Deborah Shapple Spillman, “All That Is Solid Turns into Steam: Sublimation and Sympathy in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss” (pp. 338–373)
This essay argues that steam and its gaseous properties in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1861) represent capital’s increasing abstraction in the nineteenth century that threatened to disrupt economic and affective relations between people, property, and places associated with the past while nevertheless introducing new modes of circulation and more diffusive opportunities for sympathetic connection. The novel’s return to an earlier stage in the development of capital places the 1830s of the story in dialogue with the 1860s of its narration, while inviting readers to compare the values of this earlier period to those of their own. Considering this comparative structure in relation to nineteenth-century ethnography and its interlocutors—including Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx—I read Edward Tulliver’s primitive materialism and the Dodson sisters’ fetishism as both humorous reactions and more earnest forms of resistance to this increasing abstraction. Eliot ultimately turns toward the figurative possibilities of sublimation as a way to bridge the concrete and the abstract, the particular and the general, will and affect, self and other. Sublimation—not liquidation—therefore serves as the more apt metaphor for sympathy in the novel.