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George Eliot & reading novels as education for a graduate attribute

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page is an unfinished note about George Eliot's argument that novels (fiction) are an education in "sympathy": in our ability to feel with and for other people. (Or possibly, in developing our "theory of mind", as some psychologists might put it.)

Keith Oatley not only took this seriously, but (with collaborators and students) has published some psychology experiments trying to test the theory.

Ursula Leguin has perhaps extended this line of thought in some of her essays. Particularly by articulating things about imagination; why that is central to human thinking and being; and how novels and stories in general in effect allow children and adults to learn about life beyond their past experience, by thinking about how life might be, could be, .....

George Eliot's argument

"The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies." [George Eliot]

George Eliot articulated her argument in an essay "The natural history of German Life".
The essay is a review of, or commentary on, two books by W H Riehl (1855/6) Die Bürgerliche Gesellschaft and Land und Lutte

Quick access
Ways to access this essay include:

References for citing

Ursula Le Guin's extension to George Eliot's argument

It's not clear that Le Guin was explicitly aware of Eliot's argument, though many things she says are largely aligned to it; and in one or more respects, she adds to it in the essays in this book:
Ursula K. Le Guin (2004) The wave in the mind. Talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination (Boulder, Co: Shambhala)
  1. "Fact and/or/plus Fiction" p.127 ff.
  2. "The operating instructions" p.206 ff.   long excerpt
  3. "A matter of trust" p. 223 ff.
  4. "The writer and the character" p. 235 ff.
All these relate to Eliot's view of the nature, importance, and educative value of writing novels. But in the second of the four listed above, Le Guin adds two points.
a) Firstly, how imagination is vital to people; and indeed that we cannot live properly if we cannot imagine (and so perhaps choose to bring about) things which we haven't yet experienced. I would say that to formulate a plan means imagining a state of affairs which is false, a fiction; and then acting to turn this fiction into fact; and that this is a central part of living, at least as a human.
b) Secondly (as I myself might put it), there are things we cannot afford to learn from experience because they are too damaging, and/or things we generally only do once in life. So we must understand them in advance, imaginatively. She ends the essay with this: "The reason literacy is important is that literature IS the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we're visiting — life."


The question is: is this Shelley's version of George Eliot's theory, and written considerably earlier?

"The great instrument of moral good is the imagination" -- Shelley.
A defence of poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley, written in 1821, a year before his death.

Eliot argues directly for the educational and moral value of reading fiction. Shelley is in effect presenting the same argument, but his immediate application is against thinking that poets (including dramatists) are immoral. He is also discussing reason vs. imagination; and tacitly arguing (as Eliot also tacitly agrees) that lecturing the audience on the moral of a story is not only less entertaining but less effective than depicting the feelings of the characters. This is because direct reason doesn't connect to your own feelings and doesn't make you see others as human ...

The key passages are less than a third of the way into Shelley's essay.

"The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man." .... "poetry acts in another and diviner manner." ....

"The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; ..."

"The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thought of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb."

Oscar Wilde's rebuttal

Eliot's essay defends the "frivolous" activity of reading fiction, while Wilde defended all frivolous activities. In this they are on the same side. Eliot however defends fiction in terms of deeply moral and serious values; while Wilde rejects and mocks any such argument. Eliot's argument, however, is that serious fiction is in some crucial, deep way realistic: about real feelings, and real human experience.

This makes George Eliot the ultimate "connected-knowing" exponent. While separate knowing is about detached knowing (and feelings are despised as irrelevant to truth), connected-knowing approaches a new idea not by searching for counter-arguments, but by searching for why and how the advocate can believe this. This concept is presented in:
Belenky,M.F., Clinchy,B.M., Goldberger,N.R. & Tarule,J.M. (1986) Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind (Basic Books: New York) ch.6 "Procedural knowledge: Separate and connected knowing".

Wilde's seminal essay The decay of lying (1889 / 1891 ) is an attack on realism, and an argument for the unrealistic imagination. (See also On the decay of the art of lying (1880) by Mark Twain.) As such, it is in important ways a rebuttal of Eliot's defence of reading in terms of its moral value, even though they are both defending the apparently frivolous nature of pleasure and reading fiction.

Wilde's argument, unlike Eliot's, is aligned with an important point, seldom noted. Almost all human successes and advances come from rejecting realism, and imagining something that is not currently real and true, and then making it happen. When people today use phrases such as "we are where we are", "we must be realistic" etc. they in fact are arguing that only the past is real, and the future not; that how we see the past now is fixed and inevitable; and that things cannot change. This is deeply false (though does have the advantage that you don't have to learn anything new, let alone change your mind). I gained this realisation from a talk by Jim McColl. All planning, including engineering, is based on imagining the non-existent and then bringing it into being, making it real, creating it. This is true of successes in every field, including novel-writing, engineering, and entrepreneurship.

Wilde's The picture of Dorian Gray shows that he was fully aware that this applies to evil as well as good imaginings. (As for example the genocides by Mao, Stalin, and Hitler, which all required detailed planning i.e. imagining.)

Modern fantasy, then, also rejects realism as important or desirable. The extension of Eliot's argument means that this needn't be immoral. However that doesn't in itself mean that it may not be more imitative and tired than original and imaginative about the underlying qualities.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Book "The wave in the mind" (2004); ch. "The operating instructions".

"Reading is a means of listening."
"Reading is ... an act: ... You read at your own pace" not at the pace of the medium.
"Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence". p.209

"The reason literacy is important is that literature IS the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we're visiting, life." p.210

Susan Sontag


Susan Sontag (2005) "At the same time ... (the novelist and moral reasoning)" English Studies in Africa vol.48 no.1 pp.5-17 doi: 10.1080/00138390508691327

Enlarging the mind, or learning to manipulate people?

ToM ("Theory of Mind") is simply tracking what other's know, for both your own
and sometimes their benefit.

High-functioning psychopaths understand how others feel very well, but don't
feel any fellow-feeling any more than a predator or a surgeon does.

Eliot on the other hand, is arguing about expanding one's understanding more
fundamentally: coming to understand feelings — and so life —
that are new to you.

Is this a kind of graduate attribute?

Obviously reading novels is not a graduate attribute in the usual sense that it is something which few have before they enter HE, but all should have (regardless of their discipline) when they leave.

However it is quite like graduate attributes in that: it is something usually done without the intention to self-improve; which the person may not be aware of having acquired; yet which has, if Eliot and Oatley are right, a deeply educational personal effect: i.e. beneficial and widely applicable across many contexts.

Keith Oatley and others have done academic psychological research along these lines

Keith Oatley (also here: news flashes;   staff page) on how reading novels is an education of one's emotions and understanding of emotions. The following refs are an arbitrary selection, and in no way are complete or up to date: they might at best get you going on the topic. They are listed in reverse chronological order, NOT alphabetic by author.

Brain scan research on novels

Learning is painful; so novels must/may be painful too

"If you travel with us you will have to learn things you do not want to learn in ways you do not want to learn".

[Doris Lessing, from a letter replying to a reader who had been seriously disturbed by reading one of her novels. Quoted in Alan Yentob's "Imagine" TV programme on Doris Lessing, broadcast Tues 27 May 2008, 10:35pm on BBC1]

Bugs, more to do

Actually read the extract carefully. [Shelley? Eliot?] Types of ToM Mind contents: all K. of world IS shared info/percep goals, tastes, values differ too Perceiving emos ...

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