A Sympathetic Happiness: Dorothea’s Moral Development in “Middlemarch”

July 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining. – MiddlemarchA chief aim of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is to unloose the normally nebulous web of causality that shapes and guides all of humanity’s affairs. By explicating the full extent of humankind’s many varied experiences, the novel aspires to produce an understanding of our being that is both collective and long-lasting; it is a comprehensive “experiment in life” that endeavors towards the discovery of “enduring truths which would ennoble human existence.” Yet, what are these truths and how can they be achieved? Though the citizens of Middlemarch hail from different backgrounds and bear different fates, those who achieve happiness reach the same realization: they are part of a world and a struggle beyond their own immediate selves. In her path away from egoism and alienated suffering towards humanistic sympathy, Dorothea is a premiere example of Eliot’s theory of moral development.Though Dorothea is not a devout egoist like other people in Middlemarch, she nonetheless displays an undue faith in the power of her actions, a fault which is founded on the same separation from and ignorance of the greater world. This failing is characteristic of the first stage in Eliot’s theory of moral development, in which one’s self is the center of the world. The egoistic behavior that results from this stage is a sort of gambling in which one lays trust in their own powers to supersede the rest of the world’s forces. Such characters are unable to imagine the full consequences of their own actions. But unlike Casaubon, Bulstrode, or Fred Vincy, Dorothea does not suffer from an inability to comprehend her effect on others. When she expresses sadness at the “feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better,” it is clear these “better” things are not egoist works like ‘The Key to All Mythologies’ but good works for others (Eliot, p. 835). Neither is she mired in the selfish, false pretense that the world exists for her alone – as her plans to build better cottages on Sir James’ estate attests. Indeed, the narrator states lucidly that “she [is] open, ardent, and not in the least self-admiring” (Eliot, p. 10). Rather, Dorothea rests on the opposite end of the spectrum from egoism – “voluntary submission” (Eliot, p. 29). Yet, there exists a temptation to pronounce – as Casaubon does once in a fit of anger – that her religious beliefs are “vagaries”: unorthodox adventures of capricious fancy (Eliot, p. 421). Such subjective cynicism is not wholly accurate, but it elucidates the tragedy of Dorothea’s character; her idealism lacks a true grounding in the world and thus appears “childlike” and “stupid” (Eliot, p. 51). The fact that her pursuit is grounded in such naïveté causes her to share the same fate as any egoist – the fall into miserable solidarity. “All Dorothea’s passion was transfused through a mind struggling towards an ideal life,” unfortunately all “the radiance of her transfigured girlhood fell on the first object that came within its eye level”: Casaubon (Eliot, p. 45). Though “the union which attracted her was one that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance” she is forced to endure a harrowing pain on her way to “the grandest path” (Eliot, p. 29). Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon represents a period of suffering and alienation which distinguishes the second stage in Eliot’s theory of moral development. Though the marriage had appeared to be based on the best foundations – piety, devotion, and scholarly, theological pursuit – Dorothea is forced to recognize the cruelty of the world through the relationship. What is supposed to be a union of mutual contentment is actually causes remote suffering as “in the miserable light she s[ees] her own and her husband’s solitude” (Eliot, p. 426). Under Casaubon she is forced to “live more and more in a virtual tomb,” separated not only from the people and things which make her happy, but her own self as well (Eliot, p. 475). She “wait[s] on his glances with trembling, and shut[s] her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits, that she might be petty enough to please him” (Eliot, p. 426). Society has crushed a premiere idealist to pettiness and “like one who has lost his way and is weary, she sat and saw as in one glance all the paths of her young hope which she would never find again” (Eliot, p. 426). Even after Casaubon’s death, Dorothea is subjugated to alienation and torment because of his will, which stipulates that if she marries her true love, Will Ladislaw, she will lose all the property she has inherited. In a tender moment she intimates her suffering to Will, “Sorrow comes in so many ways. Two years ago I had no notion of that – I mean of the unexpected way in which trouble comes, and ties our hands, and makes us silent when we long to speak…I was very fond of doing as I liked, but I have almost given up” (Eliot, p. 545). Committed to a vow of sorrow, Dorothea appears to sway on the precipice of despair, yet the realization that she is a part of a greater world delivers her from sadness. Facing the most agonizing realization of her life, Dorothea confronts the conflict between her own individual desires and her devotion to help others, and grasps that the two are actually powerfully intertwined. In her subsequently redoubled efforts of compassion she enters the third and final stage of moral development: sympathy. She happens upon Rosamond and Will holding hands and, realizing that she may never be able to embrace the man she loves, “sob[s] herself to sleep on the cold floor” (Eliot, p. 787). Yet Dorothea forces “herself to dwell on every detail and its possible meaning. Was she alone in the scene? Was it her event only?” (Eliot, p. 787). She recognizes the answer is no; the incident is “bound up with another woman’s life” (Eliot, p. 787). “This vivid sympathetic experience return[s] to her now as a power” and she propels herself “towards the perfect Right,” to a new level of compassion, saying, “‘What should I do-how should I act now, this very day if I could clutch my own pain, and compel it to silence, and think of those three?'” (Eliot, p. 788). Dorothea realizes she is part of the greater world and that “the objects of her rescue [are] not to be sought out by her fancy” but, rather “chosen for her” (Eliot, p. 788). She resolves to return to Rosamond and urge her to remain faithful to her own marriage. Dorothea’s words are representative of a new knowledge of sympathy, a calling which is beyond her own desires or pain. Compassion is no longer a fulfillment of a higher purpose; it is a necessary responsibility to her life and others’. In this manner, Dorothea recognizes the unity of being throughout humanity and expresses an enduring, ennobling truth: a person’s life depends not only on the will of him or herself, but also on the empathy and good deeds of others. She finally lives up to the Prelude’s metaphor of her as a modern Saint Theresa; as the narrator writes, “The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” (Eliot, p. 838). And with her transcendence of egoism also comes the transcendence of suffering. Dorothea is able to cast off the shackles of Casaubon’s death, replacing her mourner’s garb with fresh clothes which are symbolic of her new life, and disregarding his biddings when she marries Will. Yet the achievement of this happiness, this deliverance from alienation, provides one final insight into Eliot’s philosophy because it is only received through another instance of compassion from Rosamond. By embracing the enduring truth of universal sympathy, one can expect reciprocation and-despite the uncertainty of life’s palpitations- attain a lasting, respectable happiness.Works CitedEliot, George. Middlemarch. London: Penguin Books, 2003.Paris, Bernard J. Experiments in Life: George Eliot’s Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965.

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