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Self, consciousness and agency in the egoist

Davis, Michael

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© 2017 Leeds Trinity University. This article re-reads representations of the self and agency in George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879) by drawing new connections between the novel and Victorian psychological theory. Critical discussions of The Egoist and psychological themes have rightly stressed the many ways in which, in Meredith’s novel, impersonal forces, biological, physiological and ideological, threaten to obliterate any notion of the self as discrete and autonomous. Yet Meredith maintains a strong ethical investment in individual agency. Comparing metaphors of fluidity, used to describe the self and consciousness in Meredith’s text, with similar images taken from the work of G. H. Lewes and James Sully, I argue that Meredith presents the self’s plasticity as crucial to its individuation and potential autonomy, even while that same plasticity also underlines the self’s vulnerability to social and ideological forces which threaten its independence. Clara’s individuality and agency take on distinctive political significance by challenging oppressive gender norms. Yet the vulnerabilities and bewildering complexities of individual subjective life, expressed in Meredith’s extravagant extensions of psychological metaphors, mean that any one self’s moves towards greater freedom must be fraught with uncertainty. The final part of the essay draws new connections between the psychological imagery that I have been exploring and Meredith’s engagement with human evolution. Clara’s individuation and capacity for autonomous action give the lie to Willoughby’s pseudo-Darwinian schematisation of her identity, yet the relationship between self and evolution remains a serious and complex issue in the novel.


Davis, M. (2017). Self, consciousness and agency in the egoist. Journal of Victorian Culture, 22(4), 536-552.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Apr 8, 2017
Online Publication Date Dec 1, 2017
Publication Date Dec 1, 2017
Deposit Date Apr 13, 2017
Publicly Available Date Nov 30, 2018
Journal Journal of Victorian Culture
Print ISSN 1355-5502
Electronic ISSN 1750-0133
Publisher Oxford University Press (OUP)
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 22
Issue 4
Pages 536-552
Keywords Meredith, psychology, consciousness, agency, evolution
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Additional Information : This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Journal of Victorian Culture on 8th April 2017, available online:


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