Abstract

While there is a persistent argument for the disjunctive nature of the double plots in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), this article aims to alter this account by suggesting that Eliot’s novel is a coherent narrative about the different fates and the crisscrossing actions of the best selves and the ordinary selves. This contention is supported by putting the novel in dialogue with Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) and arguing for their common emphasis on the importance of active thinking, or in Arnold’s term, “the free play of consciousness.” In her novel, Eliot portrays the trio of Arnoldian best selves who exercise active thinking, including Felix, Esther, and Rev. Lyon, among a multitude of ordinary selves. Yet she also transcends Arnold by highlighting the role of action in one’s transformation into the best self and depicting three different types of egoism. Specifically, although Arnold emphasizes the importance of thinking in acquiring a better principle of action, Eliot gives equal weight to action in one’s development into perfection. Moreover, while Arnold denounces strong individualism and materialism in his social criticism, Eliot goes a step further by portraying three different types of egoism.

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