George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil explores the nature of human sympathy from the perspective of a supernatural, clairvoyant character. The narrator of the story, Latimer, uses his power of clairvoyance to analyze the sympathies of others, which reveals his own naivete about his own sympathy towards other people.
At the very surface level, Latimer himself is a character that tends to evoke sympathy from his readers just by the very nature of his existence, beginning with the fact that he was a very sickly child and seems to suffer from a sense of childhood trauma. At first, before the appearance of his clairvoyant power, he had a childhood full of naïveté and no true sense of the future, allowing his very young years to be happy and blissful, but soon after, his childhood innocence is taken when he loses his mother: “That unequalled love soon vanished out of my life, and even to my childish consciousness it was as if that life had become more chill. I rode my little white pony with the groom by my side as before, but there were no loving eyes looking at me as I mounted, no glad arms open to me when I came back” (Eliot 5). Undoubtedly the imagery of a young boy missing his mother evokes the most simple form of sympathy from readers.
Latimer was not very academic minded, which shifted his focus from the academic fields to other people. This is first easily observed when he is sent to Geneva and meets his friend Charles Meunier, who is a genius in the medical field, according to Latimer. Of the friendship, Latimer says: “But the bond was not an intellectual one; it came from a source that can happily blend the stupid with the brilliant, the dreamy with the practical: it came from community of feeling” (Eliot 8). Therefore Latimer was drawn to Charles from a need for friendship and shared human feeling, sympathy in its most simple and human sense. He was also sympathetic to Charles’ condition: “I saw that he was isolated, as I was, though from a different cause, and, stimulated by a sympathetic resentment, I made timid advances towards him” (Eliot 8). This is where the naïveté of Latimer’s idea of sympathy becomes more apparent, as he seeks companionship more out of what he perceives as sympathy and then does not necessarily seek to known or befriend Charles in the most true sense. He feels bad for him, and spends time with him, but does not always pay attention to Charles’ ideas or feelings. He keeps Charles around for his own benefit and because he feels it is more of the right thing to do.
Latimer’s sense of clairvoyance begins to develop soon after, where his sympathy for other characters starts truly becoming an important element of the narrative. (Latimer is an unreliable narrator, and there is no way to know whether he actually possesses a power of clairvoyance or claims that he does for the sake of a vehicle in his own narrative, but either way the way he interacts with people regarding this concept works in the same way). He describes: “But this superadded consciousness, wearying and annoying enough when it urged on me the trivial experience of indifferent people, became an intense pain and grief when it seemed to be opening to me the souls of those who were in close relation to me” (Eliot 14). Essentially, Latimer is not especially happy with his newfound sense of clairvoyance and sight into the minds of others. When it applies to people he does not know, he describes it as “annoying and wearying”, implying he does not even want to think about these other people and the entire concept is a hindrance. He does not give them a second thought and his heart does not reach out to them, especially when described as “indifferent”, but Latimer does not even consider why exactly they may come off as indifferent in the first place. This is the biggest problem with Latimer’s sense of sympathy coupled with his clairvoyance: He analyzes what people are feeling, but fails to analyze why they might be feeling that way. It is even more evident when described in terms of people that Latimer is close to. “… that showed all the intermediate frivolities, all the suppressed egoism, all the struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts, from which human words and deeds emerge like leaflets covering a fermenting heap” (Eliot 14). Latimer is incredibly judgmental about the thoughts of others, but does not analyze any of them past the surface level of being aware that they exist. He fails to even notice the hypocrisy in the fact that he also has many unkind thoughts, and does not ever take the time to consider the situations of others that may be causing them to think the way that they do.
Latimer’s sense of sympathy must finally again be reanalyzed when it comes to the introduction of Bertha, but first, Bertha must be analyzed by her sense of sympathy from the perspective of the readers, which is made especially complicated in the fact that Latimer can not read her with his clairvoyant power the way he does with others. In fact, this is what draws him to her the most. At the surface level Bertha is not very sympathetic, and acts outwardly in ways that may be considered insensitive or unkind, but when coupled with the fact that Latimer is turned off by people who act one way and think another, Bertha must obviously seen incredibly genuine and honest to him, given his outlook on most of humanity being indifferent but only in a private, secret sense. Latimer says: “But there is no tyranny more complete than that which a self-centered negative nature exercises over a morbidly sensitive nature perpetually craving sympathy and support” (Eliot 15). This quote is very telling in itself because it proves that Latimer is craving sympathy even when he generally fails to show it to other people. It also proves that he prefers a relationship with someone he is not forced to intimately understand or naturally be sympathetic toward so he can therefore focus all aspects of sympathy towards himself.
Even with a perceived heightened sense of humanity and the people surrounding him, Latimer can not find it in himself to be particularly sympathetic, which is because he simply fails to understand human motivation and what causes people to act in the way they do. When he encounters someone who he does not have to show sympathy, he prefers this relationship because all of the sympathy can go towards himself, which therefore proves Latimer’s extremely naive sense of what it means to be sympathetic. Eliot uses Latimer and this narrative not only to analyze the Gothic possibility of the supernatural, but the romantic tendencies of human nature and the failing of humans to truly understand their peers.