Princeton Course Info

George Eliot for Grown-ups                       Registration

Jeff Nunokawa

Mondays, March 12 - April 23, 7:00 - 8:30 pm

*there will be no class held on March 19th*

Location: D&R Greenway Landtrust, Princeton NJ


Course Description: 

The title of this seminar alludes to one of the most famous things ever said about any novel: Virginia Woolf’s pronouncement on Middlemarch: one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. On one hand we might read Woolf’s remark as kind of posh understatement. Eliot recruits her famous and staggering erudition in the service of the story that she tells in Middlemarch.  The vagaries of German Idealism, the legal history of Wills, the state of modern medical science; the totality of what was regarded by Victorian intellectuals as “serious” literature; the history of religion; the development of the human sciences (the beginnings of Sociology and Anthropology); the comparative study of Mythology; the progress of electoral reform and the heightening of class conflict in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the “Woman Question”:  Eliot’s knowledge of these things light up her “Study of Provincial Life”. And her knowledge of how to tell a good story with a solid plot gives those sometimes abstract and abstruse matters local habitation and name.

But we might just as well read Woolf’s praise for Middlemarch more simply. We might read it as a more straightforward acknowledgement that Eliot’s great novel tells a story that only grown-up people can really understand. Most generally, this is the story of disappointment, ordinary disappointment that visits middle-aged people. It is the story of how people who start out with big hopes settle for smaller lives, and how this story of ordinary disappointment may lie hidden from others behind what seems like a story of unbroken success.. This story of disappointment will dwell at the heart of our seminar.

Middlemarch is as complex and culturally informed as any work in the history of literature; as complex and informed as Paradise Lost, another great story of disappointment, one which Eliot knew well, and to which she often alludes. Most of our time together will be devoted to this great novel, To paraphrase Eliot herself,  the light [we] can command must be concentrated on this particular web. That said, we will spend our first session on Jane Austen’s Emma, to take the dimensions of some of Eliot’s starting points (the marriage plot and various narrative techniques). Each of our subsequent meetings will be devoted to Eliot’s novel. I will provide various historical contexts during our sessions and there will be a little additional reading—a few passages from Milton and a critical essay or two. Primarily though we will devote our time and energy to the study of Eliot’s great text itself.


Texts: Eliot, "Middlemarch" (Penguin Classic Edition)

Jane Austen, "Emma"

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

Milton, “Paradise Lost” (selections)

Neil Hertz, “Recognizing Causabon”

Additionally there will be a few other critical essays.


Course Dates:

Week 1- March 12

Week 2- March 26

Week 3- April 2

Week 4- April 9

Week 5- April 16

Week 6- April 23


Professor Jeff Nunokawa Bio

Jeff Nunokawa, Yale '80, Cornell University M.A. and PhD., specializes in English literature from about 1830 till about 1900. His first book, The Afterlife of Property, studies how the novels of Dickens and Eliot labor to preserve the idea of secure possession by overseeing its transfer from the sphere of a cold and uncertain economy to a happier realm of romance. Tame Passions of Wilde: Styles of Manageable of Desire excavates the aspiration to imagine a form of desire as intense as those that compel us, but as light as the daydream or thought experiment safely under our control. He has also written a bunch of articles about this and that aspect of nineteenth century literature. You can ask him about them, if you are interested. His current project is a book whose working title is something like “Eros and Isolation: Getting Away from Others in Nineteenth Century Literature”. This book brings a range of social theory to bear on writers like Austen, C. Brontë, Thackeray, Dickens and Eliot to figure out why it’s so hard to break free, even for a little while, from the groups that surround and define us. Most generally, he is interested in the ways that various ideas of society clash and collaborate with one another. Before his day is done, he hopes to write a book about Henry James.