Rebecca Ehrhardt, “‘One of Those’ Characters in Middlemarch” (pp. 318–345)
This essay takes a robust critical conversation about character in realist fiction in a new direction through a reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72). While critics have traditionally theorized realism as a form whose ontology draws upon what already exists, as a character might be drawn from a preconceived type, I contend that George Eliot’s approach to character is productive of categories and, with them, new senses of the real. This essay tracks Middlemarch’s use of a device that I call “descriptive categorization”: a form of rendering character that works by referring to a category that it simultaneously defines in the act of description. By considering inquiries from the philosophy of language about reference and description, this essay explores how descriptive categorization construes an illusion of familiarity in readers. Descriptive categorization is a mode of articulating character, furthermore, that is not bound by the conventions of plot or character development; I contend that this quality is crucial to the ethics of George Eliot’s realism. Through descriptive categorization, Middlemarch models a way of understanding character that transcends the novel genre, cultivating categorical forms of sympathy and understanding in its readers.