicked, I am lost!"--and I had the rope in my hand--I don't know what I thought. I was leaping away from myself--I would have saved him then. I was leaping away from my crime, and there it was--close to me as I fell--there was the dead face--dead, dead. It can never be altered. That was what happened. That was what I did. You know it all. It can never be altered (Ch. 56).

    This description is noteworthy from a number of points of view. First, it employs a metaphor that has often been used, before Freud and since, in reference to the unconscious. The unconscious is a body of water, the "deep pool of the unconscious," where things surface or fall into the depths. A second noteworthy feature is the vagueness, the uncertainty of perception, and the fusing together of emotion, fantasy, memory, and fact, modified at times by secondary elaboration. We have here an expressive mélange of perceptions missed, projected and confused; memories mixed with fantasy; an expansion and contraction in the sense of time; and the emotional turmoil and factual omissions associated with trauma. As Eliot pointed out, Gwendolen's conscience made her emphasize the causal power of her murderous thoughts. Deronda "held it likely that Gwendolen's remorse aggravated her inward guilt, and that she gave the character of decisive action to what had been an inappreciably instantaneous glance of desire" (Ch. 56). We have here a powerful, true-to-life description of an admixture of conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings. Gwendolen's murderous thoughts were completely conscious; what was unconscious was the defensive distortion of her experience by warring thoughts, feelings, and fantasies within her, accentuated by the traumatic aspects of the moment.

The Proto-Psychoanalytic: ii. Empathy

    Empathy has always played a significant role in analysis; it is an aspect of how analysts of any school come to understand patients. Attempts to define empathy theoretically and operationally have flourished especially in self-psychology. Empathy, vicarious introspection, can be contrasted with exteroception, or external observation, as different modes of apprehending the patient. In the analyst's receptive activity, these two different modes of perceiving oscillate and interact with one another. Empathy helps the therapist to obtain the data that are requisite for psychoanalytic treatment, and it can have a sustaining effect on those who receive it.

    It is perhaps noteworthy here, in an exploration of the overlapping of science and art, that the original formulation of empathy came from the German aesthetic philosopher Theodor Lipps, whose works were owned and read by Freud. According to Lipps, Einfuhlung, or empathy is the act of projecting oneself into the object of perception. It helps to organize apparent aesthetic chaos by attuning us to the ordering principles of the artist. In psychotherapy, empathic attention helps a person in emotional turmoil and distress to organize the chaos of affective currents. We see this in operation in Daniel Deronda through Daniel's consistent attention to Gwendolen's emotional self, her subjective psychological reality.

    While Gwendolen seeks support and even advice from Daniel, what she needs most from him is an understanding of her anguished subjective state. "I wish he could know everything about me without my telling him," she thinks while looking in a mirror. "I wish he knew that I am not so contemptible as he thinks me, that I am in deep trouble, and want to be something better if I could" (Ch. 35). She wants him to empathize with her, to enter into her situation: "What should you do, what should you feel if you were in my place? (Ch. 36). As Gwendolen evolves her themes of remorse over hurting others and guilt over the hatred she harbors toward her husband, Daniel is guided in his interventions by his understanding of what would be best for her. As Gwendolen describes her psychic pain in ever increasing intensity, Daniel begins to express feelings of helplessness, partially identifying with her psychic state.

    At times he tries to respond to her invitation to give her advice by saying such things as "Take the present suffering as a letting in of light" and "Try to take hold of your sensibility, and use it as if it were a faculty, like vision" (Ch. 36). He feels a discrepancy, however, between his words of advice and something else that she needs. He views her "as if he saw her drowning while his limbs were bound" (Ch. 36), thus inwardly mirroring her experience of being helplessly trapped. His emotional response is clearly more meaningful to her than anything he has said. She saw "the pained compassion which was spread over his features as he watched her," and this "affected her with a compunction unlike any she he had felt before" (Ch. 36).

    The empathic resonance established in the early exchanges between Daniel and Gwendolen helps to prepare for the climactic session following the death of Grandcourt. Gwendolen is able to describe the details of the accident, to express the full breadth of what she felt and thought, and to convey the extent of the trauma she experienced. She is able to discuss what she feels most self-critical about, that is, her increasing murderous obsessional thinking, and her guilt over the apparent fulfillment of her worst thoughts.

    In his attempts to attune himself to Gwendolen, Daniel is thoughtful about himself and his intended interventions:

How could he grasp the long-growing process of this young creature's wretchedness?-- How arrest and change it with a sentence? He was afraid of his own voice. The words that rushed into his mind seemed in their feebleness nothing better than despair made audible, or than that insensibility to another's hardship which applies precept to soothe pain. He felt himself holding a crowd of words imprisoned within his lips, as if letting them escape would be a violation of awe before the mysteries of our human lot (Ch. 48).

Daniel seeks to sensitize himself to Gwendolen's inner emotional state in order to understand her accurately. He is mindful of the importance of the dialogic process and is intuitively aware of the principle of "free association": "He must let her mind follow its own need" (Ch. 56). Overall, Daniel's sustained empathic attention and availability facilitate Gwendolen's expression of her feelings, thus providing Daniel with more information about her and helping him to sustain her emotionally.

The Proto-Psychoanalytic: iii. The Transference Relationship

    In psychoanalysis, there are three aspects to the transference relationship: (1) the past repeating itself in the present relationship; (2) a newer present expressing itself in place of past relationships; and (3) a damaged self seeking transformation (Ornstein, 1989). All three elements are present the Gwendolen-Daniel relationship, which has a healing effect on Gwendolen and holds out the promise of a better future for her.

    At the very beginning of the relationship Daniel's glance, signaling potential disapproval, has a superego quality for Gwendolen. As Gwendolen's feelings toward Daniel develop, there are mixed idealizing and mirroring components, but transference idealization predominates, interspersed with doubts and mistrust. At one moment, she feels like a "shaken child--shaken out of its wailings into awe" (Ch. 36). Held like a bewildered child by a parent, she feels soothed. She asks almost submissively if she will be too much trouble to Daniel and if her troubles do not grieve him excessively. She listens carefully to his words, tries to follow his advice, and increasingly beseeches his attention to her inner life: "I wanted to tell you that I have always been thinking of your advice, but is it any use? I can't make myself different, because things about me raise bad feelings--and I must go on--I can alter nothing--it is no use . . . I am afraid of everything. I am afraid of getting wicked. Tell me what I can do" (Ch. 48). In some ways, Gwendolen's belief in Daniel's words resembles that of a supplicant in the words of a priest-confessor, perhaps even that of a disciple in the words of Jesus. At times, Gwendolen feels toward Deronda as a child does toward a parent who holds the power of forgiveness.

    As their closeness and mutual involvement grow, romantic and erotic overtones appear, something that is not unusual in a transference relationship. Love and hate in the transference are familiar clinical phenomena, aspects of a treatment with the potential for progress. Daniel recognizes that during her "work" with him, and as a consequence of it, Gwendolen's soul "clung to his with a passionate need" (Ch. 65), and he correctly identifies this need as primarily one for reflective listening. In one passage, George Eliot provides a wonderful description of what we now call transference intensification: "the comparatively rare occasions on which she could exchange any words with Deronda had a diffusive effect in her consciousness, magnifying their communication with each other, and therefore enlarging the place she imagined it to have in his mind" (Ch. 48).

    Partly as a result of her transference idealization, Gwendolen becomes extremely dependent on Deronda and cannot contemplate the prospect of their relationship ending. She has "never before had from any man a sign of tenderness which her own being had needed, and she interpreted its powerful effect on her into a promise of inexhaustible patience and constancy" (Ch. 56). The relationship cannot continue indefinitely, however, and Eliot has Gwendolen and Daniel separate at the end of the novel, as is appropriate for a relationship whose aim is predominantly a healing one. They go in separate directions, Gwendolen to care for her mother, and Daniel to travel in Palestine. The separation is inevitable, since Daniel has a life elsewhere and is planning to marry Mirah Lapidoth. While Gwendolen is powerfully drawn to Daniel, and her feelings are reciprocated in him, they are not to be lived out as a "real" relationship in society. As Daniel comments towards the end of the book, implying the illusionary aspects of the transference relationship to him, "If we had been much together before, we should have felt our differences more, and seemed to get farther apart" (Ch. 69).

    The passionate connection between Daniel and Gwendolen is organized by her therapeutic needs and is not to be mistaken for romantic love. What is most important is that the relationship with Daniel becomes internalized in Gwendolen and guides her emotional states and values. She affirms several times that she is better for having known Daniel. Although she is saddened by their separation at the end, she has internalized Daniel's idealized qualities, and the relationship has left her with inner health and moral strength.

The Proto-Psychoanalytic: iv. Principles of Therapeutic Change

    Among the principles of therapeutic change in psychoanalytic treatment that have been propounded, the principle of "optimal responsiveness" (Bacal, 1985) stands out as being comprehensive and grounded in empirical criteria. This term supersedes terms such as optimal frustration or optimal gratification and excludes modes of therapeutic change that are defined by criteria that exist outside of the specific therapeutic relationship being described. Optimal responsiveness involves the therapist's "communicating to his patient in ways that that particular patient experiences as usable for the cohesion, strengthening and growth of his self" (Bacal, 1985, p. 142; my emphasis). The term "usable" refers to Winnicott's description of how the child makes use of the responses of a good-enough caretaker for the purposes of facilitating its development. Optimal responsiveness is an overarching term that can refer to all the forms of intervention that analysts have used over the history of psychoanalysis to facilitate change, including therapeutic enactments (Lazar, 1998). It is useful for considering the mode of "therapeutic change" in Daniel Deronda.

    There are a number of instances of optimal responsiveness in Daniel Deronda, including therapeutic enactments. Therapeutic enactments are activities on the part of the analyst that are nonverbal but are cued in to their understanding of patient's dynamics. An enactment might be as innocent as a simple act of courtesy or as complex as the preventive management of destructive acting out in a masochistic patient. Enactments are guided by the analyst's in-depth understanding of aspects of the transference-countertransference system that cannot be conveyed by words alone (Lazar, 1998, p. 216). One such "responsive" enactment is the Daniel's redemption of the jewelry Gwendolen has pawned, an act that sets the stage for his later usefulness to her as a superego figure, idealized object, and healer. By redeeming her necklace, he seems to be interested in redeeming lost parts of herself. He indicates wordlessly that she deserves better than to gamble herself away like a commodity. He also makes a sacrifice on her behalf, an enactment that can be a significant aspect of many therapies. The redeemed jewelry becomes a concrete icon of his empathic bond with her. There are other actions of Daniel's that also involve sacrifice, perhaps the main one being his making himself available in spite of some evidence that his attentiveness to Gwendolen could be misinterpreted and be compromising to him. There is even a suggestion of danger for him from Grandcourt's explosive wrath.

    Daniel's optimal responsiveness leads him to appear when bidden but tactfully to remove himself when his presence can no longer be helpful or might get Gwendolen in trouble. He encourages her to find an "occupation of mind that [she cares] about with passionate delight" (Ch 36). Gwendolen experiences his interest in her welfare without necessarily being able to make use of his advice. He reassures her that he will not forsake her, even at the moments of her most intense self-recrimination. He tends to her as a nurse or comforting parent might, standing before her and encouraging her to rest and get needed sleep when she is too overwhelmed to do much else. Gwendolen can utilize these enactments as inner representations of Daniel's concern for her: "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" (Ch. 36). Prior to Grandcourt's drowning, when Gwendolen was beset by "fierce eyed temptation with murdering fingers" (Ch. 54), the internal image of Deronda's presence, his words, and his sympathy all helped to offset her inner turmoil and offer her consolation and strength.

    From our contemporary perspective, we might formulate what transpires between Daniel and Gwendolen as the establishment of an idealizing transference in which Gwendolen felt the idealized object to be concretely responsive to her. She experienced Daniel's strength first as his strength within her and then, galvanized by merger, as her own strength. Daniel's principles of organizing emotional experience became usable as hers and protected her from her own inner affective chaos.

    Another formulation might be that against internal opposition (defense-resistance) Gwendolen was able to widen her perspective and to experience a new mode of object-relationship, one that had never been part of her experience and was therefore not part of her expectations of men. Her identification with the new object helped her to heal a defective self and to participate more fully, more compassionately, and less egotistically with others. This newer self could deal more effectively, and with less unconscious self-accusation, with the experience of trauma and sudden loss. Gwendolen could feel herself to be good, rather than a murderess whose inner wishes had been magically fulfilled.

    I have tried to show that George Eliot depicts many of the essential aspects of a treatment relationship in her portrayal of the interaction between Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth. There is suspension of moral criticism; a listening perspective; attunement to the subtleties of shifting internal affective and cognitive states; tolerance of contradictions; respect for unconscious thinking and feeling; relative renunciation of neediness on the part of the "therapist"; expectation of a healing effect on the self of the "patient"; intensification of affective relatedness, i.e., transference; and, lastly, therapeutic principles that facilitate change. George Eliot was a proto-psychoanalyst who had a remarkable understanding of how a treatment relationship works decades prior to the development of psychoanalysis.


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----- (1998). Vengeance and transformation in Daniel Deronda. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis 25: 473-92.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Carl T. Rotenberg "George Eliot--Proto-Psychoanalyst". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 1, 2000, Published: November 30, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Carl T. Rotenberg