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Violence, Temptation, and Narrative in George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance”

Mark Mossman
p. 9-20

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George Eliot

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1Margaret Homans has written of George Eliot’s early fiction,

Not only generalizing mid-Victorian middle-class qualities to other classes but also projecting them backward in time, Eliot’s early novels universalize the British middle class and, in so doing, align themselves with other efforts to consolidate middle-class hegemony in the nineteenth century. Eliot, having internalized middle-class norms, universalizes the middle class by making peculiar characteristics appear natural, generically human ones, and she naturalizes those characteristics... by naturalizing Victorian middle-class womanhood as womanhood itself... middle-class life encompasses all the possibilities of life itself, and her novels make class and gender work together to consolidate middle-class hegemony. (17)

2This argument advances a paradigm that has been constant in interpreting George Eliot’s fiction from the very first receptions of it. Whether it is values and qualities, or “middling” politics and worldview, the belief is that Eliot’s intention with her huge body of fiction is to invoke and universalize a more conservative philosophical platform that favors slow gradualism over quick revolution, and organic, static, middle-class community over diverse, urban, and more socially fluid individuality. From Leslie Stephen’s first construction of Eliot in his biography of her, to V.S. Pritchett’s claim that “there is no real madness” in her work (qtd. in Allen 185), to Homans’ more recent argument cited above, critics have discussed and interpreted Eliot primarily under these kinds of critical terms: Eliot is the graying Sybil of Victorian culture, the advocate foremost of continuity, of quiet political progress and slow social development.

3This more placid account of Eliot has been significantly countered and revised in the past two decades, though. Critics, like Judith Wilt for example, have argued that there are great moments of disruption and transgression in Eliot’s supposedly stable, controlled narratives. For example, Mary Jean Corbett has written that, “The disruption of stability, the challenge to the community, is the point on which Eliot focuses our attention: the static society comes under attack for its inability to comprehend or correct the deviation to which it has given birth” (288). Corbett continues,

Much like Elizabeth Gaskell, Eliot took on the task of interpreting a way of life alien to the experience of her middle-class mid-Victorian readership and, in doing so, sought to establish for herself a narrative and ideological position somewhere between the milieu represented and those who consume the representation.(289)

4From Corbett’s perspective, Eliot is understood to be in the role of an interpreter (almost like the nineteenth-century figure of an ethnographer), a position that is defined in part by its instability of definition: Eliot is neither a total part of the rural world she so often constructs for her Victorian readership, nor is she totally aligned with and immersed in that select, middle-class readership and discursive community. Eliot’s fiction, authored by a writer in this inbetween cultural position, becomes a kind of meta-realism, again in many ways akin to the pseudo-science and ethnography of the late-nineteenth century. It is an intended “realistic” picture of a foreign, rural life, a picture that is consciously constructed, knowingly fictive.

5Eliot’s attempt to strike this balance, to be simultaneously authentic or realistic and pedagogical or moral in her fiction, creates a number of tensions and anxieties that surface in all of her narratives. These transgressions appear in the representations of violence and desire, temptation and harsh punishment. Though such a critical focus undermines the more historical construction of George Eliot, this constant representation of violence and temptation in her narratives has been noted by many scholars of her work. For example, Henry Alley argues that, “Violent or shocking death is omnipresent in George Eliot’s fiction” (59), and that,

Her portrait of the homicidal mind certainly rivals that of Dickens’, but, particularly in the distant past, readers have been less inclined to examine it, because her large verbal systems celebrate nurturance, growth, and sympathetic communality, and also because her methods of characterization are specifically designed to hypnotize readers into forgetting that they have just crossed into dangerous territory, that they have just left Dorothea and have again met Bulstrode, that they have just left Middlemarch and entered the private prisonhouse or insane asylum. (59)

6Alley then concludes,

Placed in chronological order, her victims lose their innocence and turn evil with a vengeance. All her novels considered, we pass from a new-born baby to Mallinger Grandcourt, and we as readers become more and more implicated in the crimes. We may also say that as we pass from one criminal to another, her subtle development of a ‘private tribunal,’ affirming a fixed point of view of cosmic good, from outside the usual structures of legal justice, come more and more into being... Perhaps this subtle construction occurs not only because her books were maturing but also because her victims were becoming increasingly evil, the perpetrators more sympathetic, and therefore the urgency of the need to pull the reader back from the precipice of too much sympathetic understanding of murder. (65-66)

7Alley and others argue that such a developing scenario defines Eliot’s developing work: the deeply violent and disturbed nature of her characters and her evolving plots becomes more and more sophisticated, as does the restraining, repressive order of “natural” justice or law, which appears as an equally violent, “cosmic” rendering of guilt and resulting punishment. The result is constant disruption and transgression in the narratives, and an equally constant attempt at the maintenance of such occurrences. The narratives contain a kind of diseased element within them, then, and Eliot, their author, attempts to treat this element, again to maintain it and to limit its exposure in the text (it is important to note that Eliot herself was often ill when writing, complaining of debilitating headaches and other pains).

8I believe the short story, “Janet’s Repentance,” which appears in the collection of three stories, Scenes from Clerical Life (a book that represents Eliot’s first published fiction), demonstrates in the most bald terms these basic elements that comprise Eliot’s fiction; that is, this early story demonstrates a need and struggle to use the fictionality of personalities and the narration of their stories to dramatize temptation and violence. Narrative is used by Eliot to articulate psychologically and physically abusive violence, to construct scenarios of temptation and resistance, and to repress and control both the violence and the “sin” that constructs it. By tracing these elements in Eliot’s story, the last and the most controversial of the collection, a reading is developed that counters the more traditional paradigm initially outlined above, and instead further develops a perspective of Eliot that resists the more conservative construction of her work, in that it shows that Eliot’s fiction in many ways undermines her own intentions for it.

9Janet Dempster, the main female character in the story, is an abused woman. Violence itself, the way Janet is abused and the way she abuses herself with alcohol, is indeed the central troubling subject of the story, and the thing with which both Eliot herself and her publisher John Blackwood were primarily concerned in their negotiations over its first serial publication. At first Blackwood, who anticipated, according to Peggy Fitzhugh Johnston, many of the “mistakes” in Eliot’s writing that could have been avoided later (20), was reluctant to publish the story because of its description of violence and its treatment of abuse and Janet’s addiction to alcohol. Blackwood writes in response to the harshness of the story, “I should have liked a pleasanter picture. Surely the colors are rather harsh for a sketch of English Country Town life only 25 years ago” (Letters 2: 244). Eliot’s convincing response to Blackwood, however, defends the story because of its grounding in a historical realism,

The real town was more vicious than my Milby; the real Dempster was far more disgusting than mine; the real Janet alas! had far sadder end than mine... There is nothing to be done with the story, but either to let Dempster and Janet and the rest be as I see them, or to renounce it as too painful. (Letters 2: 347-348)

10Eliot intends the story to be set in the early 1830s and to have, however painful, a certain authenticity (though, importantly, that authenticity is consciously limited: the historically “real” Milby, Dempster, and Janet were far worse, according to Eliot). By staking a claim to realism, and by describing the abuse, in specific, frightening terms, the story undermines the more peaceful and pastoral stereotypes of country-life prevalent in middle-class, urban England. And Eliot’s complex intention, in part, seems to be to do just that. She writes earlier in an issue of the Westminster Review that, “idyllic literature has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life” (Essays 269). Janet’s story is intended to present “the truth of rustic life” with all of its violence and abuse; it is Eliot’s hope that the story will both counter the “pleasant” stereotype of rural life often assumed to be true by her readership, and also show that readership the reality, though it may be bleak, of a provincial culture.

11In this way the early story enacts the agenda and the more comprehensive social projects that critics have traditionally noted to be in Eliot’s later narratives: the story is a realistic treatment of a difficult, important subject, and it is moral, pedagogical, and “Sybil” in nature. The story depicts horror and “sin,” and teaches repentance and sympathy for others. Janet Dempster repents her drinking and finds happiness and, through an adopted daughter, grandchildren in her old age because of her ability to repent and to resist the temptation of drink. In the process of the narrative, Janet transforms from a cautionary figure to an active, positive force in the community of Milby, with her final narrated act of goodness being directed at the dying Mr. Tryan, who is configured as her savior. Robert Dempster, unable to curb either his drinking or his violence, dies in the end (with Janet, his wife, ministering to him at his bedside), largely through his own recklessness (Dempster is thrown from his gig because he is drunk).

12Again, on the surface the story seems to be moralistic in nature and, therefore, in accordance with the rest of the collection. Like the other two stories, the story of Janet is a moral one, and like the other stories it concerns a patriarchal clergyman and an ultimately submissive wife. And, like the other two stories, “Janet’s Repentance” is told by the same male narrator, a narrator that is often sexist and snobbish, always conservative and didactic. Indeed, critics have attempted to argue that, because of the way the stories are told, submission in Scenes of Clerical Life does not necessarily mean an assumption of a position that is absent of power. For example, Gilbert and Gubar have written about the collection:

The stories told by Eliot are ignored by most critics in favor of the morals she expounds, in part because these plots are almost embarrassingly melodramatic. But such plots reveal a striking pattern of authorial vengeance in the service of female submission that informs Eliot’s later fiction. (484).

13Gilbert and Gubar maintain that the assumptions made by the male narrator are shown to be faulty and undermined by the very stories he tells, by the female characters he constructs. They conclude that, like the characters of Caterina Sarti and Milly Barton in the other two stories, Janet’s character reveals a writer who is “involved in punishing male characters who specifically symbolize patriarchal power” (491).

14The attitudes of this male narrator do further the more conservative philosophical base of Janet’s story, however, and it is a base that again many critics often attribute to Eliot. For example, he describes Milby in the following way:

... at Milby, in those distant days, as in all other times and places where the mental atmosphere is changing, and men are inhaling the stimulus of new ideas, folly often mistook itself for wisdom, ignorance gave itself airs of knowledge, and selfishness, turning its eyes upward, called itself religion (264).

15Here, we see the gradualist social agenda so often perceived in Eliot’s works. The narrator frowns on “new ideas” and the “folly” they create; his comments on women are even less hopeful: for example, he claims women have a “susceptibility towards the clerical sex,” and are often involved in “mere vulgar angling for a husband” (222). In fact, the male narrator always attempts to locate and account for a “vulgar” Janet in relation to Edgar Tryan, the intended positive male figure of the story. The story ends, for example, with the narrator literally naming Janet a “memorial” to the Reverend Tryan’s spiritual work:

But there is another memorial of Edgar Tryan, which bears a fuller record: it is Janet Dempster, rescued from self-despair, strengthened with divine hopes, and now looking back on years of purity and helpful labor. The man who has left such a memorial behind him, must have been one whose heart beat with true compassion, and whose lips were moved by fervent faith. (351)

16I do not think that Eliot is conscious at this early stage of the unreliability and negativity of her problematic narrator. Instead, I believe she constructs this narrator to control what she finds necessary but simultaneously unmanageable in the story. What is striking in the story, and what undermines the philosophy of the narrator and the larger intention of the author, is the description of abuse. The image of a beaten Janet Dempster dominates the story, and causes Kristin Brady to argue, “While the first two stories in Scenes of Clerical Life concentrate on males who only passively or indirectly exercise their masculine hegemony, ‘Janet’s Repentance’... depicts the most overtly violent man in all of Eliot’s fiction” (76-77). She adds, “In all three of the Scenes of Clerical Life, at the very heart of the plot’s resolution is a female sacrifice on the alter of patriarchy” (84). Though “sacrifice” is intended, the story put together by a conservative female author writing in an assumed male voice and under, by now, an assumed male name, such sacrifice does not occur. Janet’s character becomes central, and again undermines the conservative structures (like the narrator) framing the surfaces of the narrative. With her subversive centrality, Janet is a disruptive force, a figure who works against Eliot’s purposes of making the story. Again, at the story’s inception Eliot argues to Blackwood that she has created Janet and Robert Dempster and Milby realistically, as she “sees” them; the problem seems to be that she is unable to “see” them, that what she creates is beyond the scope of her intention and her control, and what she struggles to do --this struggle being embodied in the conservative, male narrator-- is to control her own creations. Thus, she creates a conservative, patriarchal narrator in order to manage and counter the emotional and social force liberated in a character like Janet Dempster and in the representation of the “realism” of her life.

17I am able to make this claim by focusing on the material of the story itself, by looking at the harsh material Eliot intends to be the dynamics of realism. Primarily, this realism is achieved through the representation of Janet’s body and the description of her husband’s and her own abuse of it. When we first see her, it is described as the following:

She had on a light dress which sat loosely about her figure, but did not disguise its liberal, graceful outline. A heavy mass of straight jet-black hair had escaped its fastening, and hung over her shoulders. Her grandly-cut features, pale with the natural paleness of a brunette, had premature lines about them, telling that the years had been lengthened by sorrow, and the delicately-curved nostril, which seemed made to quiver with the proud consciousness of power and beauty, must have quivered to the heart-piercing griefs which had given that worn look to the corners of her mouth. Her wide open black eyes had a strangely fixed, sightless gaze, as she paused at the turning, and stood silent before her husband. (230)

18The first image of Janet Dempster is complex: she is beautiful and proud, “grandly cut,” much like a monument or statue, as Dorothea Barrett suggests (25); she has also been drinking, and her eyes are “strangely fixed”; and finally she is “silent,” about to suffer violent abuse and unable to resist it. In this scene, after first threatening Janet with physical abuse, claiming that he would “beat” her for her drinking, the intoxicated, raging Dempster hits Janet repeatedly as she stands “stupidly” under a portrait of her mother:

Surely the aged eyes [of her mother] take on a look of anguish as they see Janet-- not trembling, no! it would be better if she trembled-- standing stupidly unmoved in her great beauty, while the heavy arm is lifted to strike her. The blow falls-- another-- and another. Surely the mother hears that cry-- ‘O Robert! pity! pity!’ (231).

19Despite Blackwood’s reluctance to publish it, the depiction of spousal abuse addresses many of the popular social concerns of Victorian England in the 1850s. For example, according to F. M. L. Thompson,

Many early Victorians supposed that they were witnessing a ‘crisis of the family’ that threatened, unless successfully tackled and resolved, to undermine the entire fabric of society and to sweep the nation into turbulent, uncharted, and perilous times of chaos and anarchy... for many the most menacing, because the most insidious, problem of all was what they saw as the disintegration of the family, eating away like a worm at the very foundations of all social order. Disintegration, it was thought, was being produced by the factory system, by large-town living conditions, by irreligion, and by the weakening and destruction of traditional moral and social bonds and restraints on the unbridled and irresponsible indulgence of individual lusts and selfish appetites. Feminine rebellion against the duties and functions of childbearing and homekeeping seemed to be looming; and with the approaching collapse of parental, particularly paternal, authority, the end of the family as the basic unit of education and social training, or socialization, which transmitted all the habits and standards that enabled society to function, seemed to be in sight. (85)

20In its description of Janet and Robert Dempster, the story certainly invokes many of these concerns, and many of these attitudes. As Homans argues in the article cited above, this is typical of Eliot’s earliest fiction: she writes the middle class into the past, universalizing its “qualities” (17); thus, rural England in the early 1830s resembles the surburban, middle-class England of the 1850s. In this way, Eliot’s narrator speaks directly to what he understands to be his audience. He intends to show the audience the “reality” of rural life, but also to affirm and address the problems with which that audience is concerned. Further, like the other members of the community of Milby, a few of whom actually blame Janet for her abuse, the narrator, again philosophic and pedagogical in nature, takes a position and comments on the Dempsters’ marriage, and the problems in it: he claims that, “if Janet had been a mother, she might have been saved from much sin, and therefore from much of her sorrow.” According to the narrator, Dempster, on the other hand, is more to blame for his drinking and his violence:

But do not believe that it was anything either present or wanting in poor Janet that formed the motive of her husband’s cruelty. Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself-- it only requires opportunity [which Janet resists]. You do not suppose Dempster had any motive for drinking beyond the craving for drink; the presence of brandy was the only necessary condition. And an unloving, tyrannous, brutal man needs no motive to prompt his cruelty; he needs only the perpetual presence of a woman he can call his own. A whole park full of tame or timid-eyed animals to torment at his will would not serve him so well to glut his lust of torture; they could not feel as one woman does; they could not throw out the keen retort which whets the edge of hatred. (278)

21Thus, the answer to the Dempsters’ problems is simple: Janet needs to have children, and Dempster needs to be eliminated. It is no surprise, then, that that is exactly what happens.

22What happens, though, when Eliot creates such characters and such scenes is that violence and temptation take over the narrative and destroy the original project of it. The representation of violence and temptation disturbs everything: the narrative, the author, even the readers sympathetic to the assumptions and arguments that lay underneath the vivid descriptions of violence and temptation (the hesitant Blackwood, an editor much attuned to his middle-class readership, is a good example). This is due to the harshness of the description, its physicality, and, according to theorists of violence, this is common in its representation. Randall McGowen, for example, describes the perception of violence and its workings in literature and discourses in the following way:

The world is made to seem strange and uncertain. The violent act sets the perpetrator outside of society, not just morally but beyond our rational comprehension as well... The violent act comes to define a character as different from us, as criminal. This person appears to be outside of human community, perhaps less than human. But this boundary, seemingly so secure, begins to erode when we become aware of a neighbor’s violence, or that of the police. (140)

23It is easy, then, for readers to see Dempster as a monster because his violence makes him so, makes him “less than human,” and locates him “outside” of the “human community.” According to McGowen’s argument, it is much more difficult, though, to reconcile Janet’s abuse of herself with alcohol. This specific difficulty is slowly worked out in the narrative, building from the first representations of Janet as a monster, to her ultimate “repentance,” which completes a process of becoming human. Importantly, she does not become “human” until she resists temptation. For example, even though she has stopped drinking, and gone through the physical recovery of being dependent on alcohol, her delusional husband, as he is dying, still perceives her as being monstrous:

‘she’s coming... she’s cold... she’s dead... she’ll strangle me with her black hair. Ah!’ he shrieked aloud, ‘her hair is all serpents... they’re black serpents... they hiss... they hiss... let me go... let me go... she wants to drag me with her cold arms... her arms are serpents... they are great white serpents... they’ll twine round me... she wants to drag me into the cold water... her bosom is cold... it is black... it is all serpents...’ (322)

24In the logic of the story, Janet is still monstrous at this point, because she is still susceptible to alcohol, and because she has not resisted desire.

25Janet’s major temptation, therefore, becomes the central, resolving event in the narration of the story. After her husband’s death, Janet finds “a small spirit-decanter, half full of pale brandy.” She immediately desires it, rendered “pale and excited”:

An impetuous desire shook Janet through all her members; it seemed to master her with the inevitable force of strong fumes that flood our sense before we are aware. Her hand was on the decanter; pale and excited, she was lifting it out of its niche, when, with a start and a shudder, she dashed it to the ground, and the room was filled with the odour of the spirit. Without staying to shut up the bureau, she rushed out of the room, snatched up her bonnet and mantle which lay in the dining-room, and hurried out of the house. (335)

26What Janet must learn is to resist temptation and control desire, and she succeeds in doing so; in that success she becomes a fully functioning member of the community, for Eliot fully human. Robert Dempster fails to resist desire, and as a result is punished with violent death. Janet’s ability to control desire and resist temptation sets her up as a surprising success, therefore, especially when she is placed against the great failures in the rest of Eliot’s early fiction, like Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede.

27But to Eliot, perhaps Janet is always a kind of monster. Unlike her own character, Eliot is unable to resist the representation of violence and desire. Despite being couched in the discourse of a controlling male narrator, such images of violence and temptation erupt into the narrative and become the major focus of the story. In this way, this early work sets into motion a process that would become one of the dominant characteristics of Eliot’s fiction.


Allen, Walter. George Eliot. New York: Collier Books, 1964.

Alley, Henry. “George Eliot and the Ambiguity of Murder.” Studies in the Novel 25 (Spring 1993): 59-75.

Barrett, Dorothea. Vocation and Desire: George Eliot’s Heroines. London: Routledge, 1989.

Brady, Kristin. George Eliot. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Corbett, Mary Jean. “Representing the Rural: The Critique of Loamshire in Adam Bede.” Studies in the Novel 20 (1988): 288-301.

Eliot, George. Scenes of Clerical Life. Ed. Graham Handley. London: J.M. Dent, 1994

---. The George Eliot Letters. 9 vols. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. New Haven: Yale UP, 1955-1978.

---. “The Natural History of German Life.” Essays of George Eliot. Ed. Thomas Pinney. New York: Columbia UP, 1963.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Homans, Margaret. “Dinah’s Blush, Maggie’s Arm: Class, Gender, and Sexuality in George Eliot’s Early Novels.” Sexualities in Victorian Britain. Eds. Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.

Johnstone, Peggy Fitzhugh. The Transformation of Rage: Mourning and Creativity in George Eliot’s Fiction. New York: New York UP, 1994.

McGowen, Randall. “Punishing Violence, Sentencing Crime.” The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. Eds. Armstrong, Nancy, and Leonard Tennenhouse. London: Routledge, 1989.

Thompson, F.M.L. The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

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Mark Mossman

Mark Mossman is an Assistant Professor of English at Bethany College in West Virginia. He has published essays on Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Salman Rushdie. He is currently working on the representation of disability in nineteenth-century British novels.

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