Looking Both Ways: Middlemarch, True Skin, and the Dermatological Gaze


  • Ariane de Waal MLU Halle-Wittenberg, Germany




Based on an analysis of a wide range of Victorian dermatology textbooks and previously unexamined articles on the skin in the periodical press, this essay demonstrates George Eliot’s implementation of a dermatological gaze in Middlemarch. The novelty of this gaze lies in a bidirectional movement that combines an optical surface assessment with observations of physiological processes taking place in the inner structures of the skin. The essay argues that this two-fold way of looking emerged in the wake of Victorian dermatology’s turn towards morphological classifications and the popularisation of microscopy. At a time when microscopic images of the skin’s three layers were widely disseminated, the seat of skin diseases moved from inner organs into the thickened, more complex structure of the skin itself, calling for a gaze that simultaneously looks at and into the skin. Contributing to the sparse scholarship that links dermatological history to literary figurations of skin, the article invokes the new dermatological gaze to arrive at a fuller understanding of how we look at character(s) in realist novels. It first traces Eliot’s retreat from physiognomic looking and her introduction of dermatological registers of complexion. Second, it analyses the narrator’s use of a two-fold gaze in passages that magnify the physiological (mal)functioning of the characters’ skin. Third, it interrogates the novel’s shift from visual to tactile impression. The article builds on and extends perspectives on Eliot’s materialist characterology by showing how a dermatology-based reading of Middlemarch crucially helps to clarify the characters’ choices and social behaviours.