Literature Annotations


Eliot, George (Marian Evans)
The Lifted Veil


On-Line Text
Genre Short Story (43 pp.)
KeywordsAdolescence, Catastrophe, Communication, Deafness, Death and Dying, Depression, Disability, Empathy, Family Relationships, Grief, Heart Disease, History of Science, Homicide, Human Worth, Literary Theory, Loneliness, Love, Marital Discord, Medical Ethics, Medical Research, Memory, Mental Illness, Mother-Son Relationship, Mourning, Narrative as Method, Patient Experience, Power Relations, Science, Science Fiction, Suffering, Trauma, Vision Disorder
Summary

The narrator, Latimer, begins the story with a vision of his death, which he attributes to a heart attack. He explains that, always sensitive after a childhood eye affliction and his mother's death, the further shock of a "severe illness" while at school in Geneva enabled him to see the future, and to hear others' thoughts--an experience which he describes as oppressive. He is fascinated by his brother's fiancée, Bertha, the only human whose thoughts are hidden from him, and whom he marries after his brother dies in a fall.

The marriage falters after Latimer eventually discerns Bertha's cold and manipulative nature through a temporary increase in his telepathy. When Latimer's childhood friend, the scientist Charles Meunier, performs an experimental transfusion between himself and Bertha's just-dead maid, the maid briefly revives and accuses Bertha of plotting to poison Latimer. Bertha moves out, and Latimer dies as foretold.

Commentary

George Eliot's Gothic story, published the same year as her staunchly realist novel, Adam Bede (see annotation), continues her preoccupation with human communication and sympathy through the figure of the telepathic narrator. Latimer, one of her least likeable characters, suffers tremendously under his heightened awareness of others' petty and selfish thoughts. Latimer chooses to tell the story of his abilities as a tale of disability, a kind of pathography about his gift.

The vehemence of his disgust for human frailties suggests that Latimer's pain derives at least in part from his failure of empathy for others (except at his father's death)--that his discomfort with telepathic communication rests on his resistance to human connection in general. Thus, his uncanny hearing unmasks a kind of sympathetic deafness to others, and his progressive heart disease indexes the shriveling of his capacity for human love and friendship.

The story is clearly shaped by George Eliot's interest in contemporary science, including physiology, phrenology, and mesmerism. Beryl Gray, Kate Flint, and others have discussed how the story engages with the work of specific researchers like William Gregory, who experimented on animal magnetism (a form of clairvoyance), and Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, who conducted transfusion experiments much like Meunier's.

Finally, as George Eliot's only first-person fictional narrator, Latimer models the figure of the author. Eliot herself experiments here with narrative structure; the author's ability to overhear her characters' thoughts and forecast their futures just as Latimer does has demonstrable consequences on her prose, in particular on conventions of chronology, causality, and voice. The vision sequences, for example, provide an interesting precursor of stream-of-consciousness techniques, and the story as a whole works to evoke an almost Jamesian sense of a "center of consciousness." Latimer's Romantic literary enthusiasms and scientific education mirror the perceived dichotomy between romance and realism that fascinates Eliot and energizes this scientific romance.

SourceGeorge Eliot. The Lifted Veil, Brother Jacob
PublisherOxford Univ. Press
Edition1999
EditorsHelen Small
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published July 1859 in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine
Annotated by Kennedy, Meegan
Date of Entry 02/05/02
Last Revised 03/24/02