George Eliot and racism: How should one read The 'Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!'?

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A number of recent critics have accused George Eliot of racism and even anti-Semitism. Her essay 'The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!' has been widely cited to support these claims. Critics have tended to take passages from it as straightforward statements of Eliot's views which they identify with racism, ignoring the text's literary aspects, such as the complexity of the narration; the implicitly racist audience the narrator is addressing; the rhetorical strategies adopted that undermine the readership's prejudices. An awareness of the text's complex literary structure suggests that accusations of racism and anti-Semitism are simplistic or unpersuasive.

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The chapter argues that Eliot is a ‘radical’ thinker in the sense that she cannot be defined in terms of either conventional Victorian thinking, whether conservative or liberal, or much modern thinking, in relation to the choices she made in her personal life, her politics and issues like the Jewish question. It is argued that her ‘revolutionary’ phase in the 1840s when she enthusiastically supported the 1848 revolutions was not, as is generally thought, superseded by a conservative ideology but continued, though the failure of the 1848 revolutions led to a more pessimistic and sceptical mental attitude about whether her earlier revolutionary ideals and hopes could ever be achieved. But a utopian strain in her thinking was never abandoned.
George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), a novel that spurred Zionism in Palestine, opens with a scene of watching and thus moves from a male gaze on a woman's body to a project of envisioning a new nation in a distant land. The national drama of the novel turns on the ideological meaning of gazing at landscape, as Daniel Deronda replaces one political perspective with another. Indeed, Mordecai's political dream of a Jewish national future involves “Looking towards a land” (454; bk. 6, ch. 42): his nationalist vision transpires as a gaze upon a far-off place. Colonial ambition itself can be understood as an ideological view of landscape as open to possession, a gaze on the territory of others that insists often violently on itself, to the exclusion of other political perspectives. Motivated not by sex but by moral and political domination, this colonial gaze nationalizes viewership, and makes the landscape it imagines real. For Deronda himself, nationality itself is a kind of viewership. He wants to study abroad, because, he says, “I want to be an Englishman, but I want to understand other points of view” (155; bk. 2, ch. 16). Being an Englishman is a “point of view,” a perspective to claim, to the possible exclusion of other nationalized ways of seeing landscapes both domestic and distant.
A large body of Eliot scholarship is dedicated to the question of human sympathy. My essay moves in a different direction, arguing that Eliot saw literature not only as a medium for intersubjective understanding but also as an amplificatory technology, a tool for sensory enhancement. This technology is embodied by the affective dynamics of character in Eliot's final published work, Impressions of eophrastus Such (1879), a collection of character sketches and philosophical essays composed in conversation with the ancient Greek naturalist and sketch writer Theophrastus of Eresus. In Impressions Eliot invokes the descriptive traditions of natural history and the character sketch to suggest that human beings, like other animals, are conditioned by bodily frameworks and habitual responses that allow them to sense some things and not others. A meditation also on the history of characterization itself, Impressions puts pressure on the modern association of character with individual human psychology.