Student Response to The Lifted Veil

I found myself surprised by the lack of supernatural elements(in the modern sense) in The Lifted Veil. The fantastic events are grounded in the basis of the scientific knowledge of the period. What we realize now to be incorrect (blood transfusions reviving the dead) or pseudoscientific (phrenology) is presented as legitimate and factual. The manner in which the science and the supernatural were intermingled reminds me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Supernatural themes are pushed aside by the attempt at scientific realism. The realism, however, is limited by the author’s reticence to include concrete science (weather due to lack of interest or lack of knowledge) in favor of a more literary work. Critic Kate Flint reports that Eliot had a, “relentless desire to get at more extensive and satisfactory evidence,” but she does not focus on the science in the novella (Flint 460).

For a novella concerned with supernatural and (pseudo)-scientific principles  The Lifted Veil is unusually focused on the body. Latimer constantly reminds us of his physical shortcomings. The phrenologist, Mr. Letherall, assesses these inadequacies based purely on the dimensions of young Latimer’s head and facial features. Scientific insight is limited to the character of Charles Meunier, who drops in rather conveniently to provide the deus ex machina moment of revivification and the subsequent revelation of Bertha’s treachery. Bertha, whose, “thoughts and emotions were an enigma,” is described purely in physical terms which change over the course of the story’s events (Eliot 29). It is not made clear if the change in Bertha’s demeanor is due to her getting fed up with Latimer or because Latimer stops being ignorant of her character. The vision where he sees her, “selfish soul laid bare; no longer a … secret,” is the basis of this conundrum.(Eliot 21). Is Latimer so oblivious to the truth of his vision due to love or is he desperately hoping against the truth of his fateful pre-cognizance?

The Lifted Veil also uses emotional language when describing non-physical elements. Once again, this is an odd choice for a text based in scientific advancements yet it fits perfectly for Latimer’s poetic narration. The attempts at scientific language are coloured with poetic language. One such example of this is when Latimer notes that, “illusions are half…conscious illusions, like effects of colour…made up of tinsel, broken glass, and rags (Eliot 30).” He has never fully internalized the science and math that his father forced upon him in his youth and continues to speak with a naturally Romantic flair. This narration obscures the scientific facts of the text in poetic language and results in a feeling of disconnected linguistic themes.

The familiar trope plots associated with both clairvoyance and revivification were not yet set. I initially felt cheated by the lack of blatantly supernatural elements. Modern clairvoyance plots often involve rallying against predestined fate and attempting to change the future. This is conspicuously absent in The Lifted Veil. Despite his pre-cognizance, Latimer does makes no attempt to change or prevent events from occurring. Latimer knows Bertha will grow cruel and distant but does not attempt to do anything to rectify the proceedings that lead her to her hatred or escape from the revealed poisoning plot (other than separate from her). He is infuriatingly resigned to his visions and his passivity is one of the main characteristics that leads to others characters, like his father, finding his personality objectionable.

I must admit that I find myself frustrated with Latimer. I lack sympathy for him due to his infuriating passivity. From the outset he shows an arrogant demeanor referring to his, “exceptional mental character (Eliot 3).”  I understand he is intended to be an intensely lonely figure but the way he relates to other people angers me. When nearly every character in the novella dislikes or looks down on him it I start to wonder if it is Latimer’s fault he is so disliked. Even with the vision of Bertha’s discontent, he does nothing to prevent his future issues. He even asks the reader during the vision, “are you unable to give me your sympathy? (Eliot 21).” However, this question stems from the reader’s supposed inability to understand Latimer’s powers of foresight, not from his inaction.

3 thoughts on “Student Response to The Lifted Veil

  1. I also found Latimer’s character to be frustrating. Even though he is physically weak he has these unique mental powers, but he fails to do anything with them. He seems incapable of realizing that he is not merely an audience member in his own poetically tragic existence. He has the ability to “see” what may happen, the foreknowledge that it could happen but tragically a seemingly victim syndrome that allows him to what his inevitable fate unfold in front of him. He does not develop and alter ego who could act in his own defense or even his own best interest. Perhaps this was because of his being overshadowed with an Adonis of a brother who seemed to excel at everything and a father who pushed his academic studies into a direction that Latimer’s own interests do not lie. It seems we are to view Latimer as Latimer himself did. As his own witness to a seemingly pointless existence.

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    • Firstly, like everyone else hereto involved in this discussion, I find Latimer to be something of a prig. However, that’s not really surprising since he presents himself as whiney, passive, pale, and somewhat feminine, and we operate out of a culture that idealizes the bold, active, robust, and masculine. So I suppose there’s our own biases, which we inherited partially from our Victorian fellows, to keep in mind. Moreover, I will say this in Latimer’s defence, I cannot even begin to imagine how exhausting and horrifying it would be to know what the people around you are thinking all the time. In conversations where the question arises “what superpower would you pick if you could,” which is quite often in our current cultural climate, I shudder when some dolt says “mind-reading.” Being a person myself I think it’s quite safe to say that people are selfish, judgemental a**holes most of time, who think horrible things partly because they can’t help it and partly because they enjoy it. Peering into that “heaping ferment” every hour of every day would be enough to drive anyone mad. The fact that Latimer is able to form any sort of narrative out of that jumble is then rather astounding. Nor do I think it unnatural that he would seek some sort of sympathy while at the same time realizing it just isn’t going to happen, because again we’re mostly selfish bums. In the end all we can really say is poor Latimer, he never really stood a chance.

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  2. I agree with your opinion of Latimer. He is a generally unlikeable character. When I was reading this novella I wanted to like Latimer, in fact I tried very hard to like Latimer. However, like you, I found Latimer’s complete lack of agency and general attitude of resignation towards life incredibly frustrating. I also find your point about Latimer’s arrogance interesting. Not only has Latimer spent his life as a loner, he seems to also be quite smug about it. How can Latimer, having experienced the childhood he did, continue through life with an air of superiority? His character is utterly baffling to me.

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