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George Eliot and the Art of Pity

Maynard Gilfil did not deceive himself in his interpretation of Caterina’s feelings,
but he nursed the hope that some time or other she would at least care enough for him to accept his love" (101)

Points of Reflection

1. is the nature of Mr. Gilfil’s affection for Caterina (“Tina”) more romantic than it is pitying?

2. this tale overflows with gestures of “pity” enacted by the narrator and characters alike. Choose two different agents of pity (the narrator could be one, if you wish), and compare and contrast the types of pity most commonly enacted by these two individuals. Possible types of pity might include affectionate and equalizing pity, sarcastic or mocking pity, and condescending pity that resembles kindness but keeps the object of pity at a distance.

3. do any of these characters mature significantly over the course of the short story?

4. the narrator joins a number of the tale’s male characters in casting Caterina as a small animal, usually a bird. Does the narrator implicitly criticize this practice by directing censure at those who use such metaphors, or does s/he appear to playfully condone such diminutive terms of endearment?

5. during an extended flashback, the narrator noted that Caterina’s incomplete education should not disqualify her as a heroine (99). Is her fate more a function of factors outside her control (educational, personal, environmental) than a product of her own choices, and does your conclusion make her more sympathetic as a heroine, or less so?

6. while describing the origins of Caterina’s and Captain Anthony Wybrow’s relationship, the narrator attempts to anticipate and deflect the reader’s criticism of Anthony with reflections that Sir Christopher’s nephew is neither a libertine nor a man inclined to strong affections—Nature has not, we are told, “endowed him with [the] capability” to love (103). Does the story bear out the narrator’s defense of Anthony, or does this young man evince enough self-awareness to be blameworthy?

7. Anthony sees himself as a selfless victim overly stressed by others, one who cannot do anything to please himself. His very marriage, he concludes, is a product of Sir Christopher’s will (125). Does the narrative convince us to take Anthony’s perspective concerning himself seriously?

8. is Captain Anthony Wybrow the calm, cool, and collected young man he appears to be?

9. is this tale aptly titled, or should it recommend some character other than Mr. Gilfil?

10. why does Mr. Gilfil love Caterina, and does George Eliot intend the reader to view his affection as ideal?

11. Eliot’s narrator closes Mr. Gilfil’s tale by noting that he is but a “whimsical misshapen trunk” that, though originally “sketched out by nature as a noble tree,” he has not become the man he was meant to be (166). Is the narrator criticizing Mr. Gilfil’s moral character?

"Beata Beatrix" (1864-70)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dr. Paul Marchbanks