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History (Re)incarnate: George Eliot and Qurratulain Hyder

Maha Jafri, Sewanee: The University of the South

November 1, 2023 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · B14 McCosh

Department of English; University Center for Human Values; Program in Gender and Sexuality Studes; Humanities Council

In making incarnation a key term for her fiction, George Eliot exemplifies a broader Victorian effort to transmute Christian sentiment into a secular ideal of sympathy and an aesthetic of realism. At the same time, the critical tendency to situate Eliot in relation to a New Testament paradigm has obscured her engagement with cosmologies other than the Christian telos. Disambiguating incarnation from the New Testament legacy—but not from religion—this talk traces Eliot’s interest in forms of ensouled embodiment that take shape in multiple iterations over time. Inspired by calls to reimagine the geographical and chronological boundaries of Victorian studies, this talk pairs Middlemarch (1871-72) with a 20th-century Urdu novel that makes reincarnation its organizing narrative principle: Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya (1959)/River of Fire (trans. 1998), a historical epic that sees its characters repeatedly reborn over the course of 2500 years. In examining how both novels theorize history by engaging with Hindu and Buddhist models of spiritual embodiment, this talk demonstrates what becomes possible when we consider the relationship between literary form and religious doctrine outside the Christian context.

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