31 pages • 1 hour readGeorge Eliot
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The Lifted Veil by George Eliot is a novella that explores themes of clairvoyance, the limits of consciousness, sympathy, and Victorian-era scientific interests. George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, published The Lifted Veil in the English literary magazine Maga in July 1859 after the success of her first novel, Adam Bede. In The Lifted Veil, Eliot writes of the idealistic and egocentric Latimer, who is in love with his brother’s fiancée and struggles against the isolation that his powers of insight and foresight impose upon him. Death, truth, and the often false public personas adopted in English society reveal themselves to be intricately connected in Latimer’s account of his life.
This summary and associated page numbers refer to the Oxford World Classics edition of The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob by George Eliot, reissued in 2009.
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As the day of his foreseen death approaches, Latimer composes a personal narrative to tell the story of his life, his experiences with double consciousness, and his powers of insight and foresight. He begins by describing his childhood happiness before his mother’s death. Following this event, Latimer’s father employs the phrenologist Mr. Letherall to evaluate Latimer’s educational needs. In order to suppress Latimer’s tendencies toward poetics, literature, and philosophy, Mr. Letherall and Latimer’s father put Latimer on a course of education devoted to science, mechanics, and policy.
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At 16, Latimer is sent abroad to Geneva to complete his education. He continues to live a solitary life without many friends, preferring to spend his spare time in nature. He makes the acquaintance of medical student and Englishman Charles Meunier. They bond over their shared sense of isolation. Toward the end of his studies, Latimer falls dangerously ill. His father visits his bedside and plans to take Latimer on a tour of Europe to help him recover his strength before returning to England. They will be accompanied by Latimer’s brother (Alfred), their English neighbors (the Filmores), and the Filmores’ niece (Bertha Grant). With the prospect of seeing Prague in his mind, Latimer experiences foresight for the first time: a vision of the city of Prague. The possibilities of this power excite Latimer, who believes his illness unlocked the latent poetical ability he has desired all his life.
Latimer soon discovers that he also has the power of insight: He can perceive the thoughts and emotions of people physically close by. The power begins to torment him as he realizes the discrepancies between people’s public personas and their true, inner lives. Latimer experiences a second vision, which quickly comes true, of his father, Mrs. Filmore, and Bertha Grant visiting his sitting room.
Though Bertha Grant and Alfred display an interest in marrying each other, Latimer is drawn to Bertha because his powers of insight do not work on her. During their European travels, Bertha flirts with both brothers, causing Latimer to hope that she might one day love him. He experiences a third vision in which Bertha is his wife, but in which he can also read her cruel, hateful thoughts toward him. Though the vision depresses him, Latimer cannot resist his present feelings for Bertha and continues to hope that they will one day marry.
Upon returning to England, Alfred and Bertha announce their engagement. One morning, while Alfred is out hunting, Latimer visits Bertha and the two take a walk. Fueled by jealousy, Latimer asks Bertha whether she will love him when they marry. He returns home to find that Alfred has died after being thrown from his horse during the hunt. Latimer’s father makes Latimer the heir and begins to show him affection and encouragement. Latimer and Bertha become engaged and marry the next year.
Their marriage is characterized by distance, coldness, and distrust. Latimer does not enjoy high society and stays home as much as possible to avoid glimpsing his neighbors’ inner lives. Bertha, conversely, lives a very social life separate from her husband. On the evening of his father’s death, Latimer is finally able to perceive Bertha’s thoughts and her full dislike of him. The two become estranged as Bertha employs a new maid, Mrs. Archer, and spends much of her time with her.
Charles Meunier visits Latimer. They discuss Meunier’s experiments and scientific pursuits. Mrs. Archer falls ill and Meunier attends to her, proclaiming that her illness is fatal. He decides to perform an experimental blood transfusion on Mrs. Archer after she dies in the hopes of reviving her. They agree not to tell Bertha their plan, as she will not leave Mrs. Archer’s sick room. When Mrs. Archer dies, the men convince Bertha to leave the room briefly, during which time Meunier successfully revives Mrs. Archer. At that moment, Bertha reenters, and Mrs. Archer cries out a warning that Bertha intends to poison Latimer. Mrs. Archer dies a second and final time.
Following Mrs. Archer’s pronouncement, Latimer and Bertha separate, with Bertha remaining in England and Latimer traveling through Europe for the rest of his life. His powers of insight and foresight, though fitful, force him to lead a lonely and solitary life. At the time of his death, Latimer is accompanied only by his servants, whose pitying and disdainful thoughts he cannot help but perceive.
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