Date of Award

8-2011

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Major

English

Major Professor

Allen Dunn

Committee Members

Nancy Henry, Amy Billone

Abstract

Connections between George Eliot and Immanuel Kant have been, for the most part, neglected. However, we have good reason to believe that Eliot not only read Kant (as well as many who were directly influenced by Kant), but substantially agreed with him on critical and moral issues. This thesis investigates one of the issues on which Kant and Eliot were most closely aligned, the need for duty in morality. Both the English novelist and the German philosopher upheld a vision of duty that could command absolutely while remaining consonant with human freedom and grounding a sense of moral dignity. This vision runs throughout the works of both writers, but is first developed and takes on a particular urgency in the works examined in this thesis, ranging from some of their early publications to Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Eliot’s Romola.

The first chapter discusses duty in the wider context of debates about Divine Command Morality, in which the good is defined by its accord with the will or command of God, and which both Kant and Eliot resisted in formulating their own moral visions (while maintaining the language of law and command). This chapter also discusses evidence we have for Eliot’s familiarity with Kant and establishes critical context for this paper. The second chapter discusses religion – in particular, religious enthusiasm – as a necessary background for duty, which exists in the absence of theological certitude, even as it seeks to preserve something of religion’s capacity to command and its popular scope. Kant’s path to the first Critique led through works foundational for, but also sometimes at odds with the priorities and conclusions of critical science, and Eliot’s first novel was preceded by a critical career that paints a quite different picture of religion than the sympathetic portrait of Dinah Morris. The third chapter deals with three dimensions of duty in Kant and Eliot, autonomy, reflection and respect, primarily through Kant’s second Critique and The Mill on the Floss. In the conclusion, I turn to Romola to illustrate the conflict and indeterminative power inherent in this conception of duty.

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