George Eliot - The Lifted Veil : Footnote #2

What's a footnote?
When I reviewed this, I talked a little about Latimer being an unreliable narrator and how this fact could influence the way we read the novella. I didn't insist on that, because my thoughts on the matter were not entirely clear (my thoughts rarely are, as this parenthesis amply proves). I'm coming back to it now, because I stumbled across a Shakespeare quote the other day that I think perfectly describes our options when it comes to Latimer and the meaning of this story:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
--from A Midsummer Night's Dream                                                              

So how does this concern The Lifted Veil? If we don't take the book at face value, if we don't assume that everything Latimer says is true, then we need an explanation for why he'd invent such a story. I think that there are three main interpretations that let us circumvent the paranormal elements (there might be more, but these are the ones I could think of and they work with Shakespeare, so there. :-) They are the options emphasized in the quote above: Latimer could be a lunatic, a lover or a poet, depending on the way you read the text.

1. Latimer as the lunatic - this is a story about madness 

This is probably the easiest choice. Here we have a character that claims he's able to read minds and see the future. He has visions of things that haven't happened yet (hallucinations) and listens to other people's inner monologues (hears voices). Sure, he brings a bunch of reasons that made him conclude his perceptions were not wrong. But why should we give him the benefit of the doubt? If Latimer is insane, then we can't be sure which parts of his discourse (if any) are to be trusted.

Also notice how no moment is left entirely unambiguous in this story. If we assume Latimer is sincerely reporting what he perceives to be real, then at least the reactions of the other characters, as reported by him, might give us a hint. But there is no instance in which Latimer's special powers are recognized by others (although there are two moments when it almost happens). Moreover, these powers disappear in a crucial moment for the plot, when they could and should have proven their usefulness. So this story can be read as a chronicle of delusion. This might be something that affects all paranormal fiction written in first person to a degree; I don't know. I do think it's especially clear in this case because of these very convenient ambiguities.

2. Latimer as a lover - this is a story about love and frustrated expectations 

This is perhaps a less plausible explanation, but it is my favorite. To me, it is fascinating how easily this story could have turned into a realistic portrayal of a failed marriage. I'm not of course arguing that it is actually the case, only that it could be read as a metaphor for that, as the discourse of a somewhat overly-dramatic man trying to make sense of his bad marriage by simultaneously romanticizing it and placing all of the blame on his wife.

To Latimer, in the end, love seems to be built on mutual ignorance and delusion. He was initially attracted to Bertha because she was the one person whose mind he couldn't read. (And in case you were wondering, yes, the force of my will is the only thing standing between you and Twilight jokes at this point.) So he fell in love not with her precisely, but more with his own image of her:
Before marriage she had completely mastered my imagination, for she was a secret to me; and I created the unknown thought before which I trembled as if it were hers.
The moment the honeymoon is over and they get to really know each other, Latimer and Bertha are deeply disappointed. Their marriage is poisoned by the conflict between reality and their own expectations. Seen through this lens, the story has a quite interesting, if pessimistic, message about the basis of romantic love and its evolution. In the end, one might be better off not lifting that veil.

How many things can I illustrate with Magritte? ALL the things.

3. Latimer as a poet - this is a story about the writer's condition

This is the interpretation Latimer himself suggests in the beginning. He had always had a poet's disposition but lacked a creative outlet for it. He takes his first visions as overdue manifestations of his poetic talent. It would be very interesting if this were actually the case - if Latimer invented everything or at least large parts of the story - mainly because it raises some questions about the relationship between a writer and their work. Remember just how much Latimer hates knowing every person's inner thoughts. If this is the world he created, then he is far from sympathetic towards it. As a writer, he sees himself in constant contact with the worst side of humanity.

So, if you've read this book, what do you think? Do you side with any of these readings (including the one that takes the piece at face-value)? Do you think it's a mix of these themes?

Or perhaps this should just be read as "repressed artistic inclinations lead to madness," in which case, excuse me, I should go write My Novel now. I'm not taking any chances. 


  1. This is awesome. I love the way you used the Shakespeare as an introduction to your three interpretations of the text. One of my classes once used that exact quote when talking about Emma by Jane Austen. It's such a useful passage. I love that you dug deeper into the unreliable narrator, which is one of my favorite techniques and always yields exciting interpretations. Have you read The Yellow Wallpaper? That's my favorite example of the unreliable narrator at work. I could talk about that story for days. I think it's really cool that you're doing these discussion and analysis posts instead of only doing reviews. They are really interesting to read, and it shows that you've definitely done a lot of thinking about the book. I wish I had people doing that much work in my classes; our discussions would be so much more interesting.

    1. I'm happy you like this approach. I think being able to have this sort of discussion is my main reason for wanting to start a blog. I love literature but decided against majoring in it, so, after high school, I found myself with no one to discuss books in obsessive detail with (except, more recently, Alexis).

      I haven't read The Yellow Wallpaper, thank you for recommending it! I like this narrative device as well, so I think I'll enjoy it. Cheers.