Truth Claims of Marriage, Gender, and Social Class in Middlemarch and Great Expectations
Realism is an imperative theme across Middlemarch and Great Expectations. “The primary aim of realism is to represent real life for the time it is written, and it is the job of the author to create a number of different techniques in order to do so.” There is a substantial variety surrounding the number of truth claims used throughout George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Charles Dickens Great Expectations. These truth claims represent reality in their own ways. In this essay, I will be discussing how the truth claims of marriage, gender, and social class represent realism across both novels and how they can also contrastingly be discredited.
The first truth claim made in George Eliot’s Middlemarch are the difficulties and hardships in marriage, particularly on women. The Victorian time period is known to be the era of Romanticism but there were also a lot of very unhappy marriages during this time. The ideology of marriage across Middlemarch differs over Great Expectations, as the women in Middlemarch primarily conformed to their conventional roles as women, whereas the majority female characters in Great Expectations did not, with the exception of Biddy. Across Middlemarch, we are portrayed with the realities of marriage. Whilst many Victorian novels consider marriage as the ultimate source of happiness, Eliot portrays it to be the contrary. Marriages in the Victorian era were acclaimed by society to be more of a business transaction than an actual act of love. Victorian women needed to find husbands in order to gain financial and social stability and as Philippa Levine puts it, “for the women who did not marry, whether by choice or by chance, spinsterhood marked her as one of society’s unfortunates.” In the case of Middlemarch, Dorothea marries Casaubon because she naively believes he will help her achieve her highest potential as she says, “marriage is a state of higher duties” (38). Casaubon further demonstrates the unromantic portrayal of marriage as he writes in his proposal letter that “for the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need”. This sentiment resonances as if he is completing a business contract as opposed to romantically attempting to court Dorothea.
Throughout the start of the novel, the female protagonist Dorothea is ambitious with her dreams: she dreams of building cottages for farmers and enjoys horse riding – she is described to be “enamoured of intensity and greatness”. When Dorothea decides to marry Casaubon, we, as readers, can see her character slowly start to suppress her own nature as she believes she can access the same “intensity and greatness” she craves through her husband. Dorothea claims she wants a husband that can be a father figure to her and teach her about things, even if she is a strong-willed woman herself, because a woman living in her time period only had the option of living vicariously through her husband.
Dorothea’s reality of her marriage is exposed in Chapter 81, when she confronts Rosamond about her affair with Ladislaw: “I mean, marriage drinks up all of our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort love. I know it may be very dear, but it murders our marriage”. In this quote, Dorothea is expressing how marriage and love have no correlation and in fact, love can ruin a marriage ultimately. George Eliot further evaluates this when she says “but we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorothea’s, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know”: Eliot presents the consequences of accepting the role of the conventional role of a woman in the Victorian society can lead to women accepting their suffering from their marriages and further reinstates the historical facts that women had very few rights indeed.
Marriage in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations additionally portrays a similar truth claim about the unhappiness that comes with love and marriage. As a social reformer, Charles Dickens was very critical of Victorian society and only had wishes to improve it. Through his narrative of Great Expectations, the theme of injustice is a truth claim to how the majority of Victorians felt during the time. Dicken’s aim was to collect these social truth’s into showcasing the realities of the Victorian time period. The first marriage to prove the truth claim of marriage wrong in the 19th century is Mrs. Joe. She is immediately portrayed to be a violent woman and even unconventionally oppresses Joe and Pip in the house. She is described to have gained a “reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had bought me (Pip) up by hand” suggesting she is violent towards her son in her disciplinary methods. Surprisingly enough, she is also the same with her husband, Joe, as Dicken’s describes on page 39 of the novel: “she pounced on Joe, and, taking him by the two whiskers, knocked his head for a little against the wall behind him” – this quote in the novel strongly demonstrates her rough character, as she is not described to be the stereotypical ‘angel of the house’ of the Victorian period. ‘Angels of the house’ were described to be gentle, loving, obedient mothers and wives’ and Dicken’s proves Mrs. Joe is the polar opposite. Moreover, she is not feminine and does not have the trait of a proper housewife or wife to her husband. Michael Slater also finds in his critical analysis of the female characters in Dicken’s novel, that “Dickens sees women only as they have been typecast by men – as angelic ministers of grace and inspiration, as tormenting characters, as threats of male liberty”. Considering the fact Charles Dickens was anti-feminist, it is served as a warning when he portrays the majority of the women in Great Expectations to be rebellious and un-womanly like. His book serves as a reminder to women to not break social laws and orders as he creates characters like Mrs. Joe, Estella, and Mrs. Havisham and essentially ruins their lives in the novel.
Additionally, another truth claim made by Middlemarch is the role of women and general gender roles. During the early 19th century, there was a very hostile environment in England surrounding typical gender roles that were very strictly enforced within society. George Eliot demonstrates how the expectations that were held on women were particularly suffocating and restrictive in contrast to men. George Eliot’s real name is Mary Anne Evans, but used the male pen name of George Eliot as she had full knowledge that she would be taken more seriously if the public knew she was a male writer, showcasing how society viewed women in the early 19th century. In Middlemarch, readers are similarly continuously presented with the stark contrast between the male and female characters and their roles within the novel. From the very beginning of the novel, Eliot highlights these realities on what the male characters really think of women. “I don’t pretend to argue with a lady on politics, your sex is not thinkers, you know”. This quote strongly demonstrates the realities behind not just what the male protagonists think in Middlemarch but the general idea that women knew nothing of politics and were deemed to be uneducated is a truth claim from the Victorian era as a whole. The novel itself has received much criticism from female writers as its protagonist, Dorothea is presented to be a woman with an intelligent mind and a noble soul and it is disheartening when at the end of the novel, she does not break free from societal pressures of her gender role as a woman in the 19th century.
Furthermore, the truth claims of gender and the role of women are surprisingly deflated as demonstrated in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. In the 19th century, women were considered to be physically and mentally inferior to men and were more suited towards a more domestic and motherlier role, the ‘angel of the house’. In Great Expectations, the female characters are portrayed in opposition to their confined roles as women in this century. Great Expectations as a whole, lacks female characters that fully conform to the ‘angel of the house’ duty that they were placed into, all except for the character of Biddy. Mrs. Joe is manipulative, Estella is seductive, and Ms. Havisham is a misandrist. However, whenever readers were introduced to a female character, they are in their homes with the exception of Estella, who travels from Satis House to London. Contrastingly, the men, such as Pip, are introduced to be in the privacy of his own home or roaming the streets of London and the same goes for Joe Gargery who has a social presence at the local tavern. Michael Slater says that “Dickens is subscribed to the bourgeois construction of femininity and domesticity” and that he, like the majority of Victorians, had an idea that men and women had dissimilar natures but came together eventually. However, for some of the novel, both male and female characters maintain their gender identities subject to the Victorian time period and live with the appropriate social space for each sex to an extent. Dickens writes Estella to be the polar opposite of a 19th-century ideal woman. Estella is raised by Mrs. Havisham to torment men and to “break their hearts”. This demonstrates the determination the female characters had to break out of their spheres in society and as their conventional roles as women and to also break out of the truth claim that women were delicate and sensitive.
Social class is also another truth claim that portrays Middlemarch to be a realistic novel. The novels subtitle “A Study of Provincial Life” demonstrates that Eliot has purposes to provide the reader with an insight as to how “provincial life” during an era where the systematic element of class is an important element in structuring society. The “provincial life” Eliot mentions is defined by the fact that all of her characters are somehow interwined with one another in a complicated professional web and this then results in an intense social hierarchy throughout majority of the novel.
Class apprehension is a theme that runs through the novel but also through the Victorian period itself, it is a truth claim that many people had the same ideas of class and the system was not particularly liked by the working class as no matter how hard they worked, if they were not born into wealth, it was increasingly difficult to get there. According to Dale H, common labourers, a common job of the working-class, was 3 shillings for a 10 hour day across 6 days of the week.
In Middlemarch, family reputation is an obsession led by class nervousness, leading into an obsessive behaviour as to who the women in the novel marry. The only way to rise up the social ladder was through marriage, which is why the characters in the novel hold it to such a serious extent.
In Chapter 12 of the novel, we are given a glimpse into how Rosamond and Lydgate bond over their shared distaste of the provincial way of living in the town of Middlemarch. Rosamond, for example, is eager to marry Lydgate strictly due to the fact he comes from a honourable family as Eliot describes “Lydgate had a profession and was clever, as well as sufficiently handsome; but the piquant fact about Lydgate was his good birth, which distinguished him from all Middlemarch admirers and presented marriage as a prospect of rising in rank”. In the novel, Rosamond is so fixated and obsessed with her social standing that she does not realise that Lydgate in fact does not have any money, and it ultimately becomes one of the key factors that destroys their marriage. Eventually, the obsession with social class in the small town of Middlemarch showcases that its community are stuck in a self-deprecated and prejudicial way of living and the truth claims about social class and money further reinforce the realism in Middlemarch.
These ideologies are also demonstrated in Great Expectations. With the novel being set near the end of the Industrial Revolution, there became a time period where the dramatic improvement in manufacturing thus created new job opportunities for those born into lower and poorer classes, in order to move up to wealthier classes. Generally, the lower classes were looked down upon by upper classes. In Great Expectations, characters were treated differently dependant on their class, showcasing how much social class really mattered. There is a section of chapter 4 of the novel where Mrs Joe attempts to impress her guests by showcasing the most lavish part of the house, presenting her families wealth to be more luxurious than it actually is. Although Mrs Joe is worried for her reputation and feels ashamed of her class, Pip and Joe are less interested in appearing refined and wealthy and appear to be more comfortable when they arrive in their “punishingly stiff Sunday clothes”. Further on in the novel, class is further represented when Pip and Joe attend one of Victorian England’s working class schools run by Mr Wopsle’s great-aunt where it is portrayed that although Joe is complimented on his intelligence, it is then discovered that he cannot actually read. Further on in the chapter, Pip is asked to play at the wealthy Miss Havisham’s house, to which Mrs Joe is incredibly excited for, merely due to the fact that her being middle class and Miss Havisham being upper class, they fantasise about the idea that associating with her somehow will bring them social graces in society and get them financial gain. Toward the end of the novel, Joe comes to see Pip in chapter 27, he treats Joe differently due to his social class and there is an awkward tension between the two characters. Pip describes Joe’s arrival as “not with pleasure, I had the shapest sensitiveness as to being seen by Drummle” – portraying that Pip felt awkward and embarrassed that Drummle would see him differently for associating himself with a lower-class person such as Joe. The encounter becomes increasingly tenser between the two classes when Joe calls Pip ‘” sir” and the strain on their once friendship is appearing strained. When Joe leaves early, he leaves Pip with “Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one mans a blacksmith, and ones a whitesmith, and ones a common blacksmith and ones a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come”. This quote suggests to readers that Joe is acknowledging that he is a common blacksmith and Pip is a goldsmith, and the differences in their social class have now bought about the end of their friendship and their separation.
To conclude, there are numerous truth claims used by the novels Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Middlemarch by George Eliot. These truth claims were true in some retro respects but further proved to be false in others. The truth claims of marriage, gender and class were all used by both novels in their best efforts to represent reality. As both novels were written in the Victorian time period, the general consensus on marriage was that the wife had towed for financial and social security and follow the ‘angel of the house role’ in being the best wife to her husband. Middlemarch showcases the realities of how unhappy women were in this position as they were expected to live in a domesticated sphere whilst their husbands could do whatever they wanted. Great Expectations showcases the opposite as all of the women with the exception of Biddy, are fearless and disobedient and Dicken’s portrays in his novel the terrible consequences of women that act this way. Furthermore, the presentations of gender and class are also truth claims made in the early 19th century as women again, had zero rights. Class in both novels showcases how difficult life was for working class people and societies viewpoints on them. Both novels use these points to showcase truth claims that were made in society at the time the novels were written, and it is these points that help demonstrate Great Expectations and Middlemarch to be ‘realistic’.
Middlemarch: When The Rose Colored Glasses Shatter
Marriage — the act of uniting two beings under vows that uphold morals to honor, love and cherish for as long as both partners shall live — is undoubtedly one of the oldest traditions known to human existence. There may not be an era as exceptionally pro marriage as the Victorian period, as it was the societal norm to dictate marriage as the ultimate goal. However, the expectations of marriage seemed to perplex more free-thinking Victorians like the author George Eliot. Such notions are addressed in the novel Middlemarch, which examines a number of characters as they traverse through courtship and marriage relationships. Through the characters of Dorothea, Casaubon, Rosamond and Lydgate and their particular marriages, Eliot shows how people can be blinded by fantasies of an idealized relationship. And these fantasies render them woefully unprepared for the realities of a true marriage union when these rose-colored glasses are taken off.
The marriage between Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon is a prime example of such unrealistic expectations and disillusionment. It appears as though Dorothea has one great flaw: her excessive hopes and expectations. From the very beginning of the novel, she develops optimistic assumptions about married life. Rosamond Vincy too weaves fantasies about marriage to Tertius Lydgate upon his arrival in Middlemarch. She does not want to marry a man from Middlemarch: “she was tired of the faces and figures she had always been used to” (Eliot 106) so a seemingly well off newcomer such as Lydgate appeared to fit her grand idea of romance. And Dorothea views Causuabon as a “great soul” (Eliot 20), and soon the idea of marriage is “already planted in her mind” (Eliot 24). Both Dorothea and Rosamond begin idolizing their respective suiters, thus establishing their first misleading expectations of marriage.
Dorothea falls in love with the potential Casaubon brings for her own personal growth to fuel her ambition to change the world for the better: “the union which attracted her was one that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance, and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path” (Eliot 22). She would finally be able to rise above the restrictions imposed on her as a young woman in a Victorian society. However, with a marriage so dispassionate and ultimately broken, tis aspiration never comes to fruition. In parallel, Lydgate maintains his own fantasies about marriage, hoping for one in which “his wife would have that feminine radiance…beauty which by its very nature was virtuous, being moulded only for pure and delicate joys” (Eliot 183). Upon meeting Rosamond, he remarks that she is “grace itself…she is perfectly lovely and accomplished. That is what a woman ought to be: she ought to produce the effect of exquisite music” (Eliot 103). And thus, Lydgate’s perception of what a woman should be leaves him terribly unprepared for his marriage to a woman particularly like Rosamond, who proves to be quite the opposite of “exquisite music.”
Like Lydgate’s unpreparedness in a marriage with Rosamond, once married, Dorothea strives to help Causabon in his affairs, but in truth he desires a wife that will not get involved with his work but more so take care of domestic affairs. Dorothea soon realizes that her marriage is not as fulfilling — both intellectually and emotionally — as she thought it would be. Almost similarly to Dorothea’s initial fascination with Casaubon, when Lydgate meets Rosamond he is impressed by her charms, talents, and beauty and thus indulges in his own fantasy about Rosamond being everything “a woman ought to be.” He is “completely mastered by the outrush of tenderness at the sudden belief that this sweet young creature depended on him for her joy” (Eliot 189). With time, however, both Rosamond and Lydgate soon realize that they have deceived themselves, which the narrator had previously foreshadowed: “Poor Lydgate! Poor Rosamond! Each lived in a world in which the other knew nothing” (Eliot 185).
The marriage between Rosamond and Lydgate is a clear image of the violent shattering of expectations, as both enter their union with shockingly false ideas of one another and ultimately with no inclination to compromise. Rosamond is devastated to discover that Lydgate does not see the necessity in living at the level of luxury she sees as obligatory. Eliot metaphorically compares their marriage to a “delicate crystal” to convey the fragility and marred beauty, of their union. Dorothea and Rosamond — and of course Lydgate and Casaubon — indeed face the difference between what they expect from marriage, and what they receive. However, Dorothea learns from this eye-opening experience and brings her newfound knowledge when she marries Will Ladislaw after Casaubon’s death. She finally gains autonomy, and Rosamond, it seems, will continue to learn the art of compromise for the remainder of her life.
Dorothea and Rosamond are not content with the normal ways of Middlemarch, and the two women seek ways to escape what they discern as their society’s mediocrity. Dorothea learns to save herself through compromise, and her perseverance comes from her own will to do so. And thus Eliot reveals a significant theme within the novel: compromise, which is a vital part of marriage. The reality of married life consists of expectations, disappointments, and understandings. And ultimately one cannot have a successful marriage without reaching the final, almost ego sacrificing step: compromise.
Pier-Glass and World Order in George Eliot’s Middlemarch
Eliot and the Pier-Glass
George Eliot introduces a fascinating metaphor in Middlemarch in order to make the claim that the world does not have any inherent order; individual perspectives create different illusions of the world. The compelling central image of the pier-glass allows for different layers of Eliot’s metaphor to permeate throughout the section of text. At first read, the pier-glass seems to simply describe Eliot’s thoughts about Rosamond’s vanity and while valid, the metaphor goes beyond a single character on a page. Eliot transcends the need for the concept to work solely within the confines of the plot and instead makes a claim encompassing all of society. Furthermore, the phrasing of the passage permits the reader to truly think about the illusion Eliot’s perspective creates in the novel; is the novel a cohesive piece of literature by its own merit or merely a series of random scratches that happen to come together by the candlelight of her point of view?
Eliot opens up the passage by citing the pier-glass concept came from the mind of a philosopher. This statement immediately tells the readers that the metaphor will stem from a complex thought process and work within multiple dimensions. Eliot’s word choice further cements the notion of the complex metaphor by calling it a “pregnant little fact”: each word heavy with significance (Eliot 248). The word “pregnant” provokes a visceral, and most likely unconscious, reaction from the reader due to the inherent implications of the word. When the reader sees a concept described as “pregnant”, the pier-glass having a multi-faceted meaning becomes the natural conclusion. The word choice gives emphasis to the rest of the passage, gives the readers a hint for what to expect, and gives Eliot the foundation on which to delicately balance the layer of the pier-glass imagery.
Eliot’s choice to utilize the word “little” presents a stark contrast to her use of “pregnant”. Where “pregnant” implicated the intricacy of Eliot’s metaphor, the use of “little” forces the reader to shrink their expectations, and not get caught up in the grandiosity of Eliot’s words. Eliot’s phrasing suggests an undertone of mystery: the concept large but the audience small. In other words, the facets of the pier-glass do not garner the attention of the masses and so the masses remain oblivious to the magnitude of the pier-glass.
Still integral to Eliot’s argument, the last word she chooses to describe the pier-glass metaphor, “fact”, becomes a simpler word to grapple with. After using more ambiguous and symbolically weighted words, the use of such a simple ending word solidifies Eliot’s claim. If the reader had any doubt before finishing Eliot’s opening sentence, they do not after her assertion of her claim as fact. After tackling the symbolism behind “pregnant” and “little”, Eliot uses “fact” as a way to assure her audience that she has confidence in her claim and to not doubt the truth of the assertion.
The first section of Eliot’s assertion begins with the literal interaction of the reader with the pier-glass. The reader’s introduction to the glass sets up the premise of the individual perspective with the phrase “Your pier-glass”; Eliot’s use of the second tense forces the reader to claim the pier-glass as their own without any way to create distance (248). The ownership given to the reader makes an easy transition to the glass that “will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions” as an imperfect object they are now responsible for (248). Eliot’s wording goes back to the allusion made earlier on in the paper. The phrase is written with a strong undercurrent of double meaning. On the surface, Eliot simply states that a polished pier-glass will inevitably end up marked in some way but those same words take up a new meaning when put together with the statement she made about the entire metaphor having multiple layers. Once the reader digs underneath the literal words Eliot puts on the page, her objective becomes clear¬. The scratches on the glass represent the events that take place in the reader’s life––numerous, inconsequential, random.
Eliot takes the idea of a random series of life events one step further with the rest of the passage. If she left the metaphor with just the concept of life as a series of random events, her entire assertion would not come across as believable. The reader, no matter how learned, does not see his or her own life as random and inconsequential; Eliot must expand upon her claim in order to keep the reader invested. Eliot’s justification comes in the form of beautiful imagery as she states, “place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun” (248). Where the scratches on the glass represented the events of an individual’s life, the candle (or more accurately the flame) represents the individual. Eliot expresses her belief that only the individual can provide incite into the makings of his or her own life. Without someone to give perspective on his or her own life events, the rest of the world has no context as to what the events mean. For example, if the reader sees a photograph of two little girls picking flowers, all that can be said with certainty lies within the above description (two little girls picking flowers). The reader has no way of knowing if the girls are siblings or best friends. The reader has no way of knowing if the girls pick flowers to give to a loved one or to press them in between book pages. Eliot says that person’s life remains only as important as the memories the person has to go along with it.
Eliot’s belief cements by her use of the word “sun” to round out the assertion she makes. While the word may seem innocuous, as simply a different way to describe the light coming from the candle, the history behind the sun makes it impossible to allow the word to exist in the sentence without attempting to dissect further meaning. It is a universally known fact that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. The events of a person’s life make sense because of the person they center themselves around. A person does not make sense because of the events of the world.
The sun also has the added benefit, at least to Eliot, of having a connotation that leans toward self-centeredness. Eliot would not have chosen a word so heavy with implication if it did not have exactly the correct amount of implication that she wanted. Eliot takes great care when crafting the entirety of Middlemarch when it comes to word choice, imagery presented, metaphors explained, etc. and it seems doubtful that she would so easily ignore the variety of meanings and undertones that come into existence over a world like “sun”. By using the sun as the descriptor for the candle flame, Eliot compares individuals to the sun of which their own life events circle around––a person’s events revolve around them and only make sense because of them.
The undertone of egoism that presents itself becomes a fully fleshed-out reality when Eliot continues with “the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection”; Eliot uses firm and persuasive language to drive home the point that a person’s own self-involvement crafts the illusion of the world that they live in (248). Eliot once again speaks to the reader directly during the phrase but this time, instead of just forcing the reader to take ownership, she utilizes the word “only” as a way of telling the reader that no argument can be broached on the subject matter. Eliot allows no questions with the use of “only”: she stands firm in her decision that no other person could make sense of the reader’s world the way that the reader could. After taking her stance, Eliot begins to poke at the egoism of the individual when she describes a person’s life as a “flattering illusion” as if to say that no matter how good everything in the individual’s life may seem, it is only a product of the individual’s self-involvement. If individuals had the capability to look outside the bubble of their own lives, they would realize the inconsequentiality of their existences, a mere speck in the timeline of all of history. Most people, Eliot claims, do not have the ability to look outside themselves into the greater, less structured world but instead allow themselves to exist within the confines of their comfort zones where everything makes sense because it comes together from their own inherent ideas and biases but will undoubtedly not encompass a complete picture of the world.
Eliot’s claim becomes the infrastructure for a closer look into the novel as a whole. By asking the reader to grapple with such a broad and fascinating claim about society, she asks the reader to also grapple with the perplexing idea that perhaps her novel falls under the same constraints that the rest of the world does. After the opening paragraph of chapter twenty-seven in the novel, the reader faces an endless cycle of questions. If Eliot does not want the reader to think of her assertion as anything but true, then the novel also becomes a world in and of itself that Eliot created through her own perspective and inherent biases. Only the best writers have the ability to call into question the entirety of their own work based on a passage within the work itself. Eliot wants the reader suspicious of everything he or she encounters and while she paints a well-imagined and vivid atmosphere within Middlemarch, she wants the reader remain cognizant of the fact that the world she created cannot become the be-all and end-all definition of the world during that period of time, but instead a world that she saw and experienced through the eyes of a female during the 1800s.
Eliot remains one of the most influential and talented writers of her time. The ability to take the single image of a scratched mirror and turn it into a commentary on the pervasive egoism of society takes an immense amount of delicate crafting. She has the ability to carefully choose words that she knows will hold the most influence over the readers and put them together to create a beautiful, multi-layered metaphor over the course of a few sentences. The pier-glass, while seemingly innocuous, shapes the reader’s perspective of the content they read for the rest of the novel and shifts their own perspective about life in an egocentric society. The metaphor she uses takes the reader out of the novel entirely and has them questioning what about the novel stems from reality and what stems from Eliot’s own imagination, despite its genre classification as realistic fiction. While the content of the novel remains obviously important, Eliot’s main goal was to inspire the readers to think about, to interact with, and to analyze the inner workings of a society focused on its own individual interests both in and outside the context of a novel.
Compromise as a Happy Solution
In Chapter Twenty of Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke realizes that she has made a grave mistake in marriage: “…for that new real future which was replacing the imaginary drew its material from the endless minutaiae by which her view of Mr. Casaubon and her wifely relation, now that she was married to him, was gradually changing with the secret motion of a watch-hand from what it had been in her maiden dream” (178). In considering the future of her relationship, Dorothea’s shifting perspective is compared to the insidious motion of time measured on a watch. The “imaginary” hopes of Dorothea’s youth yield a more realistic mind-set as she gains life experience. Thus, selfhood is not fixed, but changes with time’s progression. Dorothea’s vulnerability to time is emphasized by the narrative’s focus on her inner life’ her attitudes rather than her actions. Judging Dorothea to be a mock-heroic figure whose ambitions are trounced by time’s inevitable passage, we might be tempted to read Middlemarch as a chronicle of defeat; this conclusion is unfair. In actuality, George Eliot’s creation of Dorothea Brooke is an attempt to create a viable epic hero. In grappling with the problem of time, it is evident that Dorothea achieves the only kind of heroism accessible to an intelligent human being who hopes to change the world: the heroism of happy compromise.
Learning to compromise and yet lead a fulfilling life is Dorothea’s biggest challenge. In the Finale of the novel, the narrator says: “For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it” (765-6). This apparently straightforward statement is more problematic than it seems. Dorothea can only really experience her life as an “inward being.” Her circumstances may “determine” her actions, but the way in which she understands, justifies and structures those actions is through her own perceptions. Because time passes and she gains experience, she is able to derive new meaning from the decisions she makes. The meaning she can create out of her life choices is ultimately all that matters.
An examination of her circumstances at the start of the novel further illuminate this theme. When we first meet Dorothea, she is nineteen years old, living under the roof of an uncle whom she regards with some “impatience”(4-5). If she wants to escape his roof, she requires a husband. Additionally, she has plans to improve the peasant cottages on the surrounding farmland. This desire to reform the world at large precludes the possibility of her being contented with a cloistered, spinster life. To carry out her plans, Dorothea needs power, capital and, to some extent, freedom. The only hope for these things lies in marriage. Furthermore, her acquaintance with men is limited and, considering the rigidities of the class system, her choice of a spouse is more nominal than actual. So, it is not surprising that Casaubon seems different and appealing when compared with the other men available to her, namely her primary suitor, the self-satisfied Chettham. Casaubon is quite a bit older than her, and he is an intellectual and scholar. Logically, he appears to be the best choice. Considering Dorothea’s lack of experience, can we blame her for marrying him? No, nor does it lessen the genuine goodness of her motivation. In fact, many less heroic women would probably accept Chettham, who is young, handsome, rich, and indulgent “an obvious”
Shortly after she marries Casaubon, Dorothea realizes she has made a bad choice. Interestingly, the implication is not that she should have accepted Chettham (as it might be for Jane Austen), but simply that she begins to change her mind about Casaubon. Most of the narrative’s emphasis is on Dorothea’s epiphany that she misperceived her husband’s true nature. This epiphany is related to her relationship to time as she undergoes a process of maturity whereby she adjusts her ideals to the reality that is set before her. Middlemarch suggests that we can no longer learn from traditional epic forms; heroes who are not affected by time cannot teach us anything. In the case of Dorothea, we can appreciate her changes as they relate directly to her growth over the passage of time. She can only learn the truth about Casaubon by living with him, through the gradually accumulating experience of the everyday. And were she to remain “changeless,” Dorothea would merely be foolish. The mistake she makes with Casaubon is didactic, as it necessitates a readjustment of her values and ways of seeing.
Howeover, what is heroic about Dorothea’s choice to marry Casaubon lies in its intention: she believes him to be a Milton-like figure, and marries him for this reason. The cognitive process whereby, over time, she discovers he is not the man she initially believed him to be is what makes her story compelling. As Dorothea gets to know Casaubon, so does the reader; in identifying with our heroine’s psychological coming-of-age, we learn a valuable lesson.
Eventually, Dorothea does succeed at deriving satisfaction from her knowledge of the world and her situation within it. Although she never builds the cottages, she does fall in love with Will Ladislaw and, in doing so, is able to finally make sense of her life experience. The narrator says: “she felt the largeness of the world 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” (722). This moment is remarkable because it demonstrates Dorothea’s ability to accept who she is while concurrently acknowledging the importance of the “manifold wakings”and “palpitating life” of the outside world.
Sympathy with her fellow man is finally actualized not in the physical reality of cottages, but through a process of interiorization. Hence, specific actions prove less important for Dorothea than her overall ability to extract meaning from her life.
Dorothea goes on to renounce her fortune and marry Ladislaw. This decision involves compromise “giving up money that might have been used for social good” but it also makes Dorothea happy. When her sister objects that she will no longer have the means to build cottages, Dorothea replies: “I have never carried out any plan yet.” (750). Is she a failure because she never builds the cottages? Ruskin asserts that: “No great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution” (92). Dorothea reaches a “point of failure”: she will never be able to execute the plans for the cottages, but she herself is not a failure. Like Ruskin “great man,” she has a tendency to dream of things she cannot actually achieve the fundamental human problem. We will never do all that we dream because as human beings we are subject to time and, eventually, death. In coming to realize that she is susceptible to time’s passage, Dorothea “grows up.”And, if she desires happiness, she must readjust her perception of her own life, which no longer need be focused on her “plans.” In distinguishing between the individual and her achievements, Eliot reconfigures the terms of heroism. Middlemarch suggests that our inner reality must be superior to outer reality if we are to prevent ourselves from being crushed by time.
Nevertheless, failing to recognize that renouncing her inheritance is a necessary step in her quest for happiness, many critics disapprove of Dorothea’s second marriage. The codicil on Casaubon’s estate, which prevents her from keeping the money in the event of her marrying Ladislaw, is a symbolic as well as literal impediment to her spiritual freedom. She has to give up the money in order to rid herself of Casaubon’s yoke.
Dorothea is not utterly free from the pressures of her circumstances: nobody is. But by making the brave decision to renounce her fortune and marry Ladislaw, she feels free. Her transgressive attitude towards her society and her willingness to give up money for love is indicative of Dorothea’s success. With time, her outlook changes; she realizes that her own ideas have made life more difficult than it needs to be; her inner reality has hampered her outer reality. The compromises she makes at the end of the novel are the correct ones, because they are resultant of her decision to “satisfy (her) spirit” and thus marry Ladislaw. Dorothea learns that just as she can only experience the world through her own perceptions, she must hope to change the world in the same way.
In lieu of all this, why do so many readers find it difficult to accept Dorothea as heroic? The tendency to judge her based on her actions and not the meaning she construes from those actions creates countless problems of interpretation. Assessing her character is difficult, because the narrative coaxes us to deny her heroism by comparing Dorothea with obsolete models. Traditional heroes like St. Teresa and Antigone, are not represented, as she is, in relationship to time’s passage. Therefore, the astute reader must make sense of Dorothea through a complex critical process that involves deconstructing and then reconstructing forms of epic heroism.
But, of what use is an epic hero if she is perfect, if we cannot learn anything from her? How can we learn from a hero who has no inner life and is not subject to the pressures of time? Reading Antigone, for instance, will teach us more about the worldview of the Greeks than how to make decisions in our own lives. With Dorothea, Eliot creates a hero who functions successfully in the relativistic modern epoch. Dorothea’s psychological journey is marked by her discovery of self-significance and a re-evaluation of her circumstances. The narration of Middlemarch focuses on the formative the years in which she readjusts her values in order to achieve these aims, transcending the navet of her youth through the real life experience that time’s passage forces upon her. Compromise arises from the exercise of supposed free will in a world that is not actually free. But, ultimately, Dorothea is able to make sense of these compromises, imbuing her decisions with meaning and learning to lead what she perceives to be a fulfilling and happy life. What more can anyone hope for?
Illusions and Reality Collide in Middlemarch
In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, each character struggles to reconcile his desires with the realities of his life. This struggle often leads to an imaginative construction of reality in the “fellowship of illusion.” In this novel, the characters of Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate share a similar form of imagination, both constructing in their minds an ideal marriage vision. As these illusions are forced to surrender to reality, the characters must attempt to understand the desires that fueled their imagination in the first place, and must try to make peace with their situation. The narrator attempts to show through these two characters this common tendency of humanity to create what we desire as a tool for dealing with a disappointing and limited life.
Dorothea and Lydgate imagine strangely coincidental forms of the ideal marriage partner. Dorothea seeks an intellectually dominant man who will guide her to her higher purpose, while Lydgate seeks a submissive woman who will share in his difficulties and help him achieve his lofty goals. In many ways, it seems they were looking for each other. The common element in this ideal was someone with whom they could share their higher goals, but both ended up with someone quite different. Dorothea is described as looking for “the union?that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance, and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path” (23). Dorothea’s ideal of herself in a state of submission seems a strange contrast to her remarkable self-reliance. This, however, is a manifestation of her imagination. She imagines herself free from mortal constraints, and a marriage that is “trials” and “a state of higher duties” (35) is an exhibition of this freedom from the worldly. She is acting against the passion in her character, imagining that she does not need to fulfill these base desires, and wants a husband that is more like a father. We see later that this elevated illusion cannot be long sustained.
In the absence of this ideal person, Dorothea and Lydgate imagine the virtues they seek in the people at hand. With little experience, Dorothea concludes Casaubon to be “a man who could understand the higher inward life” (17) in what the narrator tells us is an assessment in which “She filled up all blanks with unmanifested perfections, interpreting him as she interpreted the works of Providence, and accounting for seeming discords by her deafness to the higher harmonies. And there are many blanks left in the weeks of courtship, which a loving faith fills with happy assurance” (66). Lydgate too at first believes Rosamand to be the ideal woman he has imagined, “an accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labors” (320). Each of them is filling in the blanks of their lives with another person, Dorothea envisioning that she’s found the father figure she has always been lacking, and Lydgate imagining he has found the companion to make his great labors easier.
Great desires are present in these two characters to fuel such leaps of the imagination, and sustain the illusions created. Each of them imagines an ideal companion in someone who is in fact very different from that ideal and gives no encouragement towards the illusion. Lydgate and Dorothea both create such tremendous illusions because they have such extensive goals. Lydgate, like Dorothea, imagines himself to be above everyday cares, with romance and financial concerns having little relevance to his plans. He is torn in the novel between the good things he can do and the everyday life, which interferes. In order to achieve great accomplishments, these characters must imagine freedom, and they do in their renunciations of village concerns. These illusions, however, end up trapping them. Lydgate believes that his flirtation means nothing to anyone, and finds himself entangled more completely than he would have been if he had acknowledged social norms. He forgets that every great scientist “had to walk the earth among neighbors who thought much more of his gait and garments than of anything which was to give him a title to everlasting fame” (133), and these threads of social pressure work their immense power to draw him into marriage. Both Lydgate and Dorothea find themselves governed by desire, though they believe they are immune, and it is the desire itself which creates this illusion of freedom. Once trapped in marriage, Lydgate spins illusions in an effort to gain some happiness out of a marriage that was not what he desired.
The illusions created by Dorothea and Lydgate in their attempts to find fulfillment end up harming them. Both are disappointed in their marriages, having let their imaginations trap them with people who don’t understand them and in fact work against their goals. Dorothea, after her marriage to Mr. Casaubon, is reduced to an incarnation of surrendered passion and desire, saying “I have no longings” (356). Lydgate finds that his delusions and ideas of femininity have gotten him into a situation he can’t handle, and sees himself doomed to “a future without affection” (592). The illusions these characters created also contribute to keeping their marriages unmanageable, by creating obstacles to understanding by a refusal to see their mates in their reality. The result for both these characters is a retreat of their dreams from an active fulfillment to a secret desire.
Lydgate is still further harmed by the illusions he has created. His renunciation of worldly concerns not only draws him into financial trouble, but tarnishes his reputation and hurts his practice. The financial trouble he accrues by imagining himself to be above such concerns leads him to accept money from Bulstrode that is perceived in Middlemarch as a bribe. His lofty treatment towards those people has also led to an animosity against him in Middlemarch, creating still more problems. The “petty medium of Middlemarch had been too strong for him” (170).
The narrator is quick to tell us, however, that imagination is not all bad. She tells us, instead, that it is a shared human experience necessary for survival. That, “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar” (177). Some illusion, she argues, is necessary to protect us from the overwhelming full reality of the world. The narrator also comments that it is impossible to know everything about another person in a short time, especially through formalized courtship, so some characteristics must be imagined in order for a relationship to progress. “Life could never have gone on at any period but for this liberal allowance of conclusion, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization” (17).
Imagination is also useful in this novel in that it provides the characters an opportunity for moral victory in getting past their illusions and understanding some of the real complications of the world. After Dorothea “had begun to see that she had been under a wild illusion” (193), she continues to be devoted to Mr. Casaubon, a man she had deceived herself about in marrying. This devotion is morally elevated above the devotion she exhibited from within her delusion. Dorothea realizes that her disappointment come from her own imagination, not his failings, and pledges to continue, as she promised, in her duty as a wife. In this way imagination offers Dorothea a chance to exhibit her high morality in a way that is in touch with reality, in contrast with her earlier delusional attempts to show herself free from passion through self-sacrifice.
The shared human experience of imagination as a buffer to reality pervades the plot of Middlemarch. Each character is led by vanity to imagine themselves independent of social pressures that in fact determine their lives. Dorothea and Lydgate both engage in extreme creations of the imagination out of a desire to fulfill goals that go beyond the everyday provincial life, and in an attempt to be happy in the situations in which they find themselves. They are not, however, looked down upon for this, but accepted as only more proof of this human need to fill in the blanks. As each character begins to “emerge from that stupidity” (193), they are given the opportunity to show their true moral standing through the way in which they deal with the realities with which they are confronted. Dorothea morally elevates herself in this post-imaginative situation, showing her ability to accept her duties. Lydgate is less satisfying, forcing himself into a perpetual compromise in which he maintains some of his illusion while completely sacrificing his goals and himself to the consequences. The temptation to imagine is inescapable in the world of Middlemarch, and, the narrator tells us, in the world at large. “We are all of us imaginative in some form or other, for images are the brood of desire” (324).
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.
A Sympathetic Happiness: Dorothea’s Moral Development in “Middlemarch”
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 naÃ¯vetÃ© 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.
Marriage in Middlemarch: The Becoming Effect of Gaining Outward Perspective
George Eliot writes that a marriage is either a “gradual conquest or irremediable loss of union” (Eliot 832). In other words, marriage is a joint venture that has the goal of eventually culminating into the union of two separate persons. In Middlemarch, the “gradual” advancement towards union can be seen in the marriage of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy that only occurs when Mary forces Fred to become sufficiently developed as a person and chose a career that suits him. If either participant refuses to add to the functioning of the marriage, the marriage will become one of mutual enmity such as that of Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. In this novel, a happy marriage can be said to encompass a perspective that is broad enough to know what another feels and a willingness to work together. The couples who are still together and happy at the end of the novel are the success stories, such as Fred Vincy and Mary Garth and Ladislaw and Dorothea-all of whom have matured enough to thoroughly know both themselves and their partners. Through the novel’s couples, Eliot shows that marriage is an endeavor requiring a perspective that is inclusive of one’s partner and provides adequate knowledge of the self.To begin, Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon are a study in opposites as Dorothea loses grip of herself in order to more completely serve Casaubon while Casaubon acts with little regard to Dorothea’s own desires. Dorothea’s feelings for Casaubon are influenced by his supposed wisdom and her hopes that it will allow her to become more educated and have a higher purpose in life. She desires to be of constant usefulness to the weak and aging Casuabon by lending him her nineteen year old eyes for reading. But this preoccupation with Casaubon’s wishes lead Dorothea to make the unwise decision to completely lose herself with Casaubon. Instead of continuing to pursue her pet project of building more adequate housing for farm workers, Dorothea wishes to become merely Casaubon’s assistant. She in turn makes herself entirely dependent on him for her happiness and self-worth. When Casaubon chooses to exclude Dorothea, she is left with nothing to live for.After her marriage, Dorothea is frequently characterized as ruminating on her regrettable decision. She falls into a state of bewilderment and self-catechism asking herself, “Is he worth living for?” (426). Formerly, she had an individual drive to better the world through the construction of more suitable cottages. Dorothea needs the consent of a man to construct these cottages as men hold the money and the land. Ironically, if Dorothea had married Sir Chettam his willingness to cooperate with his partner may have made the cottage project a success. Casaubon is so adamant about his own pursuits that he neglects his union with Dorothea. Casaubon is “buried in books” (Eliot 447), and wishes to exclude Dorothea from his studies to the point where he neglects her on their honeymoon. Their marriage had a short courtship and thus a weak foundation for marriage. Eliot is disposed to think of short courtships as providing an unsteady foundation for the later marriage: “A fellow mortal with whose nature you are acquainted with solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same” (Eliot 195). One needs time to learn the other before endeavoring to be united within them for a lifetime. The marriage of Casaubon and Dorothea is of course a failure. Instead of face to face mediation, their marriage is cemented through letters. Casaubon ruminates on how the acquisition of Dorothea, however prized, does not make him happy, “his surprise that though he had won a lovely and noble-hearted girl he had not won delight” (Eliot 85). Likewise, Dorothea is miserable and often ruminates on her unhappiness. Their meetings however short are strained because of their mutual displeasure. In their first attempt at conversation, the hostility is highly evident. Dorothea claims that Casaubon speaks to her “as if [she] were something [he] had to contend with” (Eliot 282). Despite that Dorothea addresses the animosity between them, Casaubon’s only reply is to ignore the obvious contention in his marriage in favor of again pursuing his own self-interests, saying that he has, “neither the leisure nor energy for this kind of debate” (Eliot 282). In this instance, “this kind of debate” would refer to Casaubon paying any mind to Dorothea’s stature or personal needs within the union. The author’s query of “but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” may be answered by the fact that Casaubon’s silence on marital subjects means he is less proactive in attempting to gain insight into his wife’s personality. The reader gets more of her perspective because her perspective is not stagnated and is less concentrated on herself alone. In the same way that Casaubon views Dorothy as an ornament, both Lydgate and Rosamond view each other as luxury items to acquire and not so much as people. Lydgate does not acknowledge that Rosamond is a person with personal whims. He views Rosamond as a plant, and by “marrying her, he could give her a much-needed transplantation” (Eliot 350). He takes it for granted that her only desire in life will be to facilitate her union with him. However, Rosamond is entirely concerned with how financial circumstances affect her and her alone. Lydgate’s lack of devotion to his own dreams leads him to eventually believe that he was a “failure: he had not done what he meant to do” (Eliot 835). Similarly, Rosamond views Lydgate not as a person but as more like an object. Rosamond wishes to meet and later marry Lydgate because he is a novelty she wishes to acquire, “She was tired of the faces and figures she had always been use to — the various irregular profiles and gaits and turns of phrase distinguishing those Middlemarch young men whom she had always known as boys” (Eliot 97). Their refusal to view one another as anything but objects forecasts their eventual inhumane treatment of one another. Rosamond and Lydgate’s poor opinions of one another create an environment in which Lydgate ridicules Rosamond, and she withdraws from him. Though very savvy and persuasive, Rosamond never manages to gain respect from her husband. She purges her feelings of her own negligible existence within her marriage to Dorothea, claiming, “Tertius is so angry and impatient if I say anything” (Eliot 796). Rosamond becomes practiced at “inwardly wrapping her soul in cold reserve” against any attempts at what she perceives as criticism (Eliot 792). Rosamond’s happiness deteriorates as she is not allowed to express herself without insult. Lydgate is also unable to express himself as others think, “him enviable to have so charming a wife” and he chooses to speak in superior terms to intentionally ridicule and perplex Rosamond (Eliot 835). Shortly before his death, Lydgate calls Rosamond, “his basil plant,” and when she asks for an explanation does not explain the reference’s origin but only says it flourishes “wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains” (Eliot 835). It is evident that Lydgate thinks of Rosamond as something that kills his intellectual advancement. Upon being remarried, Rosamond, “often spoke of her happiness as ‘a reward’-she did not say for what, but probably she meant that it was a reward for her patience with Tertius” (Eliot 835). Thus Lydgate’s lack of respect for Rosamond as a person causes her unhappiness.Through their insufficient courting and mutual resolution not to attempt to understand one another, Lydgate and Rosamond doom their marriage to perpetual unhappiness. Both refuse to re-analyze their situation and to attempt to find relate to one another. Lydgate does not view Rosamond as an intelligent creature and as this perspective is never adjusted she withdraws from him. Their failure to value one another’s strength leads to strife within the marriage. Lydgate and Rosamond fail to work together to solve the financial dilemma that causes a rift in their marriage. Their mutually negative views of each other cause Rosamond and Lydgate to become progressively unhappy. Unlike the marriage of Rosamond and Lydgate, Dorothea and Ladislaw’s marriage is based on a lengthy, well-developed courtship that has many trials. Their first meeting is one of complete misunderstanding of the meaning of each others’ speech. Dorothea meets Ladislaw whilst he is painting and comments that paintings are like a “Greek sentence…which means nothing to me” (Eliot 79). Upon hearing this statement, the infrequently wise Mr. Brooke exclaims, “Bless me, now, how different people are!” (Eliot 80). Mr. Brooke, having lived with his niece for several years, knows that this is a simple comment on Dorothea’s self. But her statement on her ignorance of art is taken by Ladislaw as “a covert judgment” and “was certain that she thought his sketch detestable” (Eliot 80). At present both Ladislaw and Dorothea have an infantile perspective of the world, discerning all events and others’ thoughts as strictly relating to themselves. They are married after a suitably long period of acquaintance and after both parties have been given adequate time to weigh the consequences of their relationship.An important part of what makes the marriage of Dorothea and Ladislaw contented is that Dorothea is allowed to broaden her perspective before marrying Ladislaw. She has always desired to do well for the world but she changes charitable causes from the ostentatious construction of cottages to becoming an unknown benefactor of the New Hospital. For Dorothea, at least, charity is something one does to make one’s self feel good, not so much for the sake of others. She first dwells on a portrait and then looks out of windows realizing the life that exists outside her self. After surprising Ladislaw and Rosamond, Dorothea has a night of woe but then, “began to live through yesterday morning deliberately again, forcing herself to dwell on every detail and its possible meaning” (Eliot 787). Dorothea is becoming a better reader of people and taking into account their perspectives, asking herself, “Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only?” (Eliot 787). Empirically, of course, the answer is no, she is not alone and this self-remonstration is evidence of Dorothea overcoming her former view that it was her world. She now acknowledges the desires of others and that events affect all involved. Her newly adjusted perspective allows Dorothea to acknowledge Ladislaw’s own motives and relationships outside of the connection they have. Dorothea and Ladislaw have a more successful marriage than others due to their coordinated efforts and acceptance of each others’ self prior to the marriage itself. Dorothea’s wish to aid humanity fails not because of Ladislaw’s hindering her, but rather because of the construction of patriarchal authority and Casaubon’s will which makes her choose between love and the funds to grant charitable wishes. While it is true that “there was always something better which she might have done,” her inefficiency to complete her dreams is not due to self-neglect but rather a product of this period which restricted women from endeavoring to have both a home life and dreams (Eliot 835). Ladislaw is concerned about Dorothea’s possible regret of their union. Ladislaw allows Dorothea to be self-oriented and has concerns of his own such as his writing. They both willingly lose status and wealth to move to a house in London. Their devotion to one another is unquestionable. Dorothea gives up the money and the becoming effect of outward propriety and assent of public opinion. Will Ladislaw makes public proclamations of his love for her, such as “No other woman exists by the side of her,” a sentiment that the by nature inwardly focused Dorothea (Eliot 778). He proves his love by depriving himself of his hometown for sake of her happiness and fulfillment of her own wants. A like capacity for willful deprivation is seen in the marriage of the Bulstrodes, a couple whose relationship is not chronicled but that demonstrates an uncanny ability to perceive and empathize with others. Both Bulstrodes appear to be consummate interpreters of public opinion and the effect of external forces. At the town meeting subsequent to Mr. Raffle’s death, Bulstrode “since the first mention of his name, had been going through a crisis of feeling” proof that he is highly aware of that he is in low estimate by others in the room (Eliot 726). Mrs. Bulstrode is not foretold of the negative opinion her husband now holds in the community and characterized as an “imperfectly taught woman; she learns of it by communicating with Mrs. Hackbutt (Eliot 749). Though her husband is marked by scandal and public opinion means to ostracize him, Mrs. Bulstode stands by him, uttering the simple words, “Look up, Nicholas,” to him when he is in the deepest trenches of despair. The scandal is too ugly for Mr. Bulstrode or Mrs. Bulstrode and both “shrank from the words which would have expressed their mutual conscienceness” but through a well-developed understanding of one another they communicate and sympathize with one another.A similar knowledge of both the self and of one’s marriage partner is what makes the marriage of Mary and Fred different. Mary has worked to develop a distinct self-knowledge. Through self-examination, Mary has come to important conclusions on what is suitable for her, such as when she acknowledges she would not make a good school master. Mary Garth works to maintain her personal happiness before her wedding. When faced with burning Featherstone’s will, Mary acts out of self-preservation and her belief in what is proper. She acts righteously despite the promise of more than enough wealth to settle her family’s debt brought on by Fred. Mary’s strength and knowledge of both herself and Fred create the circumstances that allow them to have a happy marriage. She refuses to marry Fred until he has an occupation which suits him, because she realizes that pursuing the wrong career endangers not only his happiness but her own. Instead of giving way to despair, Fred’s respect for Mary inspires him to work harder. He finds a new sense of self and takes more pride in who he is. His newly developed faith in himself and enables Fred to stand up to his father and conventional thought, decreeing that, “I think I can be quite as much of a gentleman at the work I have undertaken, as if I had been a curate” (Eliot 568). Fred, though ignorant of the idea that Farebrother may admire Mary, recognizes the value of using him to address Mary on a subject that he is too timid to speak to her about. Mary, despite Fred being considered by most to be screw-up, does not ridicule her partner to submission, but develops the tactic of recognizing the forces outside her and her husband which they must both contend with together. Instead of finding fault in her husband, Mary blames forces outside of him, for example when Fred purchases a bad horse it “was of course the fault of the horse, not of Fred’s judgment” (Eliot 833). By not blaming Fred, as Lydgate blames Rosamond for her imperfections, it frees her to love him and him to receive love, not shame. By means of Mary’s guidance, Fred obtains a vocation and a girl that makes him happy. The marriage of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth is the antithesis of the unhappy marriages of the Lydgates and Casaubons. Their marriage is the exemplar of good. They are described as having, “achieved a solid mutual happiness” (Eliot 832). Their long courtship spans almost their entire lives. They have a thorough knowledge of one another. They both have some pursuit to occupy themselves. Both take up writing. Unlike the normative proscribed roles of masculinity and femininity, it is remarked by the townspeople of Middlemarch that in their home both can be and write however they wish, hence the controversy over the authorial rights to Fred’s Cultivation of Green Crops and the Economy of Cattle-Feeding and Mary’s supposed children’s book, Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch (Eliot 832). The freedom from typically proscribed gender roles within the marriage is a hard test. Breaking from traditional roles could mean ostracism from the rest of the town, but Mary and Fred are so accepting of one another that they have seemingly allowed one another the praise for the other’s work.The author of Middlemarch smartly advocates that acknowledgement of external forces is pertinent to the happiness of one’s self. Eliot proclaims that a human being needs to take notice that every person is subject to external forces and other people, writing that “there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it” (Eliot 838). The notion that the partners in a marriage should respect one another is a distinctly feminist viewpoint. Middlemarch, though subtle in its proclamations, does contend that the female perspective should be addressed and that society is faulty in its exclusion of females, “Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy” (Eliot 279). The personal pursuits and career efforts of Middlemarch’s citizens must be obtained in order for a person to be happy in his or her marriage. An effort at cooperation and acknowledgement of the other member in the union must be made for a marriage to be a happy one. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Penguin Group. New York. 1994.
Some Aspects of Positivism in Middlemarch
George Eliot’s unwillingness to write a Positivist novel has been clearly documented in her letters. Her responses to Frederic Harrison’s suggestion that “the grand features of Comte’s world might be sketched in fiction in their normal relations…under the forms of our familiar life” (Letters, IV, 287), are particularly unambiguous: “[if fiction] lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagramit becomes the most offensive of all teaching”. (Letters, IV, 300-301). Art, for Eliot, must labor to “get breathing, individual forms, and group them in the needful relations, so that the presentation will lay hold on the emotions as human experience”. (Letters, IV, 300-301). A Positivist novel such as that advocated by Harrison would have condemned Eliot to a schematic structure, requiring her to overlook the multiple elements and infinite shadings that she recognized as constitutive of a human personality. Eliot is aware, in a way that is less evident in Auguste Comte for example, of the limitless subtleties and gradations of human character: “Our vanities differ as our noses do: all conceit is not the same conceit, but varies in correspondence with the minuti of mental make in which one of us differs from another.” (Middlemarch, 148). By contrast Comte believed that “a new doctrine” was capable of “embracing the whole range of human relations in the spirit of reality.” (General View, 5).Implicit in Comte’s remark is one of the fundamental conclusions of his Positive Philosophy: that human nature and, beyond that, the interactions between individuals may be reduced to the scientifically determinable and definable. Much of Middlemarch seems suspicious of this view. Could it ever have been possible, if we imagine fiction as reality for a moment, to predict that a young doctor whose intent was “to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world” (147) would die early, his crowning achievement “a treatise on gout”? (818). Equally, would the application of universal laws have made it possible to determine that Fred Vincy would become a “theoretic and practical farmer”? (816). Presumably Comte would argue that given sufficient information, and with that information distilled into laws, it would. In agreement with Comte would be a large proportion of nineteenth century thinking on the philosophy of science, particularly if one believes that Mill’s deterministic notion that “human volitions and actions [are] necessary and inevitable” (System of Logic, 547) is axiomatic for those active in the field.Mill goes on to claim that: “if we knew the person thoroughly, and knew all the inducements which are acting upon him, we could foretell his conduct with as much certainty as we can predict any physical event.” (System of Logic, 547).1 Mill’s is an undeniably powerful argument and it may be that Eliot is philosophically persuaded, or even “internally convinced” by it, but Middlemarch seems to deny its practical application (although I would acknowledge that Eliot’s unwillingness to allow her characters much agency in any grand schemes might suggest otherwise). Eliot’s insistence on the major consequences of small events, random meetings and the fine, yet telling details of personality argue against the possibility on the grounds of complexity alone of exact prevision and prediction: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” 2 (Middlemarch, 192). There is simply too much detail. Does this, then, make the whole Positivist project untenable? Is it fatal to it? Or will the project “lead us on to a social condition the most conformable to human nature, in which our characteristic qualities will find their most perfect respective confirmation, their completest mutual harmony, and the freest expansion for each and all”? (Essential Writings, 306). Comte believes that, in the fullness of time, the culmination of the Positivist project is inevitable; Eliot In Middlemarch, I would suggest, believes differently.If the view is accepted that George Eliot could never write a Positivist novel and, further, that she remained suspicious of Positivism’s certainty of an available scientific approach to human nature, the question becomes: to what extent is Middlemarch influenced by Positivism? As I have argued, I feel that there is strong resistance in Middlemarch to the project in its full panoply. There are, however, powerful Positivist themes in the novel and these are, perhaps, most readily approached by considering the characters who display something of the Positivist spirit. Plainly there is Lydgate but there is also Casaubon. There is an air of the Comtean about Casaubon’s project: it is conducted on quasi-scientific grounds (Casaubon is interested in Dorothea for her “elements both solid and attractive” [General View, 42] a phrase which could easily have emerged from the pages of a textbook on chemistry) it is rooted in the search for universal laws ( the “Key to all Mythologies” [Middlemarch, 486] ), its precepts involve the need to “systematize” and “generalize” (General View, 3), and Casaubon is fully consistent in the application of his established principles to his studies. Rapidly, however, Eliot reveals Casaubon to be “floating” among “flexible conjectures” (472). He lacks the single most vital attribute of the good Positivist: “Unity in our moral nature is, then, impossible, except so far as affection preponderates over intellect and activity.” (General View,16). Casaubon is without affection, he is all activity and intellect, there is no unity, he is one dimensional:If we have been accustomed to deplore the spectacle, among the artisan class, of a workman occupied during his whole life in nothing else but making knife handles or pinheads, we may find something quite as lamentable in the intellectual class, in the exclusive employment of a human brain in resolving some equations or in classifying insects. The moral effect is unhappily, analogous in the two case. It occasions a miserable indifference about the general course of human affairs, as long as there are equations to resolve and pins to manufacture. (Essential Writings, 274).Casaubon is unable, or unwilling, to move beyond purely theological speculations, through the sphere of the scientific, into the realm of the social in which the unity that the Comtean version of Positivism requires reaches its apotheosis. Casaubon’s vainglorious metaphysical conjectures recall Comte’s condemnation of those who would seek knowledge without consideration of its potential benefit to humanity as constituted in “society”: “Yet in this case, as in every other, there is intense egotism in exercising the mental powers irrespectively of all social objects.” (General View, 18). Casaubon’s is a “mind… very able in some one respect and monstrously incapable in all others” (Essential Writings, 274), and Eliot has Casaubon fail to recognize that “the only position for which the intellect is permanently adapted is to be the servant of the social sympathies.” (General View, 15). For Comte, if this position is abandoned, we are inevitably drawn towards the “deplorable disorder” (General View, 15) of something like the French Revolution. This, on a less grand scale, is what overtakes Casaubon. In spite of his overwhelming desire to classify and order, Casaubon’s life descends into a species of this “deplorable disorder” as the ability to control his wife and her affections slips away from him, and his life’s work upon which he had “risked all his egoism” (Middlemarch, 471) begins first to atrophy 3 and then to disintegrate under the burden of its own futility and the critical scrutiny of his peers. As James. F. Scott suggests, rather than the Positivist he at first might appear, Casaubon may be viewed as a metaphysician of the kind most completely reviled by Comte: “Like all metaphysicians, as Comte saw them, Casaubon is a scientist manque, a thinker whose rational capacities have been suffocated by meaningless abstractions and discredited religious assumptions. Without the skill or honesty to subject his premises to scientific test, he can do little more than collect great bundles of worthless notes.” (Scott, 69).Casaubon, then, whilst at first appearing to embody certain elements of Positivism is rapidly revealed to be trapped within an obsolete metaphysics. Lydgate, however, begins as the perfect Positivist.4 He possesses:the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space. He for his part had tossed away all cheap inventions where ignorance finds itself able and at ease: he was enamoured of that arduous invention which is the very eye of research, provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exactness of relation; he wanted to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness. (Middlemarch, 163).In his early appearances in Middlemarch Lydgate is very much Harrison’s prototype of the ideal fictional Positivist: “a local physician…a man of the new world with complete scientific and entirely moral ascendancy over both capitalist and labourer”. (Letters, IV, 287). As the above passage from Middlemarch shows, Lydgate has the potential to become a leading hierophant of Comte’s “new Priesthood” (General View, 384): his epistemology is essentially empirical, 5 he is committed to the absolute relativity of knowledge, is dependent for scientific truth on the “invariable relations of succession and resemblance” (Essential Writings, 72), and supposes that a sufficiently detailed scientific analysis of human behavior may lead to the resolution of social problems. Lydgate, in this incarnation, fits precisely Mill’s description of the Positivist: “Whoever regards all events as parts of a constant order, each one being the invariable consequent of some antecedent condition, or combination of conditions, accepts fully the Positive mode of thought.” (Comte, 15).Lydgate, in both his approach to medicine and its history, is in the vanguard of contemporary Positivist epistemology: “But [Lydgate] did not simply aim at a more genuine kind of practice than was common. He was ambitious of a wider effect: he was fired with the possibility that he might work out the proof of an anatomical conception and make a link in the chain of discovery.” (Middlemarch, 144). Lydgate’s “chain of discovery” is exactly that sequence of invariable “relations of succession and resemblance” (General View, 75) traced by Comte in his description of the history and development of the sciences. Lydgate’s approach is redolent of the Positivist practice outlined by Mill:From this time any political thinker who fancies himself able to dispense with a connected view of the great facts of history, as a chain of causes and effects, must be regarded as below the level of the age; while the vulgar mode of using history, by looking in it for parallel cases, or as if in a single instance, or even many instances not compared and analyzed, could reveal a law, will be more than ever, and irrevocably, discredited. (Comte, 86).Eliot describes Lydgate’s attitude within a similar framework of interconnectedness and historical interdependence: “The more [Lydgate] became interested in special questions of disease, such as the nature of fever or fevers, the more keenly he felt the need for that fundamental knowledge of structure which just at the beginning of the century had been illuminated by the brief and glorious career of Bichat, who died when he was only one-and-thirty, but, like another Alexander, left a realm large enough for many heirs.” (146).Not only is Lydgate devoted to a Positive scientific method, he is filled with “affection” and is fully aware of the need to follow a course “offering the most direct alliance between intellectual conquest and the social good”. (143). As Eliot makes abundantly clear Lydgate matches Comte’s criteria in this area: “he was an emotional creature, with a flesh-and-blood sense of fellowship which withstood all the abstractions of special study. He cared not only for ‘cases’ but also for John and Elizabeth, especially Elizabeth.” (143). Lydgate’s downfall, however, is the result of his failure to apply his Positivism to his life beyond his work: “He went home and read far into the smallest hour, bringing a much more testing vision of details and relations into this pathological study than he had ever thought it necessary to apply to the complexities of love and marriage, these being subjects on which he felt himself amply informed by literature, and that traditional wisdom which is handed down in the genial conversation of men.” (162). Lydgate’s relationship with Rosamond is conducted with a superficiality and a reliance on vague supposition that would have been unthinkable to him in his work, and recapitulates that of which he has been guilty in the past: “As to women, he had once already been drawn headlong by impetuous folly”. (149). His disastrous marriage could have been avoided with the application of Positivist principles, the novel implies. Equally Lydgate’s financial difficulties and his fateful entanglement with Bulstrode and Raffles might have been averted had the “spots of commonness” (148), 6 which disfigure his attitude to money and commerce, been eliminated by a consistent and interfused application of the Positivist spirit. Nowhere is this clearer than in the scenes in which Lydgate attends to the medical needs of Raffles in full accordance with Positivist methods, but thoroughly neglects to apply the same principals to his interaction with Bulstrode, thus precipitating the calamitous chain of events with which the novel reaches its crescendo.Lydgate’s downfall is, in certain respects, linked to his upper class background. As James Scott observes, Lydgate spends carelessly in predictable aristocratic fashion, he marries a “status-conscious wife, and reacts to the lower orders of Middlemarch society with aloof baronial hauteur. Significantly, these are the personality traits that lead to his demise. His overbearing attitude shrinks his medical practice, his genteel wife encourages him to live beyond his means, and his mounting debts press him into fatal dependence upon Bulstrode.” (Scott, 71-2). A thorough reading of Positivism might have been sufficient to have convinced Lydgate of the need to renounce his aristocratic background, but “In warming himself at French social theories he had brought away no smell of scorching.” (344). A disbelief in the capacity, or willingness, of the aristocracy to effect social change is a strong theme in Comte and is a notion with which Eliot appears to concur. As Comte remarked: “[The upper classes] are all more or less under the influence of baseless metaphysical theories and of aristocratic self-seeking. They are absorbed in blind political agitation and in disputes for the possession of the useless remnants of the old theological and military system. Their action only tends to prolong the revolutionary state indefinitely, and can never result in true social renovation.” (General View, 318). The majority of the upper classes and gentry in Middlemarch are involved to one extent or another in the kinds of activity Comte describes: disputes over succession to clerical “livings”, Mr. Brooke’s self-interested dabbling in the politics of the 1832 Reform Bill, 7 Mrs Cadwallader’s failure to be “consciously affected by the great affairs of the world” (58), Sir James Chettam’s indifference to the living conditions of his tenants until his interest is piqued by the possibility of impressing Dorothea (20-21); Casaubon’s cobwebbed metaphysics and Lydgate’s “spots of commonness” I have already mentioned. Little or no social change is instigated by the aristocracy of Middlemarch. As Eliot informs the reader: “The country gentry of old time lived in a rarefied social air: dotted apart on their stations up the mountain they looked down with imperfect discrimination on the belts of thicker life below.” (322).Eliot never abandons her craft to the extent that there is a clumsy personification of a “Positivist”; but certainly it may be argued that within Middlemarch there are all the elements required to create a fictional Comtean. An unholy union of the characters of Casaubon and Lydgate might, indeed, suffice: Casaubon’s application of his principles to all aspects of his life combined, perhaps, with Lydgate’s commitment to a Positivist approach in his work. It is intriguing, therefore, in the light of the notion that Eliot could not accept Postivism in its “systematizing” totality, to conclude that neither Lydgate, Casaubon nor the Middlemarch aristocracy are Positivist enough. This would, it seems, expose a paradox or at least an ambivalence at the heart of Middlemarch; something further complicated by the notion that Eliot’s heroine, Dorothea, is herself a species of Positivist albeit an unconscious one. Clearly Dorothea possesses the fundamental Positivist attributes: “a nature altogether ardent, theoretic, and intellectually consequent…The thing which seemed to her best, she wanted to justify by the completest knowledge.” 8 (28). I would argue, therefore, that it is not Positivism itself that Eliot resists indeed Positivism is portrayed as a valuable, morally desirable philosophy upon which to base one’s life but any absolute imprisonment of individuals within artificial philosophical systems; systems rendered necessarily crude by their inability to encompass all of the complexities of human nature. Such a conclusion not only reinforces the notion of Eliot as opposed to systems but, also, recalls her insistence upon the picture over the diagram. As Walter Pater subsequently observed: “Such is the matter of imaginative or artistic literature this transcript, not of mere fact, but of fact in its infinite variety, as modified by human preference in all its infinitely varied forms.” (106). Sentiments that could easily have come from Eliot herself, and are prefigured in her insistence on the necessary mediating function rooted in the imaginative propensities of the artist: “How triumphant opinions originally spread how institutions arose… what circumstances affecting individual lots are attendant upon the decay of long established systems, all these grand elements of history require the illumination of special imaginative treatment.” (Pinney, 446).Further evidence of Eliot’s reluctance to embrace totalizing systems emerges in her resistance to the alliance “between the priests of science and the captains of industry” (Scott, 70) a key element of the Comtean project. Comte argues that the new priesthood of scientists will require support from the bankers if it is not to wither away, bereft of an efficient administration. Such a relationship would lead “habitually” to “close relations between the priesthood and the bankers…so that the banking class [would] be the civic organ for inaugurating the more important connections of science with industry.” (System, IV, 71). As T. R. Wright concludes, however, Eliot does not allow a Positivist alliance of capital and science to flourish in Middlemarch: “The physician makes an alliance with the capitalist, but Bulstrode cannot escape from his theological bias and Middlemarch is totally unprepared for Lydgate’s new ideas. Public opinion has the power to hound the hypocritical banker from his position but it lacks the insight to accept scientific advance. Middlemarch is not ready for Positivism.” (268). For Eliot it is the convoluted nexus of human frailties that causes the alliance to fail Bulstrode’s tangled past and Lydgate’s inability to be the wholly consistent Positivist priest are just two contributory elements. As Middlemarch implies: until all is known that can be known, systems fail, and all cannot be known at this stage of human development. For Eliot the briefest of human interactions have ramifications of sufficient potential to disrupt any system: “But any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (Middlemarch, 93).For Eliot the complexity of human nature and behavior, or “the interdependence of all human interests” (Pinney, 409), tends to work in opposition to totalizing systems. Society, in Middlemarch, is an organic entity constructed from countless millions of human interactions and possesses a degree of complexity utterly resistant to imposed systems. Indeed it would be tempting to compare Eliot’s thinking, on these grounds, with that of a recent Pragmatist like Richard Rorty: “Our language and our culture are as much a contingency, as much a result of thousands of small mutations finding niches (and millions of others finding no niches), as are the orchids and the anthropoids.” (Rorty, 16). Such a comparison, however, must remain, if not erroneous, then partial. Eliot’s take, as opposed to Rorty’s, supposes a linear teleology in which the movement is from the fragmentary to the whole, from the incomplete to the complete and from relative chaos to relative order: “Language must be left to grow in precision, completeness, and unity, as minds grow in clearness, comprehensiveness, and sympathy.” (Byatt, 128). Eliot’s resistance to systems does not, as some might claim, constitute an anticipation of the Poststructuralist reverberation of infinite meaning, echoing endlessly in the epistemological void. The world may not yet be ready for the Positivist utopia envisaged by Comte but such an ideal has meaning, is potentially “real”, and remains in view as an identifiable aspiration. These notions of “reality” and “meaning” are inherent in Eliot’s synopsis of Dorothea’s life: “Certainly those determining acts of [Dorothea’s] life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error and great faith the aspect of illusion.” (Middlemarch, 821). Contained, also, as implications within this passage are the concepts of “right”, “wrong”, “truth” and “perfectibility” concepts that the thrust of Poststructuralist thought tends to reject as destructive of multiplicity, as guilty of promoting “the reassuring foundation” and as instigating “the end of play.” (Derrida, 122). Eliot, though, remains a “realist”, she insists upon the struggle to find stable meaning and permanent “truth”: “May I unceasingly aspire to unclothe all around me of its conventional, human, temporary dress, to look at it in its essence and in its relation to eternity”. (Letters, I, 70).Interestingly, the metaphysical notions of “essence” and “eternity” are exactly of the character most execrated by Comtean Positivism, and this alone would probably be sufficient to disqualify George Eliot from the priesthood of Positivism. As I have tried to show, however, there is a significant degree of sympathy towards Positivism in Middlemarch, particularly in connection with Positivism’s moral and social prescriptions. It is the deterministic and totalizing nature of Positivism to which Eliot is most antagonistic. Eliot’s suspicion of raw determinism of the kind that suggests exact prediction and prevision are possible seems founded in the notion that, even if all existing phenomena are the result of antecedent phenomena, no system yet devised, or to be devised in the future, is capable of embracing all the minutiae of human activity; the minutiae that are constituted in the “unhistoric acts” of “hidden” individuals: “But the effect of [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not half so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” (Middlemarch, 822). If we see the world, as Eliot seems to, as an infinitely sensitive and complex organism, susceptible to the tiniest of influences, the Positivist project is simply not a sufficiently delicate instrument with which to expose all the universal laws that govern human behavior and interaction. As in fiction, so in the life of the artist: “I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.” (Middlemarch, 139).Notes1 Mill’s remarks are used here as emblematic of a particular trend in nineteenth century “scientism” but, plainly, he has doubts about the infallibility of the position himself:But as society proceeds in its development, its phaenomena are determined, more and more, not by the simple tendencies of universal human nature, but by the accumulated influence of past generations over the present. The human beings themselves, on the laws of whose nature the facts of history depend, are not abstract or universal but historical human beings, already shaped, and made what they are, by human society. This being the case, no powers of deduction could enable any one, starting from the mere conception of the Being Man, placed in a world such as the earth may have been before the commencement of human agency, to predict and calculate the phaenomena of his development such as they have in fact proved. (Mill, 85).2 My interpretation of Eliot’s “roar on the other side of silence” is that the tumultuous cascade of complex information necessitated by the reception, and perception, of such detail would be of such a volume/volume that no individual could survive its onslaught, thus making any attempt to absorb and process knowledge on such a scale impossible.3 Eliot’s imagery of lifelessness at Lowick reinforces the notion of Casaubon and his ideas as fading anachronisms: “sombre yews”, “small-windowed and melancholy looking”, “no bloom”, “autumnal decline” (71) and “colours subdued by time” (72). Casaubon’s project is reduced to the “lifeless embalmment of knowledge”. (194). Like the metaphysical and theological stages of Comte’s tripartite epistemological system, Casaubon is moribund.4 Indeed Eliot makes Lydgate’s knowledge of the origins of the Comtean project explicit: “he had thought of joining the Saint Simonians when he was in Paris”. (148).5 Lydgate’s analysis of Casaubon’s heart condition is a strong example of his empiricism: “‘ I believe you are suffering from what is called fatty degeneration of the heart…A good deal of experiencea more lengthened observationis wanting on the subject.'” (418).6 Scott argues, convincingly I feel, that Lydgate’s “spots of commonness” are “the vestiges of his aristocratic upbringing”. (71). As Eliot informs the reader: “In the rest of practical life [Lydgate] walked by hereditary habit; half from that personal pride and unreflecting egoism which I have already called commonness, and half from that navet which belonged to preoccupation with favourite ideas.” (345).7 Brooke may have been of “uncertain opinion” (8) but legislation with the potential to re-distribute power and influence (and, therefore, money), Eliot suggests, would cause him to become “watchful, suspicious and greedy of clutch”. (8).8 Comte might have been detailing a framework for Eliot’s portrayal of Dorothea’s morality when he wrote: “By its various aptitudes positive morality will tend more and more to exhibit the happiness of the individual as depending on the complete expansion of benevolent acts and sympathetic emotions towards the whole of our race”. (Essential Writings, 302).Works CitedBloom, Harold. Ed. Selected Writings of Walter Pater. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.Byatt, A. S. and Nicholas Warren, eds. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1990.Comte, Auguste. General View of Positivism. London: Turner, 1865.Comte, Auguste. System of Positive Polity. 4 Vols. London: Longmans, 1875-77.Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge. London: Longman, 1988.Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Ed. David Carroll. Oxford: OUP, 1998.Haight, Gordon, ed. The George Eliot Letters. 8 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-55.Lenzer, Gertrude, ed. Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.Mill, John, Stuart. Auguste Comte and Positivism. Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961.Mill, John, Stuart. A System of Logic. 8th ed. London: Longmans, 1872.Pinney, Thomas, ed. Essays of George Eliot. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.Scott, James. F. “George Eliot, Positivism, and the Social Vision of Middlemarch”. Victorian Studies 16 (1972): 69-76.Wright, T. R. “George Eliot and Positivism: A Reassessment”. Modern Language Review 76.2 (1981): 257-72.
Women in Middlemarch
A major theme in George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch, is the role of women in the community. The female characters in the novel are, to some extent, oppressed by the social expectations that prevail in Middlemarch. Regardless of social standing, character or personality, women are expected to cater to and remain dependent on their husbands and to occupy themselves with trivial recreation rather than important household matters. Dorothea and Rosamond, though exceedingly dissimilar, are both subjected to the same social ideals of what women should be.Dorothea and Rosamond are on different levels of the intricate social spectrum in Middlemarch. As a Brooke, Dorothea’s connections “though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably ëgood'”(p.7). Rosamond is of a slightly lower status, especially given that her father has married an innkeeper’s daughter, thus further lowering the family’s social rank. Although Dorothea and Rosamond enjoy similar amenities such as servants, the detailed social continuum of Middlemarch separates them.Dorothea and Rosamond’s responses to their respective social classes differ much more widely than the actual social gap between them. Rosamond is particularly aware of her social standing; she “felt that she might have been happier if she had not been the daughter of a Middlemarch manufacturer. She disliked anything which reminded her that her mother’s father had been an innkeeper” (p.101). While Dorothea does not dissociate herself from her wealthy peers, she shows an affinity for the lower class by helping to improve the standard of living among them through new cottages. Dorothea’s philanthropic view of the lower class contrasts with the distain Rosamond feels for them.Accordingly, the two women’s material views differ as well. Not only is Rosamond painfully aware of her social position vis-a-vis Dorothea’s, she actively seeks to increase it by marrying Lydgate. When Lydgate’s material wealth reaches its limit and Rosamond’s dreams of social supremacy vanish, the marriage quickly deteriorates. Contrastingly, Dorothea relinquishes a great deal of money for her love of Will. Dorothea’s lack of concern for material goods and Rosamond’s preoccupation with them are a striking example of the disparity between them.In spite of the vast differences between them, Middlemarch society applies the same tenets to both Dorothea and Rosamond. As females, both women are expected to follow certain social norms that hinder their personal objectives, material in Rosamond’s case and intellectual in Dorothea’s.A key function of women in Middlemarch society is that of a wife. Lydgate marries Rosamond expecting someone who will compliment his busy lifestyle by making his home-life pleasant. He compares women to geese and men to ganders when reflecting on the psychological differences between them, namely: ” the innate submissiveness of the goose as beautifully corresponding to the strength of the gander.” (p.356) He presupposes Rosamond’s obedient devotion. Caussabon, too, expects that Dorothea will aid him in his work. In his proposal to her, he writes: “But I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness – ” (p.43). His letter is not a profession of love but an indication that he finds Dorothea worthy of assisting him. The men expect nothing but support from their wives.Not only do the men demand complete dedication, they fail to comprehend the women’s autonomous nature. To them, Dorothea and Rosamond entered into marriage not as equal partners, but as compliant, dependent supporters. Caussabon willingly recognizes that Dorothea will assist him with his work but refuses to entertain the idea that she has her own intellectual goals. Dorothea doubts her own intellect but retains her thirst for knowledge. ” She would not have asked Mr. Caussabon at once to teach her the languages, dreading of all things to be tiresome instead of helpful; but it was not entirely out of devotion to her future husband that she wished to know Latin and Greek.” (p. 64) When Caussabon fails to fully include Dorothea in his studies, he undermines her intellectual ambitions and alienates her within the marriage.Lydgate’s views of women become apparent when, upon meeting Dorothea, he muses that a women with her intelligence and strong views would make a tiresome wife. He seeks a wife who will be complacent and not interrupt his budding career. As such a wife, Rosamond is supposed to occupy her time with trifling pursuits such as needlework and music. Lydgate presumes that Rosamond will help to reduce his debt from within the household by lowering expenditures, but refuses to listen to her ideas about appealing to the wealthy Sir Godwin. This forces Rosamond to go behind his back and ask for a loan herself. Not only does the request for help injure Lydgate’s pride, but also, Rosamond’s disobedience enrages him. He rebukes her, ” – Have you sense enough to recognize now your incompetence to judge and act for meóto interfere with your ignorance in affairs which it belongs to me to decide on?” (p. 665) Lydgate cannot accept anything but Rosamond’s ineptitude in managing financial affairs.In addition to her husband’s lack of confidence in her, Rosamond must deal with skepticism from other members of the community. When Sir Godwin receives her letter, he immediately assumes that Lydgate is behind it and admonishes him for dealing through his wife. It does not cross Godwin’s mind that Rosamond herself generated the request. In Godwin’s reply to Lydgate, he insists, “Don’t set your wife to write to me when you have anything to ask – I never choose to write to a woman on matters of business.” Lydgate’s and Godwin’s treatment of Rosamond in the matter of her request reveal general misogynistic tendencies of the society in Middlemarch.Society puts pressure on Dorothea to conform to its model of the ideal woman as well. After the death of Caussabon, society deems it inappropriate for her to continue living at Lowick alone, managing the parish. Even another woman, Mrs. Cadwallader, warns her, “You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions.” (p.537) Society frowns upon the dependence of women, even Dorothea with her great inner strength.Although Dorothea and Rosamond differ in almost every aspect, their husbands and society consider them simply as women and apply the same standards to each. By holding Dorothea and Rosamond to the same standards and ignoring the vast dissimilarity between them, society minimizes the unique nature of the two women and contributes to the oppression of females throughout the community.
Determined Dodo: Determinism in George Eliot’s Middlemarch
As art mirrors life, so too does George Eliot’s Middlemarch attempt to replicate a realistic world, particularly in the interactions and relationships between all the characters in the novel. Whether the relationship between the characters and the events/social structure around them is by chance or fate, however, is an often-disputed aspect of the book. While the characters in her story often present realistic depictions of the causal nature of reality, particularly in the characters’ interactions and relationships (such as Dorothea only meeting Will as a result of marrying Casaubon, Bulstrode’s past catching up to him, and Rosamond’s reckless spending as a result of her upbringing), does the novel itself allow for the idea of free will to also exist? While the characters may experience the illusion of free will in Middlemarch, Eliot founds her literary universe on the principle of determinism, using it as an ever-present structure that shapes and guides the entirety of the story (and especially the characters within it). That being said, the form of determinism Eliot presents is not what one would commonly think of as being determinism She presents determinism as a loose structure, rather than a rigid, defined path, and it is through this unique form that she is allowed the freedom to both challenge and reaffirm her own perspective.
In Middlemarch, George Eliot presents a universe that follows the rule of determinism. However, the version of a determined universe she presents does not necessarily follow the traditional definition of determinism in literature. Eliot presents determinism as a structure, or macro-system, that guides and restrains characters’ actions, thoughts, and values, as opposed to the fixed, rigid, singular path of traditional literary determinism. This form Eliot uses allows her characters more freedom and grants Eliot the ability to challenge her own system. This is because, rather than an oppressive, unbending line of direct causality, where every major event or interaction is entirely fixed (which she does still present plenty of), Eliot presents determinism as a system of universal laws, rules, and social structures that act as frameworks and guides for society, yet still imposing limitations on the characters within it. As Moira Gatens says in her article “Freedom and Determinism in Middlemarch”, “although free will is an illusion, freedom is not.” (35) What Gatens means by this is that Eliot tends to share a similar viewpoint to Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher whose works Eliot translated. In this view, even if individuals can exert independence, agency, and autonomy, they are still doing that within the confines of a set system of laws and rules that do not change or break (though, they may bend). For both Spinoza and Eliot, this system was mainly composed of natural laws, determining what is and is not impossible, as well as social norms. Gatens further states that “Eliot’s account of the normative forces that constrain action in Middlemarch is often signaled by the metaphors of weaving or of a web.” (36) This web is one composed of natural laws, societal norms and pressures, but more than that, the web is representative of the interconnectedness between all people and events, with each mutually affecting the other. Now, one major claim Gatens also makes is that presenting determinism as a structure also allows Eliot to use the character of Dorothea to challenge it. However, this is not actually the case, as shown by Dorothea’s choices. While it may appear that Dorothea is exerting freedom beyond the point of the determined social order, especially in her choice of husbands, her financial decisions, and her unique values (relative to her fellow characters and the setting in which the story takes place), every option she is given is simply that, an option.
Every major decision or event in Dorothea’s life is merely a choice that has been made allowed to happen by the universal laws and even the societal influence she is supposedly going against. She does not forge her own path and live her life as a martyr in the noble pursuit of helping others, as was her will at the beginning of the novel. Instead, she simply chooses from the options presented to her. For example, when choosing her (first) husband, she only had two main options, James and Casaubon. While James would be any normal character’s choice, Dorothea is not a normal character, especially in what she desires to get out of marriage. However, it was still not outside the realm of possibility that she would pick Casaubon. It was not as if, by sheer will, she found her true love right away, or at least, someone who would give her what she was looking for in a marriage. Even in her marriage to Casaubon, Dorothea quickly became disillusioned, as Casaubon did not give her the mentorship and freedoms that she believed he would. So, while Dorothea may have had a plethora of options, both conforming to and resisting the societal pressures imposed on her and everyone else in Middlemarch, they are all within the confines of the reality established within the novel. The traditional literary implementation of “determinism” involves the author setting a fixed endpoint with specific events directly guiding the characters to that predetermined end, which is the literary equivalent of “causality”, a major component of determinism. Now, if this sounds simply like the nature of storytelling or setting up a plot, that’s because it is. The only thing that separates a determined story from a non-determined story is if the author has established a plot before sitting down and writing the story. This, I’d say, is the case for most stories. However, there are still stories that do not do this, such as many works from modernist and absurdist literature, or any story that doesn’t follow a traditional plot or is simply “art for art’s sake”. Subsequently, in traditional, determined stories, the plot relies heavily on causality – or cause-and-effect – and it is used by Eliot to its fullest extent in Middlemarch.
In almost every aspect of the novel, one can see the strings of interconnectedness that tie everything together. These ties compose a “web”, as Karen Gindele puts it in her article “The Web of Necessity”, that shows just how each character interacts with the world around them and how they are interacted with. Part of Gindele’s assertion is that there is no semblance of free will in George Eliot’s writing. She argues that Eliot’s characters all have a specific place and impact on the society around them and that their choices and actions are limited (despite what they may believe). She describes the struggle they go through to accept that, and part of that struggle involves the “characters’ recognition that they are interdependent social beings, in a network”. (256) This means that the entire fabric of the society Eliot has crafted – composed of cultural and social norms, internal pressures, and the options available to the characters – tends to have a push-and-pull effect on the characters that lead them down a path that has already been set for them, both by Eliot herself, and within the confines of their fictitious reality. Basically, what I’m saying is that in Middlemarch, everything happens for a reason. Eliot presents a realistic and dynamic world that focuses not on plot or flights of fancy, but on the characters’ development over the course of the novel, which is, of course, a product of causality. Character development is founded on choice, both by the characters themselves and, ultimately, the author before them. A character is presented with a moment of crisis, whether it be small, large, internal, external, or any other form of conflict, and it is their decision at that moment that alters their character in some permanent way. This, as I said, is what lies at the core of Middlemarch. This is best exemplified by George Levine, who said: “Determinism, then, manifests itself in George Eliot’s works, not only in her analysis of how her weak characters degenerate, but equally in her description of the growth to maturity of her heroes and heroines.” (Levine 279) However, let us test that by examining the life and decisions of Dorothea, the character who (arguably) resists the web’s influence the most, oftentimes making decisions that go against the grain.
Initially, Dorothea is an idealist, albeit also a naïve young woman, who holds her faith and principles above her own satisfaction and joy. Over the course of the novel, she is presented with options and choices that directly lead to her changing views and place in society. The first decision of this sort comes in the form of her first marriage to Casaubon. She made the conscious decision to marry him. Even though this decision seems mundane, just think of what might’ve happened if, say, Dorothea had married James instead. This story would’ve been entirely different because Dorothea would not have been in the same places at the same times that she was originally, which was a result of her marriage with Casaubon. She may not have met the Lydgates or Will Ladislaw, and she most certainly would not have ended the book as the character she did without the experiences and interactions that changed her to become the character she grew to be. Another main decision of hers was her decision to marry Will Ladislaw, which made her ostracized and spoken ill of in Middlemarch. Her financial decisions made her appear unfit to manage her own affairs. In speaking on all these small yet important choices Dorothea made, the narrator (Eliot) says: Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. (1193) Dorothea shows a drastic change from who she was at the start, in a way that was determined entirely by the events and opportunities that affected her along the way and forced her into becoming the character that Eliot desired her to be.
Now, although we’ve covered the ways and means through which Eliot presents determinism and causality in her novel, one big question still remains: “Why did George Eliot create a determined universe in Middlemarch?” There are many reasons for Eliot to have done this; she could have been trying to show some form of fate or destiny. It could’ve been merely the result of creating key plot points during the creation of the book. However, one of the main reasons Eliot does this is to present a realistic universe in Middlemarch. In her article, “Realism’s Operative Paradox: Character Autonomy vs. Authorial Construction in Middlemarch,” Maria Wang presents the idea of a paradoxical “double consciousness” of structure in the novel, with the characters having the appearance of autonomy, but not true, free will, and how this creates a realistic setting in the novel. She argues that this “double consciousness” is due to authorial construction being an inherently determining process, yet in that process, Eliot attempts to show free will. What this means is that the reason the story may have the “appearance” of free will, without actually having it is that “the double consciousness of reading captures the operative paradox of realist fiction—the representation of character autonomy within authorial construction—and the sometimes difficult balancing act that paradox requires.” (293) This “double consciousness” is the mindset a reader takes on when reading realist fiction. It is composed of an immersion into the book, viewing the world as a living, breathing world, yet recognizing that at its core, the story is merely a fiction that’s ending has already been determined by the author (whose presence is often presented as a divine force or guiding concept, like god, fate, or destiny). Wang concludes, however, that it is this dual-layering of thought processes that adds immense credibility to the realism of the world. Even when it appears as though the characters are exhibiting free will or going against societal norms, which they may appear to be doing, it is all only the result that those actions having been determined by a higher power or force (in the case of Middlemarch, this would be Eliot). Basically, even if the characters are doing actions that would exhibit free will if someone were to do them in our own reality, the fact of the matter is that these actions have been pre-determined and completely constructed by Eliot and are, therefore, only imitations of the free will we exhibit in real life.
Furthermore, stemming from Eliot’s desire to present a realistic world that mirrored a version of our own, albeit an exaggerated and dramatized one, Eliot is also making a statement about the effect people can have on those around them, and vice versa. In line with the idea of determinism as a web, composed of both social norms and physical laws, as well as the individuals that are subjected to these laws, every strand is connected to the others. Even if the major points and characters do not interact, the actions of each still have a domino effect that cause ripples felt throughout the whole web. In presenting this as her form of determinism, Eliot is trying to highlight that “any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbor. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (133-134). It is this “convergence” that Eliot believes is present in our own reality, and Middlemarch is simply the implementation of that belief to its fullest extent. Despite all of this, in his article, “Character and Destiny in George Eliot’s Fiction,” Ian Adam articulates his dissent from the general perspective of George Eliot’s characters as products of determinism. Instead, Adam argues that rather than simply freedom within a confined system, the characters exhibit autonomy from their individual circumstances (and particularly focuses on Will, and his being autonomous from the negative hereditary traits that may have been passed to him), therefore exerting their own free will. However, the error in this perspective comes down simply to a discrepancy in definition. He continues on in his article and argues that “The determinism most explicitly attacked in the works is not the determinism of physical science (as the letters would lead us to expect) but rather a psychological determinism: the utilitarian principle that all human behavior can ultimately be reduced to the pleasure principle.” (129) As shown earlier, though, that is not the form of determinism Eliot presents in Middlemarch. Eliot presents a system that encapsulates the “determinism of physical science”, as well as societal pressures and norms, yet still retaining respect and complexity for the characters, rather than this reduction Adam argues against. This, in turn, allows for freedom within a determined system on a microcosmic scale, yet still, an overarching system that is exerting its influence even though it is unseen.
Ultimately, it can and should be concluded that in her novel, Middlemarch, George Eliot creates a literary universe that is subject to the determining forces of fate and destiny. Being a novel, the text is subject to the unseen determinant of authorial construction, as well as the imposing social and interpersonal structure between all the characters and forces within the novel itself. Furthermore, it is my final conclusion that George Eliot implements determinism in Middlemarch, through the traditional sense of causality as well as in the form of a large-scale system of guiding laws, rules, and principles (primarily social), in order to make her world feel more realistic and translate her view of our own reality into her fictitious universe.
Adam, Ian. “Character and Destiny in George Eliot’s Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 20, no. 2, 1965, pp. 127–143. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2932541. “causality, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/29133. Accessed 1 December 2018. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871. PLANET EBOOK, ebooks/middlemarch.pdf. Accessed December 3, 2018. Gatens, Moira. “Freedom and Determinism in Middle March.” Sydney Studies in English, 2003, openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/SSE/article/view/571. Gindele, Karen C. “The Web of Necessity: George Eliot’s Theory of Ideology.” Texas Studies in Literature & Language, vol. 42, no. 3, Fall 2000, p. 255. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=4381520&site=lrc-plus. Levine, George. “Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George Eliot.” PMLA, vol. 77, no. 3, 1962, pp. 268–279. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/460486. Newton, K. M. “George Eliot, Kant, and Free Will.” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 36 no. 2, 2012, pp. 441-456. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/phl.2012.0037 Wang, Maria Su. “Realism’s Operative Paradox: Character Autonomy vs. Authorial Construction in Middlemarch.” Narrative, vol. 23, no. 3, Oct. 2015, pp. 291–311. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=109335947&site=lrc-plus.