Essay Prize

The George Eliot Fellowship


They Read with Their Own Eye from Nature’s Own Book

The 2020 Prize winning essay has been awarded this year to Emily Butler-Probst at the University of Tennessee.

Emily Butler ProbstEmily received her B.A from Metropolitan State University of Denver and her M.A from the University of Colorado, Boulder. In her programme at UT Knoxville, Emily specialises in the intersection of nineteenth-century American literature and religion. Her current research focuses on the ways that Herman Melville and other nineteenth-century authors depict character reading habits and textual influence in order to wrestle with the nature of belief and doubt. In a larger sense, she is fascinated by questions of epistemology, especially the ways in which faith, doubt, and delusion can dramatically alter that which individuals know to be true. Emily’s undergraduate thesis focused on Melville’s depiction of madness as a warning for individuals to avoid the obsessive pursuit of absolute truth, and her M.A. thesis explored Melville’s ongoing cyclical journey from scepticism to faith and back to scepticism. In 2017, Emily published “Raciocultural Union and ‘Fraternity of Feeling’: Ishmael’s Redemption in Moby Dick.” This article analyses Ishmael’s personal adoption of the Queequeg’s cultural identity as a mock conversion narrative, one that provides multicultural salvation to Ishmael and protects him from ideological destruction. Emily’s connection to George Eliot is a recent one, but she is particularly interested in Eliot’s epistemological concerns and the possible influence of Melville on her works.

 “They Read with Their Own Eye from Nature’s Own Book”: Imagining Whales in Impressions of Theophrastus Such

George Eliot’s final book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such has, until recently, received minimal scholarly attention and even today this book is significantly less studied than Eliot’s novels. While new scholarship has illuminated several chapters, there still is little scholarly explanation for Eliot’s decision to populate her fable-like Chapter 3, “How We Encourage Research,” with characters who all have cetacean names. So, while Philip Armstrong can argue that “the narrative, form and thematics of Moby-Dick are all driven by the question: What do whales mean?” there have been few attempts to discern “what whales mean” to Eliot (96). In The Life of George Eliot, Nancy Henry observes that Proteus Merman’s academic rivals are named after cetaceans in the same manner as Casaubon’s opponents in Middlemarch who are all named after fish, arguing that Eliot uses this inside reference to humorously highlight her earlier career: “Here, as elsewhere, Eliot is making jokes about her past fiction as well as probably about Lewes’s natural history researches” (248). While Henry’s reading explains why Eliot would choose to name her academic figures after sea creatures in light of her earlier fiction, Eliot’s decision to exclusively focus on cetacean names for her characters in this chapter also suggests that she found something significant about whales as larger physical or metaphoric figures. Impressions, particularly the third chapter, offers a unique perspective on humanity’s limited understanding of whales during the Victorian period.

In 1877, A year before Eliot began writing Impressions, the untimely death of the first whale transported for display at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster highlighted the shared mammalian kinship between humans and whales while also exposing humanity’s ignorance and inability to empathize with animals that cannot express their suffering as clearly as domestic pets do. Although aquarium technology had advanced to the point where whales could be transported and displayed, these new attempts to display whales also revealed that humans did not have enough exposure to whales at this time to correctly interpret when they were ill or in pain. Eliot uses disembodied whale-figures in her third chapter to comment on the way that whales’ physical bodies were often read as scientific texts without an accompanying effort to understand their subjectivity. By exposing the limitations of what we can learn about whales in particular, Eliot exposes a larger epistemological shortcoming that can only be overcome by using imagination to expand the individual’s limited perspective and embrace whales as creatures with subjectivity rather than mere objects of study.

The Westminster Whale’s short-lived existence as a display in the aquarium dramatically redefined the relationship between humans and whales. As Kelly Bushnell points out: Up to this point “it was rare for someone other than a whaleman, fisherman or sailor to see a live whale” (179). This unprecedented first look at a living whale was tragically short-lived however. The Royal Aquarium had procured a female beluga whale captured on the Labrador coast and while the 9-foot whale survived the passage and seemed healthy when it arrived in Westminster on Wednesday, the aquarium staff found the whale dead in her tank on Saturday of that same week. The London Illustrated Times explained that the staff had conducted a postmortem analysis and discovered that the whale had died from lung congestion: “[A]ll the parts were healthy, except the lungs which were in a high state of congestion…the cold had been caught during the voyage” (311). As Bushnell explains, this congestion was likely a result of the sailors regularly dousing the beluga with seawater in an effort to keep her damp without realizing the danger of the freezing temperatures on deck (182). The Westminster Whale’s death was a prominent source of discussion in the months that followed, particularly because bishop Piers C. Claughton wrote a letter to the Times arguing that the whale had been unintentionally abused and that transporting whales to the aquarium was a cruel practice (7). The discourse surrounding the Westminster Whale during the fall of 1877 and the summer of 1878 when the aquarium attempted to import a new batch of whales makes it likely that Eliot would have heard of this story before or during her writing of Impressions.

The darkly humorous fact that a creature so different from humans could die from a sickness as human as a cold was not lost on satirical publications such as Punch, which published a short poem called: “A Wail for the Whale.” This poem points to humanity’s tragic inability to recognize the symptoms of sickness in other animals, especially in the case of whales:  

We can picture an elephant wheezing,

Or a Python knocked over by a cramp

But a Whale!—we can’t picture that sneezing,

With a pulse at a hundred—from damp! (Emphasis Punch 167)

As the author of this poem suggests, even though whales are mammals, they have a physicality that is harder to interpret than other creatures such as elephants and snakes due to limited human exposure. While the beluga’s “cold” emphasizes the biological similarities between humans and cetaceans, her premature death highlights the limitations of a human perspective that cannot imagine similar illnesses in creatures so distinct from themselves.

            Although the Westminster Whale’s premature death may have given Eliot all the material that she needed for her representation of whales in Impressions of Theophrastus Such, the disastrous transatlantic import of this beluga may also have reminded her of another American whale import that was equally steeped in epistemological themes: Herman Melville’s The WhaleI[1]. Ahab’s monomaniacal drive to kill Moby Dick is a desire to “strike through the mask” of the whale’s exterior and challenge the whale as a symbol of the inscrutability that entered his life after he lost his leg. As Ahab himself explains: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him” (Melville 140). Ahab’s assault on the whale is also an assault on the unanswerable questions of his life and Melville further defines monomania as a narrow vision that sees potential truths in even the most trivial objects: “[T]o any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings” (195). While obsessively seeking meaning in the seeming-randomness of the universe Ahab also sees his surroundings as ciphers deliberately placed there to taunt him in their elusiveness. Ahab’s obsession with “solving” the indefinite nature of the universe supersedes his concern for the wellbeing of his crew and he ultimately sacrifices all their lives in this pursuit, with the exception of Ishmael. Although Moby-Dick was published in 1851, over twenty years before Impressions, the recent attempt to transport whales may have brought it back to Eliot’s attention. This seems particularly likely when considering that William Lionel Hunt, the proprietor of the Royal Aquarium, advertised the Westminster Whale by referring to her as the “white whale,” a description that “obviously alluded to Moby-Dick” even though the Westminster Whale was a beluga rather than a sperm whale like Moby Dick (Bushnell 180). Additionally, Henry Lee wrote his own report on the Westminster Whale’s transport and death in 1878 which he titled The White Whale (Lee 1). These texts recounting the innocent lives lost in a single-minded pursuit of “truth” may have exposed Eliot to the perspectival limits of humanity and the need for empathy to avert the destruction faced by Ahab, his crew, and the Westminster Whale.  

            There is no record of Eliot and George Henry Lewes owning a copy of Moby-Dick in their shared library, but Lewes read and reviewed several books by Melville when he was serving as a literary critic for The Leader in the 1850s. Lewes’ review of the British edition of Moby-Dick in November, 1851 was, according to Alice Kaminsky, one of the first positive reviews of the text (1004).[2] Lewes acknowledged that Moby-Dick was a strange text that blurred traditional genre-lines, but he also expressed his admiration for the text, noting that it held a certain wild charm as a distinctly American work:

The book is not a romance, nor a treatise on Cetology. It is something of both: a strange, wild work with the tangled overgrowth and luxuriant vegetation of American forests, not the trim orderliness of an English park. Criticism may prick many holes in this work; but no criticism will thwart its fascination (1068).

Lewes then follows this praise for Melville’s passionate intensity with several lengthy excerpts from the text to entice potential readers. In addition to reviewing Moby-Dick, Lewes also wrote positive reviews for two of Melville’s later, and more obscure works: Israel Potter in 1855, and The Confidence Man in 1857. His review of Israel Potter suggests that if not for some glaring flaws, this book would have been “the best book any American has written for a long time past” (428). And his review of The Confidence Man suggests that Lewes had read some of Melville’s earlier pacific narratives such as Typee or Omoo (356). Given that Lewes read and enjoyed a number of Melville’s works, it seems plausible that he would have discussed Melville with Eliot at some point, especially since the two of them met in fall of 1851 when Lewes was reviewing Moby-Dick and they would have been friends or romantic partners during the time Lewes composed his other reviews (Rilett 5). Additionally, Angelique Richardson points out that Lewes and Eliot “often shared [their] reading,” making it somewhat possible that Eliot read Melville alongside Lewes (43). While Eliot’s close connection with Lewes influenced many of the books she wrote while they were together, Impressions of Theophrastus Such is one of Eliot’s books that most clearly showcases Lewes’ influence—both because the essays in the book parallel some of Lewes’ insights into human psychology and because Eliot wrote the book while tending to Lewes in his declining health (Henry Life of George Eliot 239). Lewes died only nine days after he helped Eliot to submit the initial manuscript of Impressions and the book is imbued with his influence (Miller 311). As such, Eliot may have combined her concern for her ailing partner with the story of the Westminster Whale, and from this, incorporated Melville’s influence into the text as well.”

“How We Encourage Research” is particularly invested in themes of monomania and scholarly exclusivity, focusing on Merman’s fixation with validating his theories in the eyes of his cetacean opponents. Proteus Merman shares many similarities with Ahab in his academic labors as his conflict with the whale-like academics narrows his scholarly interests until he focuses exclusively on proving his theories: “He was still in the prime of life, but his mind was aged by that eager monotonous construction which comes of feverish excitement on a single topic and uses up the intellectual strength” (39).  As Rosemarie Bodenheimer observes, Merman “digs in his heels and ends up with all his wide-ranging early energy petrified into monomania” (613). Merman’s antagonistic relationship with the other whales dominates his life until he is unable to entertain other fields of study and he sabotages his relationship with his family—yet another parallel to Ahab who abandons his wife and son in his mad quest (Melville 406). While Eliot’s allusions to Melville expose the damage that an obsessive fixation with a single perspective can have on the individual’s wellbeing, her chapter also alludes to Lewes’ insights on the harm that monomaniacal exclusivity can have on the field as a whole. In The Life and Works of Goethe, Lewes comments on the stagnation that comes from rejecting other ideas, especially those that are not from the established scientific community:

Professional men have a right to be suspicious of the amateur, for they know how arduous a training is required by Science. But while it is just that they should be suspicious, it is absurd for them to shut their eyes. When the amateur brings forward…a discovery, and they treat it as crudity, their scorn becomes self-stultification (327).

While Lewes acknowledges that scholars’ exclusivity and denigration of “amateurs” comes from their anxious desire to maintain the rigor and integrity of their field, he ultimately pleads for scholars to welcome the perspectives of “amateur” scholars because excluding these voices will also exclude innovative ideas that could expand the field. Merman and the cetacean academics find themselves similarly constrained because there is a gap in their understanding and empathy. Merman’s obsessive desire to prove that his ideas are correct prevents him from seeing the other whales as anything other than academic rivals. Similarly, the cetaceans reject Merman’s ideas almost immediately, not because his ideas are inherently flawed but simply because Merman is not a cetacean himself. They are unwilling to intellectually consider a “species” of ideas that differs from their own, making both parties into monomaniacs.

            Eliot’s exposure to the death of the 1877 “white whale,” as well as her potential exposure to Moby-Dick via Lewes both would have shown her that the bodies of whales were not only commodified in terms of the whaling industry, but their bodies were also appropriated as sources of knowledge about the species. For instance, after hearing about the Westminster Whale’s death, Victorian scientist Henry Lee mourned the whale’s death as the loss of a great instructional aid for spectators:

The public, too, were deprived of a great sight, from an educational point of view. Thousands of persons who had opportunities of seeing the porpoises in the Brighton Aquarium arena then for the first time to appreciate the fact that the cetacea are no fishes. They read with their own eye from Nature's own book, far better than any printed page could teach them…And if this whale had lived, thousands more…would have learned similar lessons. Popular fallacies would have been dissipated, and popular knowledge increased (4).[3]

While Lee’s words point to the value of the living whale as an instructional tool that could dispel illusions surrounding whales, this by no means prevented people from using the whale’s body as a source of enlightenment after her death as well. Lee observes that even though the whale had died prematurely, thousands of guests still came so that they could examine the whale’s lifeless body: “During the day some sixteen hundred visitors, who had come to see the live whale, inspected it as it lay dead” (5). This curiosity regarding the whale’s body also permeated the written media of the day as The London Illustrated Times included a picture of the deceased whale (see Fig 1.) and even Punch included a drawing of a whale funeral attended by other marine animals (see Fig. 2).

Fig1Fig. 1. Dead whale from: “The Dead Whale at the Royal Aquarium.”
The Illustrated London News. 6 Oct. 1877, p. 311.
Google Play, 

fig2Fig. 2. Aquatic funeral from “A Wail for the Whale.”
Punch, 13 Oct. 1877, p. 167. Punch Historical Archive, 1841-1992,


The seeming-callousness with which aquarium workers and spectators could switch from studying the living whale to analyzing its body was characteristic of larger Victorian sensibilities regarding marine life, as Silvia Granata explains: “Even when they were not killed on purpose, marine creatures were not mourned as other pets; their death could even be framed as an opportunity for research” (35). Lewes echoes a similar sentiment in Sea-Side Studies while reflecting on the death of his fish: “I had lost a pet, and gained a ‘preparation’. Grief gave way under the scalpel. Science dried afflicted eyes” (55). Even though the dead whale could no longer perform entertaining movements, her physical body remained an instructive tool apart from the whale’s own subjectivity.

In contrast to the Londoners who eagerly appropriated the Westminster Whale’s body for spectatorship and scientific inquiry, Eliot uses her fable to move in the opposite direction by stripping her whales of their physical bodies entirely and instead depicting them exclusively as disembodied researchers. These “whale” characters fall into a similar position to the animals in Chapter 9. “The Wasp Credited with Honeycomb” where it is not entirely clear if they even are anthropomorphized animals because they could just as easily be human beings with animalistic names. As Andrew Lallier explains: “[I]t is unclear if the animal names refer to (presumably) human figures, as in other sketches, or if we have already entered into a fabulative world of anthropomorphic but non-human animals” (269). The whales in “How We Encourage Research” are only recognizable as such because of their names. Eliot does not depict an underwater society, nor does she reveal the mechanics of how these whales possess the opposable digits to write. Instead, Eliot essentially presents her whales as minds with the ability to publish and cite each other: “Grampus knew nothing of the book until his friend Lord Narwhal sent him an American newspaper containing a spirited article by the well-known Professor Sperm N. Whale…Then, by another post, arrived letters from Butzkopf and Dugong” (32). By completely removing the whale’s bodies, Eliot is able to use her fable to reverse the position of whales from objects of study to beings that possess—or at least believe that they possess—knowledge. Eliot’s contemplation of whales without their bodies serves as an interesting counterpoint to Melville’s representation of whale bodies in Moby-Dick. While he still contemplates whales in terms of their physical bodies, he also explores aspects of the whale’s body such as its spout, eyes, skeleton, or tail individually, introducing them like “characters in theatre” (Armstrong 105). With each component of the whale’s body, Melville is able to dismiss its potential to serve as an epistemological cipher, noting that any individual part of the whale falls woefully short of representing the essential truths of the whale. In one of the sections excerpted by Lewes in his review of the text, Ishmael explains that individuals may assume that the whale’s skeleton can reveal its essence, but that this is not the case:  “[I]t may be fancied, that from the naked skeleton of the stranded whale, accurate hints may be derived touching his true form. Not at all…his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape” (Melville 208). By dismissing the skeleton as a truthful indicator of the whale’s form, Ishmael presents the idea that individuals require multiple perspectives in order to reach truth and also that some truths regarding whales are potentially inaccessible.

The limitations of human knowledge, especially knowledge of whales, was a significant subject of inquiry after the Westminster Whale’s death because the whale’s caretakers had attempted to tend to the whale to the best of their knowledge and yet they still were unable to recognize the whale’s illness until it was too late. As Granata explains, sea creatures possessed bodies that humans still could not entirely understand or empathize with and as a result, attempts to understand these creatures required greater abstraction: “[T]he unfamiliar nature of marine species, and their limited (or difficult to understand) response to humans allowed, and probably encouraged, a wider degree of interpretation” (40). The greater degree of human efforts to interpolate sea creatures also resulted in cases of misinterpretation. In his defense of the aquarium staff, Lee declared that “in the treatment of this Westminster Whale everything was done that foresight could dictate in the existing state of knowledge” (9). But while Lee was confident that the whale’s human handlers had done all they could to maintain that whale’s health, their best intentions were harmful because they came with a misinterpretation of that whale’s needs. In addition to writing about humanity’s inability to properly interpret the needs of captured whales, some periodicals expressed sorrow at the fact that the Westminster Whale did not have the ability to communicate her illness to her human handlers. Punch magazine was particularly interested in pointing to the limits of human perception and it published several satirical pieces that attempted to give a voice to voiceless whales. In “A Wail for the Whale,” the speaker argues that human mistreatment must have given the suffering whale the desire to speak to her handlers and beg them to stop dousing her with frigid water: “Made thee long for a voice to cry, frantic/ ‘Oh! do stop, I’ve a cold in my head!”(167). Similarly, in another short poem called “The Aquarium Beluga,” the speaker argues that the whale would be able to reveal the truth about what happened if it only had the capacity to speak for itself: “If only this Whale/ Could tell us its tale,/ Its truth we never would doubt” (276). The whale’s handlers had limited capabilities when it came to understanding other perspectives that were not their own, and similarly, whales lacked the ability to communicate their own perspective in a manner that could be understood by humans.   

Although Eliot only depicts whales in the third chapter of Impressions, her interest in depicting the limitations of human perspective is a theme that runs through the entire book. This theme is intertwined with her depiction of whales in particular and other sea creatures to a lesser extent. Marine life seems to have drawn Eliot’s attention to the animal perspective as Feuerstein notes that her time spent studying small marine life with Lewes for Seaside Studies was an experience that “pushed Eliot to formulate a literary project that produces sympathy through a focus on specificity, multiple viewpoints, and a rejection of false idealizations of the other” (Feuerstein 30).  True vision incorporates animal senses alongside the human perspective, holding the decentered ontological perspective that human consciousness is incapable of accessing truth by itself and that “human superiority” is a perception rather than a reality. In the chapter immediately following “How We Encourage Research,” Theophrastus begins with the observation that human beings may consider themselves the pinnacle of creation but that even the lowly mollusk believes itself to be superior to other beings:

We are often fallaciously confident in supposing that our friend's state of mind is appropriate to our moderate estimate of his importance: almost as if we imagined the humble mollusc (so useful as an illustration) to have a sense of his own exceeding softness and low place in the scale of being. Your mollusc, on the contrary, is inwardly objecting to every other grade of solid rather than to himself (41). 

Humans see themselves as superior, but this misconception is shared by supposedly “lowly” creatures that place their own form as ideal. This newfound, egalitarian understanding of the world also comes with the need for a new form of vision. Like the whales who are unable to acknowledge the merit of Merman’s ideas because he is not a cetacean, many of the other characters Eliot presents in this text also remain in a limited, monomaniacal, and delusional state of being that cannot see beyond itself. Scott C. Thompson argues that one of the central themes of the text is the “[I]nherent inability of the human subject to transcend her or his phenomenal perspective. Eliot’s subjective realism reveals the boundaries of subjectivity through the narrator’s restricted perspective of self and other” (198). With both humans and animals possessing limited understanding, Eliot proposes that the best way to mediate the world is by combining as many diverse perspectives as possible. As S. Pearl Brilmyer explains: “Eliot’s fascination with the limits of perception points to an issue of increasing philosophical concern in her late work: that each being’s faculties illuminate but a sliver of the world, leaving vast swaths of the universe dark and unfelt” (35). Many of the characters that Theophrastus sketches remain trapped in a faulty perception of themselves that they can only escape by combining their self-perception with the perceptions of others. For example, Ganymede, a man who constantly perceives himself as youthful regardless of his aging body, remains in this state because he is oblivious to the fact that others would notice the inconsistencies in his behavior: “As to the incongruity of his contour and other little accidents of physique, he is probably no more aware that they will affect others as incongruities than Armida is conscious how much her rouge provokes our notice of her wrinkles” (103). If Ganymede were able to merge his limited perspective with the outside observers who recognize his advanced age, Ganymede would be able to escape from his perceptional limitations.

Theophrastus’ efforts to provide humans with an escape from limiting anthropocentric views of the universe ultimately causes him to imagine an entirely post-human world, where machinery has developed its own language and culture. “Shadows of the Coming Race,” a chapter that Nancy Henry notes served as the original conclusion to the book, may present the sobering vision of humanity’s extinction, but it also offers hope in its revelation that humans have the capacity to expand their perception by imagining the perspective of the Other (“Introduction” xxxiv). Theophrastus is able to move beyond his limiting human perspective to imagine a future form of communication that does not privilege human speech. The machines that replace humanity may develop their own silent form of communication, and Theophrastus notes that this mechanical communication will be just as complex as human language was: “Thus this planet may be filled with beings who will be blind and deaf as the inmost rock, yet will execute changes as delicate and complicated as those of human language…there may be, let us say, mute orations, mute rhapsodies, mute discussions, and no consciousness there even to enjoy the silence.” (142). While Theophrastus is referring to a hypothetical “robotic language” in this case, it harkens back to the Punch articles that mourn the dying beluga’s inability to give voice to her suffering. The Punch articles anthropomorphize the whale, but Theophrastus’ efforts in this chapter present an alternative approach by imagining the whale’s complex linguistic consciousness. As Brilmyer observes: “Theophrastus’s musings confront us with the possibility of a world in which consciousness is not the precondition for reality, a world in which communication is nothing like human language” (46).

Theophrastus’ dialog with his friend Trost concerning the end of humanity exposes his ability to embody the perspective of a non-human animal. As Thompson notes: “Eliot emphasizes the necessity of a particular type of imagination that enables one to transcend the limits of human perception.” (208).  While Theophrastus is able to muse about the potential for machines to replace humanity, Trost fails to achieve the imaginative capacity to envision the end of human life, a limitation that Theophrastus argues is due to Trost’s inability to embody a non-human consciousness:

‘[I]t is less easy to you than to me to imagine our race transcended and superseded, since the more energy a being is possessed of, the harder it must be for him to conceive his own death. But I, from the point of view of a reflective carp, can easily imagine myself and my congeners dispensed with in the frame of things and giving way not only to a superior but a vastly different kind of Entity” (140)

Imaginatively inhabiting the perspective of an aquatic creature also allows Theophrastus to envision a life form that will supersede his own species’ existence because he can understand an animal order where creatures dominate and obliterate each other. Brilmyer notes that “humanness” offers certain imaginative limitations, but Theophrastus’ embrace of the non-human attributes of himself also allows him to imagine a perspective that differs from his own: “Where the all-too-human Trost cannot conceive of his species’s end, his interlocutor, this ghost of a dead philosopher and literary entity, can imagine it and imagine embodying it” (47). By utilizing a combining form of imagination, Eliot proposes that individuals will be able to decenter and deprivilege the human perspective and therefore enable humans to recognize their shared ontology with animals.

Eliot envisioned the imagination as a solution for delusional anthropocentric thinking because it is a method of thinking that observes and recombines the phenomena it encounters. As Theophrastus explains in Impressions: “[P]owerful imagination is not false outward vision, but intense inward representation… it reproduces and constructs in fresh and fresh wholes…bringing into new light the less obvious relations of human existence” (110). Imagination allows individuals to construct “fresh wholes” from the fragments of experience and memory, creating a new vision and expanding the human consciousness. The role of imaginative recombination brings us back, once more to the physical features of the epistemologically significant whale. In Moby-Dick, Melville explains that the sperm whale sees the world differently because his eyes are positioned on either side of his body and he is unable to see anything directly in front of himself. While this perspective seems potentially harmful, Melville explains that this vision also provides the whale with two distinct views of the world that he must meld into one cohesive image. The fact that the whale can merge these conflicting images, points to a greater imaginative capacity and suggests that we as humans could greatly benefit from following Ishmael’s advice to “admire and model thyself after the whale!” (236):

True, both his eyes, in themselves, must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then is it as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid (251-252).

Inhabiting the perspective of someone other than one’s self, especially the perspective of non-human others, serves to expand the human mind, bringing it beyond individual traps or obsessions and exposing it to an outside worldview that can reorient the human’s sense of identity so that he does not elevate himself higher than he should.

Eliot’s “How We Encourage Research” is a puzzling chapter, particularly when read without the context offered by the other essays in the collection. But Eliot uses this chapter to forge her own fable, bringing her concept of imagination to its zenith by participating in a genre that Macfarlane refers to as “cumulative literature…which [was] valuable for [its] collectivity and anonymity of origin” (17). Fionnuala Dillane puzzles over the way this text presents itself as a fable without an obvious moral element, arguing that “with no clear indication of the moral, it can hardly be seen to function as a fable” (185). While Dillane is correct that this account falls short of the morals found in the traditional Aesopian fable, this narrative fits perfectly into the model of the post-Darwinian fable where the moral is “that humans belong in the Ape-house” (Danta 189). It is unusual to represent whales in a fable, but Eliot includes them as a means of pointing out how the relationship between humans and whales has also fundamentally changed during the Victorian period now that humans have the technology to capture and display whales in an aquarium. By stripping her whales of their bodies, Eliot creates whales that are no longer objectifiable and are only accessible through the imagination. Because imagination requires individuals to bring together a variety of different perspectives and also an effort to take on the perspective of other animals, Eliot's use of the fable provides a useful reversal, revealing the humanness in cetaceans and the animality within human beings. To add to Danta’s definition of the Fable, Eliot suggests that humans don’t just “belong in the Ape-house,” they also belong in the ocean where they should endeavor to see the world through the Whale’s eyes.


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[1] This was the title of the first British edition of Moby-Dick published in three volumes on October 18, 1851 by Richard Bentley, London.

[2] The British edition preceded the American edition titled Moby-Dick, published by Harper & Brothers, New York on November 14, 1851. As a result, the first reviews for Moby-Dick were reviews of the British edition.

[3] Eliot and Lewes shared a similar opportunity to read “from Nature’s own book” through their own visit to the Brighton Aquarium in 1878, a visit that may not have given them an opportunity to see a live whale, but one that likely allowed them to witness the porpoises described by Lee in this passage (McCormack 161).

gef sq 100

The George Eliot Fellowship