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Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Number 63, April 2013

Television for Victorianists

Guest-edited by Caroline Levine

Managing Editor(s): Michael Eberle-Sinatra (founding editor [romantic]) and Dino Franco Felluga (editor [victorian])

Publisher: Université de Montréal

ISSN: 1916-1441 (digital)

DOI: 10.7202/1025615ar

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In Treatment with George Eliot

Susan David Bernstein

University of Wisconsin-Madison


While the psychoanalytic concept of transference is often the analytic crux of the interactions of the consulting-room, its structure also illuminates what transpires for readers and viewers of serial narratives. In Scenes of Clerical Life, Middlemarch, and In Treatment, the serial form prompts the back-and-forthness of transference and countertransference, much like our own fluctuating engagements between world and fiction. Ultimately this essay argues that the power of Victorian realism lies in its capacity to generate transference.


In the traditional meaning of the term transference, the patient puts the analyst in the place of a parent, a primary person from early affective life. This putting-in-place structures the analytic experience so that “analysis without transference is an impossibility” (Freud 72). Sigmund Freud makes even broader claims for transference, however, so that we can see its purchase in the act of reading fiction: “It is a universal phenomenon of the human mind,” one that “dominates the whole of each person’s relations to his human environment” (72). Transference behaves as a “tool of suggestion” (72) that bridges emotional relations to people outside and within the walls of the consulting room. Analysis, as an interpretive enterprise, reveals this convergence of outside and inside. Elsewhere, I have used the concept of “promiscuous identification” (Bernstein 146-7) to capture how we blur characters in books with real people we meet in everyday life—often with unmistakable pleasure or with hostility, just like the ambivalence of “erotic” and “negative” transference Freud identifies. This essay argues that nineteenth-century realism—and especially the realism of George Eliot—banks on this convergence. It is a consummately transferential process.


What led me to this conclusion was, perhaps surprisingly, the recent HBO television series In Treatment, which explicitly explores both the limits and the structures of transference, both in a psychoanalytic sense and more broadly as a way of reading. The series invites us to reflect on specific fictional forms that help to produce transference and countertransference. And although their formal strategies differ in important ways, there is one particular affinity between George Eliot and In Treatment that makes the resonance between these two projects especially powerful. I will argue that the serial form itself encourages the back-and-forthness of transference and countertransference, just as these regular pauses and returns also shape our own affective oscillations between fiction and world.

Realism as Transference


In a conversation with Lydgate near the middle of Middlemarch, Dorothea tells him, “I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest—I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it. It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much” (Middlemarch 400-1). At this point, Dorothea has confessed she has given up prayer and she has become disillusioned by Casaubon’s scholarship as the key to her religious belief. Instead, her vague, nondenominational Christianity, her “wider blessing,” converges with Eliot’s practice of realism. For it is Eliot’s aim in her realist fiction-making world to pardon more than to condemn, to understand more than to judge, a process that depends less on a referential relation between fiction and life, than on an affective experience that moves back and forth between the two. In her review of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Eliot identifies as “realism” the truth Ruskin’s art conveys, and elaborates: “It is not enough simply to teach truth; that may be done, as we all know, to empty walls, and within the covers of unsaleable books; we want it to be so taught as to compel men’s attention and sympathy. Very correct singing of very fine music will avail little without a voice that can thrill the audience and take possession of their souls” (626-7). “Truth” is not primarily a variety of mimesis here, but an attention to the world coupled with feeling experience that arises from the power of a stirring “voice.” This is realism as transference, the affective power of fictional realism encouraging us to move back and forth between inside and outside, between text and world, between self and other. Rather than an abstract rhetorical power, Eliot’s transferential voice, with its ability to “thrill” and “take possession” of “souls,” functions through the reader’s transport of emotion between people in one’s past and the person-like structure of narrators within Eliot’s novels. Like the analyst as “presumed to know” in Lacanian theory, narrators too are subjects presumed to know.


Eliot articulates what I’m calling realism as transference in another review essay published a few months after she wrote on Ruskin. In “The Natural History of German Life,” she states: “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot” (54). Realism’s suggestibility, for Eliot, is the resemblance between people in our “personal lot” and those we meet in literature. Eliot further qualifies this connection by calling for realism that attends not just to “external traits” but also to “psychological character—their conceptions of life, and their emotions” (55). Such representations in fiction, claims Eliot, have the power “to guide our sympathies rightly” (55), an interpretive gesture for the reader like the suggestibility of transference as the proper work of analytic treatment. Realism as transference thus moves us away from familiar debates about referentiality. Rather, realism as transference is about the call to work back and forth between fiction and felt experience; it is about affective echoes and convergences, or what Philip Wakem in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss describes in his letter to Maggie Tulliver as “this gift of transferred life” (500). Garrett Stewart affiliates Eliot’s “gift of transferred life” with the powerfully transformative experience of feeling read rightly, something Stewart links to Eliot’s larger project of a new secular religion through “widened fellow-feeling” (180), much like Dorothea’s “wider blessing.” Maggie’s redemption, observes Stewart, derives from this sense of someone else reading her rightly, “getting” who she is in some deep affective way. By the same token, as Stewart shows, the power of reading Eliot’s psychological realism comes out of “the vicarious emotive investment in character—what Freudian psychoanalysis would come as if in unconscious echo of Eliot to categorize as ‘transference’” (181). Like an analyst, Philip’s “distanced intimacy” allows him to read Maggie’s story back to her so that she can in effect read herself again “under a sympathetic spiritual analysis” (184-5). Stewart points out that in reading Maggie’s affective life so well, Philip mirrors the narrator’s power of omniscience. As readers, our affective investments in Eliot’s fiction are stimulated by this feeling of reading rightly from the inside by the compassionate external voice of the narrator who functions as a kind of psychoanalyst. Such affective reading from the inside out depends on some kind of detachment, like Philip’s “distanced intimacy” from Maggie and like Eliot’s narrator who is both adjacent to and apart from the story.


This gap or distance can take many forms, but the pause is a crucial element. In her endorsement of a “natural history,” Eliot advocates this hiatus as practiced by the German historian W. H. Riehl who “thinks it wise to pause a little from theorizing, and see what is the material actually present for theory to work on” (“The Natural History of German Life” 70). Freud too argues that rather than simply acting out the transference, it is “made conscious to the patient…and is resolved by convincing him that in his transference-attitude he is re-experiencing emotional relations which had their origin in his earliest object-attachments” (Freud 73). Such psychoanalytic reflection also constitutes a pause.


In Adam Bede, Eliot demonstrates the power of the analytic pause by a reflexive narrator who halts the storyworld to prompt the reader to take stock of the “material actually present” in the novel in contrast to an idealized world, one that is “just what we like.” Eliot instead claims not a referential replica of her fictional world with the external world, but “a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind” (Adam Bede 238). In other words, characters in novels are the work of a mental transference, a psychic copy much like the affective life a patient brings to the psychoanalytic encounter. More than this, Eliot’s narrator prods her readers to accept the ambivalent mixing of qualities in her fictional characters whose flaws resemble what we encounter beyond books: “These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity and love” (239). This narrative interlude then turns to characters within the story and so builds the bridge of transference at the same time that Eliot’s narrator instructs the reader to examine how we each construct that bridge with recourse to what we know or desire. Like the analyst whose work is to get the patient to see the transference, Eliot’s narrator urges the reader’s reflexive attention: “Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings—much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth” (240).


In Middlemarch, the narrator breaks from the story to instruct the reader with the parable of the pier-glass, where a candle placed on any polished surface organizes random scratches into “the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement.” Eliot makes clear the point of this homely bit of metaphor: “These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent—of Miss Vincy, for example” (Middlemarch 232). Like the structure of Freudian transference, the reader and the character, “Miss Vincy, for example,” see events according to their own lights, or the connective tissue of their posterior affective ties. The narrator even interrupts the story to point out the positive transference, the favoring of characters at the expense of others—although clearly Eliot’s novel directs readers to admire Dorothea and detest or pity Casaubon and Rosamond. Nevertheless, the narrator’s reflexive pause takes the reader away momentarily from the story to contemplate how we are reading or reacting to people within the story. So begins one chapter: “One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” (242). George Levine reads this question of “why always Dorothea?” as evidence of a realism grounded in shifting viewpoints, “George Eliot’s recognition that no single perspective can encompass reality and that for realism to do its job it must allow for its incompleteness and disallow the possibility any single person—the narrator included—can authoritatively interpret reality” (15). However, realism as transference trades precisely on the affective power of interpretive acts. Just two chapters after the pier-glass interruption, Eliot urges the reader to consider the structure of our investments in character. By turning toward the marriage from the position of Casaubon with his unappealing “blinking eyes and white moles” (Middlemarch 242), the narrator also illuminates the power of readerly resistance—or negative transference, or the limits of both detachment and engagement as forms of reading. The crux of transference, claims Bruce Fink, is “the transfer of affect (evoked in the past by people and events) into the here and now of the analytic setting” (40; emphases original). In Middlemarch, the narrator’s interventions steer readers to step back from and take stock of this “transfer of affect” to characters.


Eliot’s realism as transference promotes pauses as both reflexive and reflective, key acts of reading through distance to recognize the structure of transference. Eliot’s narrators intervene to point to the discursive structure—that this is a story about people to whom we emotionally respond—and Eliot encourages her readers to investigate these investments. At the same time, the narrator’s repeated interventions facilitate the tripartite movement of the countertransference too between felt experience and current narrative, moving in and out and back in again. Freud’s concept of countertransference shows the limits and liabilities of all readers seeking correspondences, even the trained psychoanalyst. The Lacanian “subject presumed to know” captures the limitations of any human act of reading. That the analyst—or narrator in Eliot’s fiction—is only “presumed to know” accentuates not only this productive barrier but also the seductive desire to be rightly read or known by another. The Eliotic narrator is consistent with this practice of an inevitably partial distance, just as the analyst’s countertransference spotlights the ambivalent reading of transference itself. Eliot highlights the imprecision or messiness of this transference between reader and story worlds, between the outside and inside of her novels. I would suggest that her narrator manages through interventions to prompt readers to take note of what Amanda Anderson calls “a dialectic between detachment and engagement, between a cultivated distance and a newly informed partiality” (6). We can see the same critical vacillation in the work of recognizing a transferential structure, after the psychoanalytic concept, which underwrites how we read, react, and move between story and world.[1]


The pause is, of course, a fact of serialization. Like the concept of transference and the theory of realism, the serial form repeatedly starts and stops the story’s flow. Many Victorian novels—all of Dickens’, for instance, and half of Eliot’s—were produced, published, and consumed in regularly allotted segments across weekly or monthly calendars. Scenes of Clerical Life, with its three stories distributed in monthly segments from January to November 1857, opens with a narrator who wields a “we” that encourages the reader’s alignment: “And now that we are snug and warm with this little tea-party, while it is freezing with February bitterness outside, we will listen to what they are talking about” (9). At the same time, the reader of the January installment is prompted to mingle the internal “February bitterness outside” described in the story across the external world of the reader’s temporal location. Eliot’s narrator propels the reader’s transference—and underscores the reader’s positive and negative attachments to characters—through reflexive pauses. These appear in Eliot’s first foray into fiction, her three serialized stories published across eleven installments in Blackwood’s from January to November 1857. In the opening chapter of the first monthly segment, Eliot prompts the blurring of external and internal worlds: “Reader! did you ever taste such a cup of tea as Miss Gibbs is this moment handing to Mr. Pilgrim? Do you know the dulcet strength, the animating blandness of tea sufficiently blended with real farmhouse cream?” (Scenes of Clerical Life 8). Eliot’s narrator challenges the reader to imagine through embodied sensations of taste and touch this commonplace moment of tea-time by both encouraging and thwarting the fictional version with the reader’s experience. “If I am right in my conjecture, you are unacquainted with the highest possibilities of tea; and Mr. Pilgrim, who is holding that cup in his hand, has an idea beyond you” (8-9). Transference between life and fiction is necessarily incomplete, but by pointing out both this redirection and its limits, the narrator urges the reader to attend to this process rather than submit or accede to an unexamined transference.

Serializing Transference


It was the serial form in our own time that inspired me to read Eliot’s realism as transference. HBO’s In Treatment invites us to consider what happens when fictional narrative takes the explicit structure of the psychoanalytic method. The series was notable not only for representing processes of transference and countertransference but also by doing so within an experimental serial format. This combination invited another kind of interpretive transference: a movement back and forth between contemporary television and the Victorian novel, which allowed me to read Eliot anew.


When the first season of In Treatment aired in 2008, the half-hour segments each weekday evening corresponded to the five analytic sessions in which the main character Paul Weston always appears. Monday evenings centered on Laura, an anesthesiologist whose erotic transference showcases the power of positive affect. Each weekly Monday episode frames the correspondence between air- and story- times with the title banner “Laura Monday 9am.” Tuesday episodes are devoted to the sessions of Alex, a military pilot suffering from a mission in which his bomb killed children in Iraq; this time the opening segment announces, “Alex Tuesday 10am.” The three other weekday episodes include: “Sophie Wednesday 4pm,” “Jake and Amy Thursday 5pm,” and Paul’s quasi-therapy sessions at the week’s end as “Gina Friday 7pm.” As the initial broadcast follows the order of the weekly sessions, a pattern that encourages our transference between internal and external temporalities, in the final week when Laura has discontinued her therapy and Alex has been killed, there were no episodes Monday and Tuesday evenings accordingly. This temporal progression of the days of the week is also reflected in the times of the sessions, from early Monday morning with Laura to early Friday evening with Paul. While the second and third seasons maintained the assignment of a different weekday session for each patient, the airing schedule merged these together.[2]


This seriality, with its pattern of repetition, attracted more applause than the individual storylines of Paul Weston and his therapeutic practice. A review in Variety found the first season of In Treatment “more interesting structurally than in its execution” (Lowry), a comment that ratifies how the serial privileges pattern over content. Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times review calls the five half-hour weekly segments “addictive,” and notes that, as the season progresses, all of a character’s episodes will be broadcast in succession on that particular evening. In a different kind of transference, the American series was in fact adapted and translated from the Israeli television drama Be’ Tipul, and there have followed many more adaptations from Argentina and Brazil to the Netherlands and Serbia, each with different sets of characters.


The serial form of the HBO series reveals the importance of between-scenes, which bring into focus processes of countertransference, from Paul’s taking notes or making a phone call to his summoning his wife Kate to wipe blood from the analytic couch, a request that turns into a marital maelstrom. The spot of blood signifies a miscarriage for Amy and Jake, the couple Paul counsels, and this loss leads to the dissolution of that marriage. Kate’s role to wipe away the bloody trace transfers over to the fatal problems within Paul and Kate’s marriage. While Kate removes the blot, Paul stands helplessly watching and waiting and finally reacting angrily to Kate’s revelation of her extramarital affair. It is the structured pause that brings into focus Paul’s own countertransference, his own feelings relayed in sessions with Gina about Jake’s anger and suspicions about Amy.


Like Eliot’s narrators, Paul Weston invokes the emotional reality within the world of the consulting room. In his first session with Laura, he tells her, “You are very much here, Laura.” Yet he prompts her to step back from this “here” by encouraging an examination of the transference: “Let’s talk about what’s really going on here.” When she confesses to her erotic transference onto Paul, he reminds her of the structural limits—or powers of distance—in the analytic relationship: “Laura, I’m your therapist—limitations are established and ethically defined. I am not an option.” But when she persists, the tables turn and suddenly we see Paul’s erotic countertransference flare up, even before we know about his disintegrating marriage. When Laura catches the drift of Paul’s confused response to her confession, she appeals to a fictional structure of the “other woman” by referring to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction: “I’m not dangerous to you—I’m not going to boil your kid’s rabbit.” By doing so, the script reminds us how our reading of the fictional worlds of television and film necessarily merges with affective ties beyond these constructed realms. As the season of episodes continues, Paul’s blurring becomes more focused even in the consulting room, although he only analyzes this overlay when prodded by Gina in his Friday sessions with her. For instance, in the third episode, the consulting-room couch Laura curls up on has served as Paul’s bed only moments before her arrival. And when Paul attempts to call Laura’s attention to the erotic transference by commenting, “You don’t want me to treat you as a psychologist. You want me to treat you as someone who is in love with you,” Laura retaliates, “Maybe you can’t treat me because you’re in love with me too.” Emblematic of the increasing borders crossed between inside and outside that resembles the structure of transference, Paul admits here: “I can’t treat you because the boundaries have been breached too often.”


But who is actually in treatment in these two serial narratives? I want to conclude by suggesting that it is here that the Victorian and contemporary television series differ formally—and to different ends. With In Treatment, the fifth session of each week is Paul’s own analytic meeting with his supervisor. This session, along with the pauses before or after each analytic encounter, encourages viewers to confront their own transference onto Paul since we are given access to his own countertransference, his vexed investments in the lives of his patients and his own unraveling marriage. What precisely defines the nature of these visits is perplexing to Gina who wonders if Paul has asked to speak with her as a friend or as a therapist, since she had once been his teacher and supervisor. For viewers, these sessions make possible the undoing of any potential transferential cathexis to Paul because we see his own counter-transference run rampant. As Gina points out, but Paul resists dramatically, Paul reciprocates with his own countertransference of his Monday client Laura’s erotic transference. Gina cautions, “Sometimes erotic transference is a test of married life.” And Paul’s impatience with Jake’s suspicions and hostility toward Amy in their couples counseling therapy emerges as a thin mask for his own suspicions about his wife Kate as well as his deep sadness about the marriage he pushes out of conscious range. Even Paul’s comments to Gina about his Tuesday patient Alex, the military officer who is recovering from an accident on the job during a bombing mission in Iraq, reveal his own ambivalence about the value of the work he does. Is he causing more harm than good? In the weekly session following Kate’s disclosure that she’s having an extramarital affair, Alex reports to Paul that he has just informed his wife that he’s “disengaged” and wants to divorce. Reacting rather strongly, Paul scolds Alex, “You go home and drop this bombshell,” a pointed word choice prompted more by Paul’s countertransference than professional reserve. As the season progresses, Paul’s ability to manage his own countertransference seems to disintegrate, while Eliot’s narrator remains detached with access into characters’ affective lives but without directly interacting with these characters.


In Treatment goes behind the scenes of the psychic life of the analyst, whereas Middlemarch, as only one example of Eliot’s realism as transference, gives us the “stirring” voice of her narrator without a life beyond. Because we cannot get caught up in the narrator’s misjudgments, because we cannot know the narrator’s affective experiences beyond the narrating room—like the psychoanalytic consulting room—of the text, Eliot’s realism is contingent on an unalloyed transference. We might say that these Friday episodes, where viewers are reminded of Paul’s countertransferences back to his patients which complicate his detached analysis, function like the narrator’s reflexive asides to the reader in Eliot. In fact, the narrator in Middlemarch is the better Freudian analyst because we are not able to follow this wise voice beyond its discursive interventions within the novel. But because Paul undergoes his own analysis that reveals his confusion and misapprehensions, in a way that his therapeutic presence as analyst does not reveal fully, viewers can then both see and step back from their own reading transference. To know so much about the analyst, however, complicates the transferential process. Viewers inevitably see that the analyst does not fully “know,” while readers have no evidence to dismantle the narrator as subject presumed to know. In Treatment’s Paul gives us better access to the full range of his “humanity”—to use Eliot’s term—than is possible through Eliot's narrator. Yet the brilliance of Eliot’s realism as transference is precisely this narrator, who is knowing because we cannot know more than the narrating voice, and who provides a spectrum of such humanity through the analytic pauses that spur readers to consider their own investments in fictional characters. In Treatment with George Eliot clarifies the productive possibilities of realism as transference and the seriality of the transferential structure of reading.

Biographical Notice

Susan David Bernstein, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Roomscape: Women Writers in the Reading Room of the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf (2013) and Confessional Subjects: Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture (1997) and co-editor with Elsie B. Michie of Victorian Vulgarity: Taste in Verbal and Visual Culture (2009). She has recently co-authored with Catherine DeRose "Reading Numbers by Numbers: Digital Studies and the Victorian Serial Novel" in Victorian Review, as well as "Serialization," co-authored with Julia McCord Chavez, in Oxford Bibliographies Online.




Although Anderson never explicitly aligns detachment with reading transference in psychoanalysis, she does allow that the term covers “not only science, critical reason, disinterestedness, and realism, but also a set of practices of the self, ranging from stoicism to cosmopolitanism to dandyism” (7).


For Season 2 in 2009, the Monday and Tuesday sessions were broadcast on Sunday evenings, and the Wednesday through Friday appointments first aired on Monday evenings. For the third season aired in 2010, there are only four weekly sessions—two aired on Mondays and two on Tuesdays.




Anderson, Amanda. The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanisn and the Cultivation of Detachment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.


Bernstein, Susan David. “Promiscuous Reading: The Problem of Identification and Anne Frank’s Diary.” Witnessing the Disaster: Essays on Representation and the Holocaust. Eds. Michael Bernard-Donals and Richard Glejzer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. 141-61. Print.


Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Ed. Mary Waldron. Peterborough, ONT: Broadview, 2005. Print.


Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Ed. Gregory Maertz. Peterborough, ONT: Broadview, 2004. Print.


Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Ed. Oliver Lovesey. Peterborough, ONT: Broadview, 2007. Print.


Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” Westminster Review 66.129 (July 1856): 51-79. Print.


Eliot, George. Review of Modern Painters by John Ruskin. Westminster Review 65.128 (April 1856): 625-33. Print.


Eliot, George. Scenes of Clerical Life. Ed. Thomas A. Noble. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.


Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.


Freud, Sigmund. An Autobiographical Study. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963. Print.


Levine, George. “Introduction: George Eliot and the Art of Realism.” The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot. Ed. George Levine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 1-19. Print.


Lowry, Brian. “Review: ‘In Treatment.’” Variety. Variety Media, 18 Jan. 2008. Web.


Stanley, Alessandra. “Four Days, a Therapist; Fifth Day, a Patient.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 28 Jan. 2008. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.


Stewart, Garrett. “Reading Feeling and the ‘Transferred Life’: The Mill on the Floss.” The Feeling of Reading: Affective Experience and Victorian Literature. Ed. Rachel Ablow. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010. 179-206. Print.

Author: Susan David Bernstein
Title: In Treatment with George Eliot
Journal: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Number 63, April 2013
URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1025615ar
DOI: 10.7202/1025615ar

Copyright © Susan David Bernstein, 2014

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