Binding the Will: George Eliot and the Practice of Promising
English Literary History, Vol. 75, pp. 565-602, 2008
Posted: 8 Dec 2006 Last revised: 19 Jan 2016
In The Mill on the Floss (1860), Middlemarch (1871-72), and Daniel Deronda (1876), promises give rise to repeated conflicts and misunderstandings, crystallizing the tension between freedom and obligation that runs through George Eliot's work. Literary critics have long noted Eliot's interest in the nature and limits of the human will, but they have failed to examine her treatment of the practice of promising. In this essay, I analyze the use and abuse of promises in her fiction in the context of changing philosophical and legal ideas about consensual obligations. Whereas natural law thinkers such as Grotius, Pufendorf, Hobbes, and Locke insisted that promises derived their force from people's wills and intentions, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, utilitarian philosophers such as William Paley and John Austin began to locate the source of promissory obligations in people's expectations. At about the same time, jurists formulated a new "will theory" of contract that drew heavily upon natural law philosophy; according to this theory, individual promises, wills, and intentions gave rise to contractual obligations. Judges, in fact, began to speak of a contract as a "meeting of minds." In practice, however, they found it very difficult to uncover the intentions of contracting parties. By the middle of the nineteenth century, most judges had come to embrace an objective approach to contractual interpretation, relying upon external manifestations of intentions as did the utilitarian philosophers.
Like Paley, Austin, and Henry Sidgwick, and like a growing number of jurists in her day, Eliot embraces an expansive conception of promising: she suggests that one becomes bound by a promise whenever one knowingly excites another's expectations concerning the existence of an obligation, even though one does not intend to become bound. The willingness to abide by implicit promises and to honor the expectations that one raises in other minds is a crucial test of moral character in Eliot's fiction. However, while Eliot privileges external manifestations of intention over actual intentions in determining promissory responsibility, she remains committed to the notion that a true "meeting of minds" ought, ideally, to form the basis of agreements. As a practical matter, that is, she recognizes the difficulty of discerning others' intentions, and she shows the need to honor the reasonable expectations that one creates in other minds; but she holds out the possibility that individuals may achieve a real blending of wills and desires. In Mordecai Cohen's relationship with the eponymous hero of her final novel, she imagines such a meeting of minds, highlighting the ways in which promises can both reflect and promote understanding between people. She acknowledges, though, that such a mingling of ideas and intentions is, in the world of nineteenth-century England, limited to men.
Keywords: literature, George Eliot, contracts, legal history, obligations, consensual obligations, promising
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