Middlemarch: Manifestation of Emotion and Memory within Inanimate Objects
Objects might be more human than we think; well, in some sense. Although a plate lacks the capability to display sorrow, psychology studies have suggested evidence that it might contain the ability to embody sentiments after all. In the late nineteenth century, questions concerning the potential for memories and feelings to move outside the mind were regularly discussed. In fact, the topic became common in literary works, including George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In this novel, emotion and memory both manifest within inanimate objects because of character’s psychological association of the identity and the physical remnants of an individual, to material commodities.
Frequently demonstrated throughout the novel, the identification of self through material belongings displaces one’s emotional sentiments onto abiotic entities (Vrettos 200-201). While analyzing psychology in Victorian literature, Athena Vrettos notes, “[Nineteenth century psychologist and philosopher] William James describes clothes, furniture, and collections of personal property as extensions of the body” (200). These inanimate objects are argued by James to form the “innermost part of the material self…[If they are lost, we experience] a sense of the shrinkage of our personality” (Vrettos 200). This idea of psychological integration of individuals and objects serves as an explanation for the inflated values people often give to their material goods. The loss or lack-of these possessions can result in a damaged conception of oneself and great sorrow because of identities that consist solely of assets. One might argue that George Eliot’s character Rosamond falls victim to this idea because of the intense despair she experiences, upon learning of her husband’s expenses. When Lydgate first explains to her that a man would be taking inventory of their furniture for security, the author accounts for Rosamond’s weeping by noting the difficulty “to imagine fully what this sudden trial was to a young creature who had known nothing but indulgence, and whose dreams had all been of new indulgence” (Eliot 595). Rosamond’s identity threatened almost complete collapse as a result of the potential loss of her furniture. Confiscating this furniture from her causes so much pain because it personifies her individuality as well as her joy, contentment, and reason in life. Rosamond’s identification with material goods is emphasized to an even greater extent when compared to the character Dorthea and her interactions with tangible items. Even amid the very first account of Dorthea, she is renouncing material commodities, as depicted when she explains: “Celia, that is too much to ask, that I should wear trinkets to keep you in countenance. If I were to put on such a necklace as that, I should feel as if I had been pirouetting” (Eliot 13). Dorthea’s disparage of perceptible items contrasts greatly with Rosamond’s reverence of them because although Dorthea prefers to relinquish her jewels, Rosamond would never consider committing such an atrocity due to the value she places on her appurtenances. She, unlike Dorthea, invests her all of her character and self-representation into her possessions, and when identity fuses with material goods, feelings and sentiments incarnate themselves into inanimate objects.
In Middlemarch, transmissions of physical traces left on personal possessions create a bind in which memories manifest themselves within material goods. At the time, the widely popularized theory concerning displaced memories was described by Myers as “any object which has been intimately associated with any extreme paroxysm of human emotion, whether it be joy or pain, will retain a certain atmosphere or association which it is capable of communication to a sensitive mind” (Vrettos 203). This means that any material good is capable of bearing physical remnants from its previous owner and functioning as a memorandum to those that encounter it. Because this theory was frequently referenced in literature at the time, George Eliot’s utilization of the idea in her novel Middlemarch was not unconventional. The character Dorthea often associates memories with inanimate objects, most likely because of her intense spirituality. Although Dorthea’s association of her husband Casaubon to certain material goods is frequently mentioned, one example of objects transmitting memory is displayed when Dorthea thinks “As for the property which was the sign of that broken tie, she would have been glad to be free from it and have nothing more than her original fortune which had been settled on her” (Eliot 493). Her objection to these financial resources and estate stems from the memory of hurt she felt when she learned of Casaubon’s cruel alteration of his will. The discovery of this information, traumatic enough to displace her memory, resulted in Dorothea ascribing many of Casaubon’s possessions to recollections of hurt. However, this is different from the way in which Dorthea attached memories to the portrait of Will Ladislaw’s aunt. Because she felt as though she and Will’s aunt shared similar marriage experiences, “she felt a new companionship with it, as if it had an ear for her and could see how she was looking at it. Here was a woman who had known some difficulty about marriage” (258 Eliot). The somber trace of this lady left behind in her portrait causes Dorthea to associate it with the memory of marriage struggles. Although she never directly interacted with this woman, their similar experiences are reflected through the miniature and serve as a memorandum of the trials of marriage. Transmissions of physical remnants such as these onto any personal commodity enable simple inanimate objects to embody memory, similarly to how they personify identity.
Material items remain able to concretize emotion and memories in Middlemarch because of cognitive integration of both identity and residual traces of a character, along with insensate objects. Rosamond’s self-identification with commodities transmits feeling to these inanimate materials, and Dorthea’s linkage of bitter memories to her husband’s assets and her frustrations with marriage to Will’s grandmother’s portrait accomplish the same displacement. Although these examples sufficiently demonstrate the manifestation of mind into matter, the novel adequately delineates this idea throughout its entirety. George Eliot’s outlook on psychology worked to illustrate modern ideas and theories, and although the novel contained no magical plates capable of feeling sorrow, Middlemarch successfully portrayed the embodiment of memory and emotion in material items.
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