This article argues that the famous concluding paragraph of George Eliot's Middlemarch contains a hitherto unrecognized cryptic allusion to a Jewish myth newly popular in her time: lamed vov, a specific “number” of “hidden” righteous persons believed to “channel” flows of divine compassion, thereby preserving and slowly improving the human world. Once recognized, this cryptic allusion has implications for the interpretation of the novel, casts new light upon the philosophical problems with which Eliot wrestled and upon her ideal of Realism, as well as upon her changing relationship to Jews and Jewish tradition. Eliot's treatment of Jewish material is commonly exclusively identified with her last works, especially Daniel Deronda. But Middlemarch marks an earlier, discreetly veiled phase of that relationship, before Eliot came publicly “out” with her philo-Semitism and determination to serve as a culture-broker. This article offers an account of Eliot's sources, of turning points in her relationship to Jews and Jewish tradition, and of the important place of Middlemarch in that development.

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