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George Eliot’s early artistic-moral theory envisions that the true picture of life offered by realism will permit her to address her readers in a straightforward tone of shared moral sympathy for her ordinary provincial characters. This vision is based on a fundamental tenet of Eliot’s religion of humanity; she claims a capacity in all individuals, no matter how “trivial” or “selfish,” for spontaneous sympathy if only they are helped to see accurately the sorrows and joys of everyday men and women. An examination of “The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton,” Eliot’s first major work of fiction, reveals a discrepancy between theory and practice: Eliot employs an indirect and defensive rhetorical strategy for enlisting her readers’ sympathy for her characters. Frank Mc-Connell’s The Confessional Imagination analyzes Wordsworth’s The Prelude as a form of displaced religious confession and provides a context for viewing “Amos Barton” in a similar light. Mc-Connell describes the linguistic act of professing faith, whether religious or secular, as itself the final process by which faith is possessed with full psychic security by a confessant. A comparison between passages of authorial address in The Prelude and analogous passages in “Amos Barton” suggests that Eliot’s rhetorical indirection is the product of an unsuccessful confessional effort to believe fully that a capacity for spontaneous sympathy does, in truth, exist as a fundamental of human nature.
The Sad Fortunes of The Reverend Amos Barton by George Eliot
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