Victorian Literature and Culture

Research Article


Sean O'Toolea1

a1 Baruch College, CUNY

Despite a rich and varied critical heritage, reception of George Meredith's 1879 novel The Egoist has tended to rely on the author's Essay on Comedy as a key to unlocking the novel's many mysteries. Written just two years earlier as a lecture for the London Institution, the Essay would seem an apt place to start. A blueprint for Meredith's attempt to offer a revitalizing corrective for the tedium of everyday life, that “monstrous monotonousness” of convention and complacency that enfolds us (The Egoist 5; Prelude), the Essay helps explain, and thus rehabilitate, the novel's apparent oddities: its fragmentary and discontinuous narration, dynamic conception of character, and infamous, ostentatious stylistic eccentricities, to name but the most obvious anomalies. The parallels between the Essay and the novel are well rehearsed by critics; indeed, this connection has served both the novel and critics well, generating a range of forceful and illuminating readings. It must be said, too, that the critical tendency to see The Egoist as an outgrowth of the Essay represents a significant improvement over the main thrust of contemporary reviews of the novel, in which the four most frequently used words were “affectation,” “obscurity,” “artificiality,” and “weakness” (I. Williams 11; Lucas 3).

(Online publication May 18 2011)