Squire Western became as strange a type as Achilles; the discovery was made that family life, which had promised perfect peace, had yet its own trials, and that a very admirable person who always told the truth and shut the door after him, who was deaf to flattery and to gross temptation, might yet be an extremely disagreeable companion. We demand something more of those with whom we live than the certainty that they will not stab us or burn the roof over our heads, and it is not enough that they abstain from breaking the commandments. We require profound respect for one another's rights, and we perceive in selfishness, in all its intricate shapes, an evil that was overlooked, except in its more violent forms, by those who were eager in the contest against more heinous offenses. Society now busies itself with what we may call the statute law of ethics, the greater principles being generally observed by common agreement. Vice, to be sure, is not extinct, but intemperance, for example, is frowned upon by society rather than tolerated and sanctioned, as has been the case in the past. In the novels of the day, which are the most faithful records of contemporary life, the problems that are discussed are those that directly concern the individual conscience. George Eliot's work is full of such questions, and, like many great writers, she has set the standard before the reader ahead of what it is in fact, so that it is, as it were, a goal toward which we are striving with what strength we may have. In this respect she resembles Goethe, who pushed forward the outer lines of criticism to a point which the main body of his successors is only gradually reaching.
Compare, for example, Miss Edgeworth's chilly prudence with George Eliot's tender sympathy with suffering, and the advance that has been made becomes clear. What would Miss Edgeworth have thought of such a statement as this—"That element of tragedy, which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind. . . . If we had a keener vision and feeling of all ordinary human life it would be hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence"? Yet, of course, George Eliot is far from despising the minutiæ of domestic life; she makes it the setting of the most delicate ethical problems. It is character and not incidents that she studies; not the glowing crimes that make the fascination of the melodrama, but rather the corruption or weakness that gives them birth. She traces the growth of sin in the human heart with a vividness that is really appalling. Who has ever read "Romola" without feeling that his own vanity, boasting, and shuffling performances are branded in the chronicle of Tito's slow moral decay? In "The Mill on the Floss," again, we have a typical representation of a form of domestic tyranny that can be matched in every household that we know. In "Middlemarch" we follow the struggle of generosity and a high ideal against incompetence and corroding selfish-