Adam Bede's Challenge to Miltonic Autonomy
Graner, Emma Davenport
This thesis argues that George Eliot's Adam Bede redeploys Miltonic narrative techniques and characterization in order to problematize the ideology of individual autonomy inscribed in Victorian law. Eliot was writing the novel at a time when Victorians were debating the viability of English law's commitment to a belief in the liberal subject's personal agency, a principle which undergirded Victorian contract and criminal law's tendency towards a critically detached evaluation of individual action and towards the suppression of situated understandings of human behavior. Eliot's interrogation of autonomy in Adam Bede traffics in the discourse of this mid-nineteenth century controversy. Furthermore, Eliot's method of rhetorical engagement with the idea of individual autonomy and its manifestations in the law draws on stylistic and narrative elements of the writer whom Victorians viewed as the paradigmatic voice justifying the concepts of man's moral sufficiency and freedom of choice. Eliot reframes the understanding of agency advanced by Milton in Paradise Lost, challenging Miltonic autonomy by modifying the narrative strategies that Victorians associated with his defense of liberal subjectivity. Eliot reframes the epic poem's conception of contract and consent, amends a Miltonic method of reader correction, and presents an alternative characterization of the fallen woman in order to challenge nineteenth-century British law's failure to recognize the deeply situated nature of human action. It is through examination of Adam Bede's relationship with Paradise Lost that Eliot's representation of attenuated agency and its friction with the law reveals itself.
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