Friday, May 23, 2008

George Eliot and "The Appearance of Evil"

Having just finished George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, I want to allow myself one last reflection on a passage from the novel's final chapter (not counting the "Conclusion"). The passage concerns one of the novel's more interesting secondary characters, the Reverend Dr. Kenn, who is determined not to let his attitudes be swayed by groundless slanderous gossip. Eliot's narration invokes an interesting turn of phrase for such gossip; she refers to public opinion as being "always of the feminine gender—not the world, but the world’s wife." Thus, it matters little if there is no warrant for slander through either the presence or absence of evidence. As Eliot puts it:

But the refined instinct of the world’s wife was not to be deceived [by the absence of warrant for slander], providentially! Else what would become of society?

Where the critical element of slander in Eliot's plot is concerned, Dr. Kenn is initially strong in his resolve to prefer solid argument to "the refined instinct of the world's wife;" but, as is the case with many public figures (such as ones we are now encountering in the race for the White House), he must ultimately capitulate to the pressures of public opinion. Here is how Eliot justifies his decision:

Dr. Kenn, having a conscience void of offense in the matter, was still inclined to persevere, was still averse to give way before a public sentiment that was odious and contemptible, but he was finally wrought upon by the consideration of the peculiar responsibility attached to his office, of avoiding the appearance of evil, an ‘appearance’ that is always dependent on the average quality of surrounding minds. Where these minds are low and gross, the area of that ‘appearance’ is proportionately widened.

Eliot's recognition of the reality of "low and gross" minds reminds me of my favorite Samuel Johnson story: He was supposedly approached on the street by a very haughty lady, who complimented him on having omitted all "offensive" words from his dictionary. Johnson's reply was, "Were you looking for them, madam?" Today the world's wife makes her home in front of television cameras and looks for the appearance of evil as assiduously as that woman who accosted Johnson was looking for her offensive words. She will "live long and prosper" in her new setting as long as the need to distinguish appearance from reality remains secondary to the need to dominate "market share." No matter how much she may be ridiculed by Eliot (or, for that matter, Jacques Offenbach), she will prevail with the same strength that sustained her in the past two centuries.

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