Mathematics in George Eliot’s Novels
thesisposted on 29.11.2016, 12:07 by Derek Gordon Ball
The mid-Victorian novelist George Eliot had a keen interest and expertise in mathematics, which she studied throughout her life, and this had a profound influence on her work as a novelist. Not only does mathematics appear overtly in several of her novels, and particularly in the first two, but her mathematical way of thinking also informs the way in which she structures her novels and her arguments. In the first novel, the eponymous hero, Adam Bede, is a mathematically-minded carpenter and his thoughts about mathematics recur throughout the novel. This novel and Eliot’s second novel, The Mill on the Floss, include discussions of mathematics education that demonstrate the author’s awareness of curricular and pedagogical issues. Eliot’s imagery frequently makes use of mathematics and mathematical physics, which she offers the reader with the deftness and clarity of an expert. Her logical mathematical thinking helps her to structure her novels, and the epigraphs in her last two novels, which contribute to this structuring, frequently have a mathematical basis. Eliot’s narrators continually philosophise, and the arguments they offer the reader are repeatedly informed by mathematical and logical thinking. This is particularly true of Eliot’s philosophising about gender, and about the way in which women are frequently seen as different from men, particularly in the context of education. Eliot has a notorious concern for truth, and mathematical argument enables her to distinguish the certain from the uncertain, and to mock absurd presuppositions. Eliot was aware of current mathematical controversies regarding the teaching of mathematics and regarding non-Euclidean geometry; these appear in the novels. Mathematicians are often characterised as having a narrow and unimaginative view of the world – this view is counteracted by Eliot’s novels, which demonstrate how it is possible to use mathematics to engage our sympathy.