Victorian writers often focus questions of ethics through scenes of sympathetic encounters that have been conceptualized, both by Victorian thinkers and by their recent critics, as a theater of identification in which an onlooking spectator identifies with a sufferer. George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871–72) critiques this paradigm, revealing its negation of otherness and its corresponding fixation of the self as an identity, and offers an alternative conception of relationship that foregrounds the presence and distinctness of the other and the open-endedness of relationship. The novel develops its critique through an analysis of women's experience of courtship and marriage, insisting upon the appropriateness ofmarriage as a site for the investigation of contemporary ethical questions. In her depiction of Rosamond, Eliot explores the identity-based paradigm of the spectacle of others, and shows how its conception of selfhood leaves the other isolated, precluding relationship. Rosamond's trajectory in the novel enacts the identity paradigm's relation to skeptical anxieties about self-knowledge and knowledge of others, and reveals such anxieties to occur with particular insistence around images of femininity. By contrast, Dorothea's development in ethical self-awareness presents an alternative to Rosamond's participation in the identity paradigm. In Dorothea's experience the self emerges as a process, an ongoing practice of expression. The focus on expression in the sympathetic or conflictual encounter, rather than on identity, enables the overcoming of the identity paradigm's denial of otherness, and grounds a productive sympathy capable of informing ethical action.
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