The “Curse” of the Lifted Veil
The “veil” in George Eliot’s novella “The Lifted Veil” symbolizes the boundary between the natural world and the world of the supernatural, which in this story includes the realm of the spirit and of death. The words “shroud” or “curtain” also appear throughout the story as references to the image of the “veil.” Latimer’s powers of clairvoyance, his ability to both see into the future and hear the internal thoughts of people around him, is described in terms of his ability to see beyond the “veil” which separates the natural world from that of the spirit world. While these powers of clairvoyance would seem to be a gift, Latimer experiences them as a “curse,” which drains life of all pleasure, bringing him only misery and suffering.
The “veil” or “curtain” which separates human beings with ordinary powers of perception from foreknowledge of the future is lifted for Latimer, allowing him to see events before they actually occur. But this “superadded consciousness” which allows him to see into the future deprives him of all human pleasure in the present. He recalls his childhood, before the “curtain of the future” had been lifted to him, as a happy one, ”For then the curtain of the future was as impenetrable to me as to other children.” For Latimer, the “hope” of his childhood was a result of possessing, like other children, no knowledge of his own future, “I had all their delight in the present hour, their sweet indefinite hopes for the morrow.” Once he has seen into his own future, however, there is no basis on which to harbor any sense of “hope.” Also, because he becomes preoccupied with these visions of the future, he no longer experiences “delight in the present hour.”
Latimer describes his only pleasures in life as a child, before acquiring his powers of clairvoyance, in terms of nature, both in association with the mystery of life and with his memories of maternal love. Latimer’s love of nature is specifically associated with his fond early memories of his mother, who died when he was quite young. Although generally a lonely child, Latimer describes his “least solitary moments” as occurring in the presence of nature, which he describes in terms of the “cherishing love” of his mother’s embrace: “It seemed to me that the sky, and the glowing mountain-tops, and the wide blue water, surrounded me with a cherishing love such as no human face had shed on me since my mother’s love had vanished out of my life.” Latimer further describes his experience of nature in terms of a spiritual, heavenly or godlike quality, as ”the sight of the Alps, with the setting sun on them seemed to me like an entrance to heaven.” He goes on to describe his experience of nature in terms which suggest religious fervor; he finds himself in a state of a “perpetual sense of exaltation,” or almost religious awe “at the presence of nature and all her awful loveliness.” Latimer’s delight in the mystery and spiritual properties of nature are lost, however, when the “entrance to heaven” is in effect opened for him, in the form of his powers of clairvoyance. Once he is able to see beyond the realm of life and nature to the realm of death and the soul, this reverence for, and awe in the face of the mystery of nature is no longer a part of his experience.
Once both his future, or “destiny,” and the thoughts and souls of other human beings are revealed to him by the lifting of the “veil” of life’s mystery, Latimer no longer takes pleasure in the natural world. He thus comes to the conclusion that it is the mystery of life and of death which is the sole cause of pleasure in human life. In fact, he comes to believe that human beings thrive on that which is unknown to them.
“So absolute is our soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between.”
Because of Latimer’s powers of clairvoyance, life for him contains nothing “hidden and uncertain” and is drained of any “interest,” and therefore of any “doubt and hope and effort.”
The Mystery of Bertha
Latimer’s instant fixation on Bertha as an object of his adoration is thus due both to the fact that she is the only person whose inner soul remains a mystery to him, and because he associates her with images of nature. Latimer describes Bertha, upon his first introduction to her, as if she had emerged directly from the world of nature: “The pale-green dress, and the green leaves that seemed to form a border about her pale blond hair, made me think of a water-Nixie,—for my mind was full of German lyrics, and this pale, fatale-eyed woman, with the green weeds, looked like a birth from some cold sedgy-stream, the daughter of an aged river.” In describing Bertha on their wedding day, Latimer again describes her in terms of nature imagery, which is also endowed with a spiritual element: “Bertha, in her white silk dress and pale-green leaves, and the pale hues of her hair and face, looked like the spirit of the morning.” In Bertha, Latimer sees both the spiritual mystery and the maternal love he associates with his childhood experience of nature.
Latimer’s fixation on Bertha is described most emphatically, however, in terms of the fact that she is the only person in the world who remains a mystery to him. Because Latimer is denied the human pleasures of not being able to see beyond the “veil” of life’s mystery, of the spiritual world, Bertha, “my oasis of mystery in the dreary desert of knowledge,” becomes the only source of pleasure in his life. It is what he doesn 7 know about Bertha that fascinates him. His fascination with Bertha is attributable to the fact that she is the only ”enigma” left in his world, ”amidst the fatiguing obviousness of the other minds around me.” He explains that the overpowering “effect” Bertha had on him “was chiefly determined by the fact that she made the only exception, among all the human beings about me, to my unhappy gift of insight.” Because Latimer’s ability to see into the future spoils his sense of hope, Bertha’s mysteriousness becomes his only source of pleasure in life, since “she had for me the fascination of an unraveled destiny.”
He goes on to describe the “closed secret” of Bertha’s face in terms of religious iconography; her face to him was the “shrine of a doubtfully benignant deity which ruled his fate.” It’s as if Bertha, being the only remaining mystery in Latimer’s life, takes on all the power of the mystery of a ”deity,” or god, which Latimer had previously attributed to nature. She comes to represent for Latimer the realm of the unknown which, for him, is the source of all human delight in life. Bertha thus becomes for Latimer a mysterious godlike presence to which he blindly devotes himself.
In the beginning of their marriage, Bertha continues to be a mystery to Latimer, and therefore continues to capture his attention: “Bertha’s inward self remained shrouded from me, and I still read her thoughts only through the language of her lips and demeanour.” While her “inward self is “shrouded” from Latimer, he is still able to “find in her alone among my fellow-beings the blessed possibility of mystery, and doubt, and expectation.” Eighteen months after their marriage, however, upon the death of Latimer’s father, the “veil which had shrouded Bertha’s soul” from Latimer is lifted: “The terrible moment of complete illumination had come to me, and I saw that the darkness had hidden no landscape from me, but only a blank prosaic wall.” Once this veil is lifted, and Bertha no longer a mystery to him, Latimer loses all interest in her, and she loses all power over him: “Before marriage she had completely mastered my imagination, for she was a secret to me. But now that her soul was laid open to me, now that I was compelled to share the privacy of her motives, to follow all the petty devices that preceded her words and acts, she found herself powerless with me”
Latimer’s “curse of insight” into life’s mysteries has the result of causing him such suffering that it has “annihilated religious faith within me.” His only “deity” had been that which he imagined to have been enshrined in Bertha’s face, and, once that shrine is shown to be empty, there is no longer any possibility of faith for him. Latimer spends the remainder of his life, after the revelation of Bertha’s maid that she had been trying to poison him, fleeing from “my old insight” into the “Unknown Presence.”
Fifteen years after the initial publication of “The Lifted Veil” George Eliot added a short epigraph to the story.
“Give me no light, great Heaven, but such as turns
To energy of human fellowship;
No powers beyond the growing heritage
That makes completer manhood.”
This poem is written in the form of a prayer, whereby the speaker asks Heaven to give him ”no light”—meaning, no knowledge or insight—”but such as turns to energy of human fellowship.” In other words, the speaker asks to be granted no special powers of knowledge or insight (“light”), such as clairvoyance, which would turn his ”energy” (thought or intention) away from “human fellowship.” The speaker asks to be granted only those ordinary powers of knowledge and perception which direct his “energy” toward “fellowship” with humans in the natural world. This clearly refers to Latimer’s supernatural powers of clairvoyance— as if the heavens had granted him the “light” by which to see beyond the “veil” which shrouds the future, the spirit world and the realm of death from most human eyes. The poem goes on to pray for ”no powers beyond the growing heritage that makes completer manhood.” The speaker asks to be spared any supernatural power beyond the wisdom endowed to a natural development of “manhood,” or human experience. In other words, the “speaker” of the epigraph sends up a prayer to “heaven” to be spared the curse of supernatural powers of clairvoyance.
Given that Eliot chose to add it fifteen years after original publication, it may be that the epigraph functions as a sort of”moral” to the story of “The Lifted Veil.” Because Latimer experiences his powers to see beyond the “veil” of life’s mystery as a “curse,” the epigraph functions almost as a warning to the reader not to wish for such powers, but, rather, to turn the “energy” of his earthly knowledge and insight (“light”) to ”human fellowship,” to the natural world of humanity, for it is the mystery itself of the “Unknown Presence” which gives meaning, “hope” and “interest” to human life.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, George Eliot, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.