The Spanish Gypsy (1868) by George Eliot is a closet drama in blank verse, set in Spain in the late 15th century, during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. Duke Silva of Bedmár is engaged to Fedalma, but he knows that his uncle Isidor hopes to prevent the marriage by denouncing Fedalma to the Inquisition, if only he can ferret out some crime or heresy on her part:

“She is not lost to me, might still be mine
But for the Inquisition,—the dire hand
That waits to clutch her with a hideous grasp.
Not passionate, human, living, but a grasp
As in the death-throe when the human soul
Departs and leaves force unrelenting, locked,
Not to be loosened save by slow decay
That frets the universe. Father Isidor
Has willed it so; his phial dropped the oil
To catch the air-borne motes of idle slander
He fed the fascinated gaze that clung
Round all her movements, frank as growths of spring,
With the new hateful interest of suspicion.”

George Eliot (1868). The Spanish Gypsy, pp. 176–177. Edinburgh: Blackwood.

In this passage, how does the figure of the oil catching the motes work? One part of the figure is straightforward: Isidor is using his position in the church (represented by the phial of holy oil) to pick up gossip about Fedalma, as oil collects dust. But what is Isidor imagined to be doing in the other part of the figure? Under what circumstances would someone drop oil to catch dust?

Update In the terminology of I. A. Richards (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, p. 96 ff.), this is a metaphor in which the tenor makes sense (Isidor is gathering gossip about Fedalma), but the vehicle does not (Isidor is collecting airborne dust by dropping oil). In comments Peter Shor asks, reasonably, whether the vehicle needs to make sense here, but if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t need to ask this question! Either the vehicle is nonsensical, or I am ignorant about the context in which it makes sense.

  • Why do you think there is a literal part of the figure? There usually is, in cases like this, but I can't imagine one in this case.
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 8, 2023 at 13:33
  • Metaphors have the additional dimensions of "ground" and "tension " indicating relatedness and separateness respectively of Tenor and Vehicle .So paraphrasing Peter Shor there is limited ground and significant tension for the vehicle -tenor relationship.So in this case without the neccesity of invoking nonsensicality we have the existence of a half baked metaphor ( with a half cooked vehicle ) but a metaphor ( and a vehicle ) nevertheless.
    – schweppz
    Oct 9, 2023 at 16:08

1 Answer 1


As I understand it your question is seeking an explanation of the metaphor of dropping the oil to catch the airborne motes and relating it to what Isidor might have done in reality to effect his ill intended agenda to justify the metaphor and also under what practical circumstances oil might be employed to catch dust.

I am aware that you state the metaphorical part of the figure is straightforward (but I should like to amplify further and build upon it as it gives greater clarity to the second part of you question) So , “motes” in the sense they are used here are minute dust particles suspended in air with random trajectories .They are used to capture the sense of idle gossip/ill informed chatter having no particular purpose or end.

Now by dropping the oil to catch air-borne motes of idle slander he is firstly collecting and directing various random bits of gossip (or slander) and abusing his position as a (presumably respected) cleric” to feed the fascinated gaze that clung… “In practice this could involve: Repeating the allegations heresy/unorthodoxy of Father Marcos (in Book 1 mentioned in an informal discussion between a Host , Juan , Blasco and Lopez )

'T is Father Marcos says she’ll not confess

And loves not holy water;

says her blood is infidel;

says the Duke's wedding her

Is union of light with darkness.

And then the point of her Gypsy birth ( "her blood is infidel" )

There are some other points to make about oil as a metaphor:

  1. It has a ritual religious use in “anointing” and this represents another element of his abuse of his elevated religious position.

  2. Oil is used a lubricant to reduce friction and “facilitate” the motion of sticking parts reluctant to move

  3. By making it cling together hair oil gives unruly hair a sleek appearance (the random gossip given purpose and direction) and note the reference to feeding “the fascinated gaze that clung to her movements.

  4. Oil serving to inflame as in oil on fire.

  5. In food oil serves to bring out flavours as in serving to spice up the rumours to effect Isidors devious purpose.

And finally: If I have understood your question correctly: Under what (non-metaphorical) circumstances would someone drop oil to catch dust? the practical application of oily polish for example in cleaning furniture is one such use.

  • The answer doesn't address the main point of the question: what is Father Isidor literally supposed to be doing? One doesn't "catch the air-borne motes" by applying oil from a phial to furniture.
    – verbose
    Oct 8, 2023 at 5:53
  • Thank you for this answer, but as verbose says, it isn't quite to the point. I have tried to clarify the question using the "tenor" and "vehicle" terminology of I. A. Richards. Oct 9, 2023 at 8:21

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.