The greatest recent event -- that "God is dead," that the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable -- is... cast[ing] its shadows over Europe. For the few, at lease, whose eyes....are strong and sensitive enough for this spectacle... What must collapse now that this belief has been undermined... [is] our whole European morality.
--Nietzsche, from The Gay Science: Book V (1887)
Dr. Richard Niebuhr writes, in his introduction to Eliot's translation of Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, that Eliot "sought to retain the ethos of Christianity without its faith, its humanism without its theism." In her first full novel, Adam Bede, Eliot succeeds at doing this. By replacing God's all-seeing eye with a plethora of human eyes, Eliot depicts characters in the close-knit community of Hayslope who don't need God to be good Christians, who can hold their standards without their faith.
Eliot begins with the simplistically Christian notion that God can see everything. Adam, our title hero, sings a tune in chapter one that refers to "God's all-seeing eye," (Eliot 24). Meanwhile, Bessy, a local Hayslope country girl, feels that "Jesus [is] close by looking at her, though she cannot see him" (Eliot 40). According to this model, a person must act morally otherwise God will know through sight and he will punish her. But, Eliot abandons these sorts of references to an all-seeing God by chapter four in favor of a structure that does not require God's eye.
On the most basic level, Eliot is continually describing the physical eyes of her characters, and reminding us of their presence, although she gives up talking about God's eye. Adam's eyes, for instance,...
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...f course, this analysis leaves me with a glaring question. Why does Eliot hold onto the morality defined by Christianity after surrendering its God? Why doesn't she re-evaluate that structure as well, rather than holding onto it by transferring authority? Why bother dismissing God if the visible fabric remains static? Perhaps she's being pragmatic -- perhaps she fears anarchy in the wake of a passing God.
Dickens, Charles. "Letter to George Eliot on 10 July 1859," in Ed. David Carroll, The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, (1971).
Eliot, George. Adam Bede. England: Cox and Wyman, 1994.
Ferris, Ina, "Realism and the Discord of Ending: The Example of Thackeray," Nineteenth Century Fiction, 38/3 (1983), 289-303.
Goode, John. "Adam Bede: A Critical Essay," in Ed. Barbara Hardy, Critical Essays on George Eliot, (1970).
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