I want to begin this chapter with a combination of a confession and a warning. As I said earlier, every work that I discuss in this book is one of my favorites and one reason I have chosen these works is because of the basic impulse to share what we like. The subject of the current chapter, George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch, indeed one of my favorite works and, along with Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dickens’ Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, is one of the greatest novels ever written. In truth, I really like all of Eliot’s novels, as I will describe later in this chapter. At the same time, I must in all honesty admit that when I read Eliot, it always takes me a little while, perhaps even a hundred pages or so, to really get into the works. I am always happy that I have persevered, and I urge you to persevere if you find yourself having the same reaction.
Now, to be fair, let me present a counterbalance to what I have just said. As we will see, this counterbalance is particularly appropriate for this chapter, because George Eliot frequently offers such counterbalances in discussing her characters. She presents a character in the most convincing terms, but then she allows us to see the character from a completely different perspective. A couple of years ago I taught a course in which I included both Bleak House and Middlemarch, two long and demanding novels. I worried that students might be overwhelmed, especially because I find Middlemarch so demanding. I was surprised and delighted not only that they liked Bleak House but that many of them actually preferred Middlemarch. Most of them, in fact, had completely different experiences than my own—that is, they got right into the novel, with no break-in period at all.
My conclusion, therefore, is that I can come to no conclusion except to say that you ought to read Middlemarch and as many of Eliot’s other novels as you can. Although Eliot (1819-1880) was an almost exact contemporary of Dickens (1812-1870), their works are quite different—wonderful in their own ways, of course, but quite different. Eliot tends to avoid Dickens’ melodrama and her plots are less fantastic, but she has such insight into the human heart, into the ways that people think and behave, that reading Eliot can help us negotiate our own relationships and understand ourselves more clearly.
Just in case anyone was confused by that “she” in the last sentence, George Eliot was the pseudonym used by Marry Anne Evans, a brilliant and non-conforming woman who, like some other women in the nineteenth century, decided to write under a male name so that her writing would be taken seriously. Eliot refers obliquely to this situation in Middlemarch when Rosamond says that her brother’s studies “are not very deep” since “he is only reading a novel” (chapter 11). Eliot’s forerunner, Jane Austen, uses a similar motif in Northanger Abbey, where characters in a novel debate the value of reading novels. Novels were often considered the province of women and were therefore not taken seriously, though the hero of Northanger Abbey finds great value in them. In fact, however, this motif goes back even further. In the introduction to his fourteenth-century collection of stories, The Decameron, Boccaccio seems to dismiss the stories he is about to tell by saying that he intends this work just for women. The irony, of course, is that unlike Boccaccio’s many scholarly works, The Decameron is his only work that is still read by general readers rather than being the province of scholars. Similarly, in the eleventh-century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji by the woman Murasaki Shikibu, novels like Genji itself are referred to slightingly as being of interest only to women, though the narrator tells us that in private men also loved to read them. They just could not admit that they did. So at the beginning of her career, Mary Anne Evans knew that if she wrote novels under her own name, they would not be taken as seriously as they deserved to be, both because they were novels and because she was a woman. Hence George Eliot, the pseudonym she stuck with throughout her career.
As we will see, one of the most interesting characters in Middlemarch—and the same can be said for Eliot’s other novels as well—is the narrator, the person telling us the story. In many of the novels, the narrator’s gender is indeterminate, which means that by the usual default system, the narrator seems to be male. That is not the case in Middlemarch, though that judgment is also highly subjective. Regardless of the narrator’s gender, however, what all of her narrators have in common is their sensitivity, their awareness of the characters’ intricate thoughts and feelings, of the implications of their thoughts and feelings, of their positive and negative qualities, and of their reality as complex examples of how human beings think and behave. The narrator of Middlemarch in particular also displays a sense of humor as she comments on the characters’ activities. One of my favorite lines in all of Eliot’s works occurs as she reflects on Mr. Casaubon’s realization that he is not well-liked: there was, she says, “a strong reason to be added, which he had not himself taken explicitly into account—namely, that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it…” (chapter 42). The mere use of the word “adorable” in a sentence about the pedantic and egotistical Mr. Casaubon is funny, as is her comment that Mr. Casaubon was not fully aware that he was not adorable.
Eliot also has a satirical bent, but we must realize that there are a number of different kinds of satire. Satire can be sharp and even cruel, often deservedly so, as when Dickens names the tormentors of children Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. McChokumchild in Hard Times or in some of the scenes we examined in Bleak House, where Dickens’ anger shows through his narrative. But satire can also be gentler, a way of acknowledging and smiling at human foibles. This latter is more Eliot’s style in Middlemarch, even when she raises issues that are central to human well-being. In this connection, it is essential that we consider the novel’s full title, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Middlemarch is a provincial town, and while the novel focuses on a variety of specific characters, its announced subject is “Provincial Life,” so while we care about those specific characters, we also have to keep our gaze on the wider concerns of Middlemarch itself.
The phrase “Provincial Life,” of course, implies a lack of sophistication, though it also implies that the narrator is sophisticated enough to detect that lack of sophistication in her subjects. “Provincial” can indeed be used in an insulting or dismissive way—“That is so provincial”—and Eliot does use it that way occasionally. For example, Eliot incorporates a great deal of current political debate in the novel. (By current, I refer to the time of the novel’s action, the late 1820’s and early 1830’s, not the time of the novel’s appearance in the early 1870’s.) Among the developments of that time was the creation of the British railway system, a development that caused great consternation in certain parts of the population, sometimes because of its economic effects but also because of people’s ignorance. Thus, when a group of fieldworkers in a place called Frick think they see agents of the railroad surveying land, they react violently, and the narrator explains that “In the absence of any precise idea as to what railways were, public opinion in Frick was against them; for the human mind in that grassy corner had not the proverbial tendency to admire the unknown, holding rather that it was likely to be against the poor man, and that suspicion was the only wise attitude with regard to it“ (chapter 56). This sentence demonstrates the narrator’s attitudes and her subtlety. Yes, the people of Frick really are provincial. They do not know what trains are and therefore they are against them. Such an attitude betrays provincial ignorance. On the other hand, the provincial folk of Frick live in poverty and drudgery, and their experience has taught them that new developments tend to work against them, poor men and women that they are, and so perhaps their suspicions have some justification. Nothing is as simple as it seems.
That lack of simplicity leads us to another point about the narrator, the complexity of her language. There are, of course, writers whose complexity of language is meant to disguise the simplicity of their thought, but Eliot is not such a writer. The complexity of her language complements the complexity of her thought. As we read her and realize that we have not fully grasped a sentence or a paragraph and we must reread it, we are not seeing a flaw either in Eliot or in our ability as readers. We are, rather, being forced to contemplate in more depth things which we might be inclined to take for granted. Reading Eliot is a slow process, but as I have said several times in this book, none of the works we are considering were meant to be read quickly. They were meant to be read slowly, often aloud, and they were meant to be thought about. Sometimes it is fun—and I do not think that this is just an English teacher talking—to consider individual sentences in a writer like Eliot, to look at how they are constructed. What you see, as you can see in that sentence about the people of Frick, is how Eliot’s narrator balances her judgments. She is not afraid of making critical statements, but she insists that making such statements is not enough. We must also try to understand the ideas and behaviors that we criticize.
Such understanding, of course, does not imply approval. We may understand why those workers reacted violently, but we cannot condone their behavior. Even more, toward the end of the novel, when scandal seems to be brewing, both the ladies and the men of Middlemarch, in their highly gendered gathering places, take great delight in the unhappiness and sins (whether real or imagined) of the central characters. By simply reporting on their behavior and conversations in chapter 71, she exposes their meanness, their spite, their ignorance, and their self-righteousness. She barely has to comment on it for us to see her point: “But this gossip about Bulstrode spread through Middlemarch like the smell of fire.” It spread not like fire, as we might expect, but like the smell of fire, something that we cannot see, that irritates our throats and eyes, that makes breathing difficult. These citizens of Middlemarch think of themselves as upright, religious people, but, she says, their behavior stinks. She never makes an explicit reference, but the whole scene recalls the end of Book IV of The Aeneid, when Dido kills herself on a funeral pyre and Rumor spreads news of the event so very quickly.
So who is this narrator? We cannot say with precision, but we can characterize her from hints that she gives. She has, first, the ability to move inside and outside of the characters’ minds. Her perspective varies as she tells us different aspects of the story. She knows the whole story from the moment she begins to tell it, but she tells us only what she wants us to know as the story proceeds. This is, of course, a venerable technique. Dickens uses it to great advantage. Frequently in Dickens, a central mystery lies behind the plot—who Oliver Twist or Esther Summerson really is, for instance. The narrator knows, but rather than telling us from the outset, the narrator allows the mystery to be solved gradually, thereby turning a simple fact into a complex story. If all we read for is to solve the mystery, we might feel cheated: “I had to read seven pages to discover that?” Of course, that is not why we read, not even actual mysteries.
Eliot’s narrator is thoroughly aware not only that she is using this technique but that it puts her in a particular literary tradition. She explicitly puts herself into that tradition at the opening of chapter 15:
A great historian, as he insisted on calling himself, who had
the happiness to be dead a hundred and twenty years ago, and so
to take his place among the colossi whose huge legs our living
pettiness is observed to walk under, glories in his copious remarks
and digressions as the least imitable part of his work, and
especially in those initial chapters to the successive books of his
history, where he seems to bring his arm-chair to the proscenium
and chat with us in all the lusty ease of his fine English.
Our narrator is here raising the ghost of Henry Fielding, whom we met several chapters ago in this book, and her allusion to that early novelist ties her to the novelistic tradition that he began. But it is not only the allusion that has such an effect. The very style of these lines recalls Fielding. She beings by referring to Fielding as a historian, which is how his narrator referred to himself. Fielding, of course, was not more a historian in the usual sense than is Eliot, but he was a historian in the sense that his fictional world, in which his narrator played a part, still gives us a picture of what life and people were like in his time. So, too, is Eliot a historian, for she is also giving us such a history, “A Study of Provincial Life.” Like Fielding’s histories, hers is a comedy, both in the sense that it is amusing and, perhaps even more significantly, in the sense that it ends happily, if by happily we recognize that it ends with an affirmation of life and an acceptance of the human tendency to be flawed. Thus she can say that Fielding had the “happiness” to have died one hundred twenty years earlier, an odd kind of happiness unless we keep in mind that death is inevitable, that Fielding could not have lived until the age of one hundred eighty, and that Fielding is still remembered for his novels. In fact, with a glancing allusion to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, she describes Fielding as a colossus beneath whose legs contemporary writers proceed. In short, she cites Fielding as her great predecessor, puts herself in his tradition, links her work to his, and does so in a comical way, citing his good fortune in being dead and referring to him as a colossus, which undoubtedly would have amused him to no end. Furthermore, by citing Fielding, she recalls the tendencies of his narrators to have private chats with his readers, particularly in Tom Jones.
Eliot’s narrator continues this paragraph by mentioning how Fielding wrote about a more leisurely time, when people were not so rushed as they are in the present, by which she means 1870. Our reaction might be, “If she thought people in 1870 were rushed, she should see us now,” but I suspect that her point is again satirical, because people always seem to operate under the impression that the past was better, that people operated under less pressure then, which is not the case. But then she continues with an important statement:
I at least have so much to do in unraveling 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.
Here the narrator’s interests intersect with those of Eliot herself, because this passage describes what Eliot, and most other novelists, do in their works. Whether the particular image that Eliot uses here is deliberately chosen from the sphere of “women’s work” is unimportant, because the image of unraveling in order to see how the threads are “woven and interwoven” is so perfectly appropriate. Eliot does something like what she describes here in all of her novels, but she does so in especially exquisite ways in her two last novels, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, where, like Shakespeare in King Lear, she combines several strands of plot.
In Middlemarch, for instance, we follow a number of important relationships—Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vitry; Fred Vitry and Mary Garth; Dorothea Brooke and first Mr. Casaubon, then Will Ladislaw—as well as a number of secondary relationships. Each of these relationships is thoroughly examined. We learn who the individuals are, how they came to be who they are, how they met, how their relationships developed, and finally how those relationships intertwine, creating the tapestry that is the “provincial life” of the novel’s subtitle. Ordinary people see the world around them in superficial ways. The novelist identifies and traces the individual strands, takes them apart and puts them back together so that we can better understand the life around us.
Eliot makes this point clear as she continues her introduction to chapter 15:
At present I have to make the new settler Lydgate better
known to any one interested in him than he could possibly be
even to those who had seen the most of him since his arriva
l in Middlemarch. For surely all must admit that a man may be
puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool
and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband,
and yet remain virtually unknown—known merely as a cluster of
signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.
The narrator here makes clear what she sees her job to be. Although we have already encountered the character Tertius Lydgate, we are not about to meet him in a way that we cannot meet people in ordinary life, for when we meet people in the ordinary course of things, we do not know their histories, we do not know their thoughts or concerns or interests. We know only what Eliot calls “a cluster of signs” from which we can try to draw conclusions; but more often than not, our conclusions are incorrect or, at best, incomplete. The novelist, on the other hand, can give us a complete picture of her characters. She can tell us their histories and their thoughts, so that we may well know the character in Middlemarch better than we know people we come in contact with every day. If the novelist is sensitive to human beings with all of their peculiarities and specialness, she can give us deep insights not only into her fictional characters but into life itself. Reading literature, then, is not an escape from life, nor is it a substitute for life. In many ways it is a distillation of life that can help make readers into more sensitive human beings.
Eliot’s narrator clearly feels close to her characters, as she reveals in a number of ways. For instance, at the beginning of chapter 40, she comments on the importance of perspective, noting that sometimes we have to look at things up close rather than from a distance, and then she says, “The group I am moving towards is at Caleb Garth’s breakfast-table…” What an interesting expression! In what sense is she “moving towards” this group? Is the group really there so that she is actually moving toward them? Is she moving toward them in her imagination? And is there a significant difference between those two possibilities? I will leave it to the reader to decide among those and other options, but the reader must decide. And each reader’s decision will say a great deal about that reader’s relationship to literature and to reality, whatever that may be. Eliot is raising questions similar to those we saw Shakespeare raising in As You Like It.
If I may digress for a moment, let me note that contemporary critics are fond of pointing out that earlier writers use cinematic techniques. What we see here, however, is not that Eliot is using a cinematic technique, in which the camera moves closer to the subjects it is recording. Eliot preceded cinema. If cinema is using a technique that is similar to Eliot’s, then cinema is being novelistic, not the other way round.
Eliot also injects herself into the narrative later on in chapter 54, when she writes, “Will never quite knew how it was that he saved himself from falling down at her feet…He used to say that the horrible hue and surface of her crape dress was most likely the sufficient controlling force.” What does she mean by “He used to say”? To whom did he say it? To her? At this single point in the novel, the narrator refers to a moment between the time of the action and the time of writing, thereby making it seem as though she actually knows these characters, as though in that forty-year interval she had contact with them. And of course at the conclusion of the novel she tells us the fates of many of the leading characters. By using all of these techniques, Eliot underlines the truth of fiction, which perhaps sounds like a strange thing to say. Fiction is, by definition, not true, and yet, as storytellers from Aesop to Jesus to Philip Sidney to the most contemporary writers know, fiction can be the best teacher of truth.
But the narrator is not afraid of passing judgment either. We have already seen how harsh she is with the gossipmongers in Middlemarch, though elsewhere she is more indulgent, often in a satirical way. For instance, when Mr. Brooke states two opinions that contradict each other, she comments, “To think with pleasure of his niece’s husband having a large ecclesiastical income was one thing—to make a liberal speech was another thing; and it is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view” (chapter 7). So Mr. Brooke, who is presented throughout the novel as simultaneously good-hearted and foolish, is also inconsistent. A person might be tempted to treat that inconsistency with derision: “Look, he pretends to be a liberal but he is willing to let his niece benefit from the very corruption that liberals decry.” Not so Eliot. She points out the inconsistency, which some might call hypocrisy, but her concluding comment, that only a narrow mind sees things from a single perspective, encompasses the reader, because people tend not to be totally consistent when their self-interest is involved. So the narrator laughs at Mr. Brooke, but she also laughs at the reader and presumably at herself as well, for she recognizes her own inconsistencies.
Yet another aspect of the narrator must be considered, a characteristic that pervades all of Eliot’s work. As we read her works, a phrase from one of them, Felix Holt: The Radical, might run through our minds. One of the characters, Esther, had thought she had a pretty good understanding of things, but her acquaintance with Felix had “raised a presentiment of moral depths that were hidden from her.” That phrase, “a presentiment of moral depths” is so important to understanding Eliot, for as we read her novels, all of them have that presentiment. She does not weave and unweave all those strands of the tapestry just out of curiosity. She does so in large part because our understanding of what people do and why should help us understand what we do and why, and that understanding might lead us, as Philip Sidney said, to more virtuous actions. Dickens, for all his interest in individual characters, looked at large issues like poverty, education, child abuse, and the courts. Eliot loves her characters, flaws and all, and looks closely at what makes them tick and at the moral implications of their thoughts and actions. She is interested in larger issues as well, of course. In Middlemarch and in Adam Bede she shows us from a variety of perspectives the problematic relationships between landlords and tenant farmers, for instance. But her focus is on individual characters and the moral or ethical challenges they face.
Tied very strongly into these moral and ethical issues are religious issues, which figure so largely in many nineteenth-century British works. Many people in nineteenth-century England felt that traditional religious belief was fading and they wondered and worried about what would replace it. One of the most famous statements on the subject comes from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Religion plays a huge role in Eliot’s novels, from Romola, which is set in the religious turmoil of Renaissance Florence, through her remarkable focus on Judaism in Daniel Deronda, and to the politics of Catholic emancipation in novels like Felix Holt and Middlemarch. Always, however, Eliot’s central point about religion remains consistent. Ordinary readers—as opposed to Victorian literature specialists—do not have to worry about the often arcane doctrinal arguments that shook Victorian Christianity, though Eliot herself was interested in them. But Eliot’s main point is that those doctrinal arguments are largely a distraction from the most important aspect of Christianity, which involves the ways people treat each other.
For example, Eliot’s novels contain a fair number of clergymen. Many of them are just ordinary men who happen to work in churches. They conduct religious services and they oversee their congregations, but being a clergyman is little more than a job for them. They do their external duties adequately, but they clearly have no vocation. This is the type of clergyman that Fred Vitry would become in Middlemarch if he pursued his studies, as Mary Garth recognizes, which is why she says she will have nothing to do with him if he enters the church. Such clergymen may do little harm, but they also do little good. Others among Eliot’s clergymen are outright charlatans, who pervert the teaching of Christianity for their own benefit. Fortunately there are few of these. Unfortunately, there are also few at the other extreme, those clergymen who embody the teachings of Christianity, which, for Eliot, means worrying less about doctrine and more about the needs of other people. In Middlemarch, Mr. Farebrother (a significant name) is such a clergyman. He shows little interest in doctrine or dogma, and early in the novel he even seems to have a gambling problem, but he is kind to everyone, as a naturalist he glories in God’s creation, and he offers a moral center to the ordinary moral chaos that afflicts the lives of Middlemarchers. Perhaps the most obvious instance of his charitable outlook comes when Fred asks him to assess Mary Garth’s feelings towards him. Farebrother, who also loves Mary, does not set himself up as a rival to Fred. Rather, he approaches Mary, sees that she is open to Fred’s affection, and reports back, selflessly, to the younger man. It would have been easy for Mr. Farebrother to manipulate the situation, show Fred to Mary in a bad light, and capture her affections for himself. Similarly, toward the end of the novel, when certain villainous behavior is revealed (and again, I am trying hard not to give away the plot), Mr. Farebrother, while not condoning the villainy, offers support to the suffering human being. In short, he embodies Christianity, or, perhaps more precisely, he embodies the good that religion can do in a world that often views religion as a means toward gaining power by way of oppression. Other characters in Middlemarch can be assessed by how much they resemble or are influenced by Mr. Farebrother.
This religious motif, which, as I said, appears in all of Eliot’s novels, is particularly important in Middlemarch, as we can see from the novel’s very first page, for Middlemarch begins with a Prelude that at first glance seems totally unrelated to the novel that will follow. After all, the novel tells a story set in early nineteenth-century England, while the Prelude very briefly tells and then comments on the story of Saint Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Spanish reformer of the Catholic Church. What can these realms, separated by time and geography as well as religious belief, have to do with each other?
Eliot begins by telling a story from Saint Teresa’s childhood, how she set out with her little brother to seek martyrdom in the land of the Moors. Eliot cites this story not only as evidence of Teresa’s desire for martyrdom but of her idealism, of her “passionate, ideal nature.” Though the little Teresa’s quest was stopped by her family, she nevertheless did go on to be a religious reformer and to achieve sainthood. But, Eliot tells us, Teresa was not unique. “Many Teresas have been born,” she says, though few of them have achieved public recognition, often because of social conditions—“they were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul”—and they were hindered by the usual condescending attitude that society demonstrated toward women, making their idealism seem like little more than whims. But even so, she says, “Here and there is born a Saint Teresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long-recognisable deed.” Such women are prevented from spreading their idealism, from seeing it flower, because of the hindrances that are put in their way, because their idealism is so quickly dismissed.
Then we turn the page and read, “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” What, we might justifiably wonder, does Saint Teresa have to do with Dorothea Brooke, the leading character of Middlemarch, but the answer rapidly becomes apparent, though we will have to finish the novel to see the answer worked out in detail. For instance, in the first chapter’s second sentence, Dorothea is compared in an offhanded way to the “Blessed Virgin,” but more than four hundred pages later, when we have gotten to know Dorothea, when Dorothea has gotten to know Dorothea, Lydgate thinks, “‘This young creature has a heart large enough for the Virgin Mary’” (chapter 76). By the time Lydgate comes to this realization, we have seen enough evidence to know that he is right. In fact, throughout the novel Eliot makes numerous religious references—Dorothea reads the French philosopher Pascal, she has “Puritan energy,” she refuses to wear religious jewelry because “A cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket,” she poses for a painting as Santa Clara (chapter 22), she is compared to St. Catherine (chapter 45) and the mater dolorosa (chapter 80). But her religious associations go beyond mere allusion, because she really, truly, feels the pull of what Eliot saw as the essence of religion: selflessness, service to others. Even in the first chapter, almost in passing, we learn about “the infant school which she had set going in the village,” and we soon learn that her great project is to have new cottages built for the poor of Middlemarch.
When she marries Mr. Casaubon, as the narrator makes clear from the very beginning of their acquaintanceship, she does so out of a mistaken idealism, thinking that he is a great scholar, far beyond her understanding, and that she will selflessly be able to help in his important work. And even when she realizes that everything she thought about Casaubon was mistaken, she still tries to live out her idealism. Even later, she uses her money for good causes—to help Lydgate, to support the hospital. And finally she discovers that religious love may include romantic love as well. So just as the novel opens with the story of Saint Teresa, it ends with this beautiful passage: “But 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; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs” (Finale). Dorothea did not attain the fame of a Saint Teresa. Her accomplishments were neither public nor earthshaking. But they most certainly were accomplishments, for she affected everyone who knew her, either by making their lives better or by making them better. To illustrate this point, I will cite one of the most remarkable scenes in the novel. Dorothea thinks that she has been terribly hurt by Rosamond, but she knows that Rosamond herself is in considerable distress. Putting aside her own hurt, she visits Rosamond to set the foolish girl’s mind at ease, and in their conversation, both women discover vital things about themselves and they achieve a level of communication and fellow-feeling that is as rare in literature as it is in life. As the narrator tells us, “Pride was broken down between these two” (chapter 81).
Now a careful reading of the novel will show that many of the problems that confront the characters derive from their inability to communicate, whether because of societal strictures that limit what people can say to each other or because of a normal human inability to speak the truth plainly and openly. But as Dorothea and Rosamond speak, as they begin to see into each other’s souls and into their own, they come together as human beings who sense their common humanity. Their feelings go beyond words, and even Rosamond, whose outlook and behavior have been largely based on self-centeredness, transcends herself in a wordless gesture:
Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own—hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect—could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea’s forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck.
As Rosamond kisses Dorothea’s forehead and they clasp each other, they have a true communion. While they naturally cannot remain in such a state, both are transformed by the experience, and each of them understands what she must do next. And all of this results from Dorothea’s special variety of kindness, her willingness to put aside her own hurt in order to comfort another.
So Dorothea may not attain the fame of a Saint Teresa, but remember that Middlemarch is, after all, “A Study of Provincial Life.” If Dorothea is a provincial Saint Teresa, there should only be more like her. The “effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive,” the narrator says. All that means is that her goodness affected many people, which is a pretty good legacy. It certainly fits into one of the goals that Dorothea sets for herself early in the novel: “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life” (chapter 22). That may not be a very practical goal, but it is a laudatory goal. If we aim at such ideals even knowing that we can never achieve them, we may achieve much more than we would with more modest goals. This is what Dorothea means when she defines her “religion” for Will: “by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower” (chapter 39). Dorothea makes several such pronouncements, but none sums up her philosophy so well as what she says to Lydgate late in the novel: “’What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?’” (chapter 72). It is that simple. And that difficult. There is that “Presentiment of moral depths” that we discussed earlier. We can study all the doctrine and dogma, but until we internalize what Dorothea tells Lydgate, we will make no progress. This brief discussion of Dorothea can be summed up by one of the great lines in the novel. At one point, Dorothea tells Will that she doubts her ability ever to write a poem, and he responds, “‘You are a poem’” (chapter 22). She is indeed. Both literally and figuratively, Dorothea is a poem.
Of course, Eliot is not telling us anything that we do not already know. Nor does Tolstoy teach us anything new when he presents the character Karataev near the end of War and Peace. Almost everyone knows, or claims to know, the truth behind what they say. We just do not live as though we really believe it. Books like Middlemarch and War and Peace not only tell us things, they embody those things. Characters like Karataev and Dorothea are vivid reminders of the things they say. If we can relate to these characters and others, perhaps they can make those “moral depths” more vivid and more urgent, so that we will incorporate them into our lives. As I noted back in the Introduction, one of the functions of the humanities, a function that has been largely ignored in recent years, is to improve our lives, at the very least by making us think about how they might be improved.
Another theme that runs through Middlemarch and Eliot’s other novels should hardly surprise us. As a woman writing under a man’s name, Eliot pays a great deal of attention to gender roles, not in a doctrinaire way but with a certainty that current attitudes and practices are incorrect and unfair and therefore require change. She includes an occasional cutting remark: “A man’s mind—what there is of it— has always the advantage of being masculine” (chapter 2), which is either a backhanded compliment or a much qualified insult. Generally, however, her comments are more subtle and thought-provoking. It is fascinating to see how she illustrates the engrained sexism of her culture, the way both men and women acquiesce to its structures, while at the same time she shows how foolish and unfair it is. Perhaps the high (or low) point for such attitudes comes toward the novel’s end, when Dorothea’s sister Celia, who is married to James, says to the widowed Dorothea, “ ‘And I think it is a mercy now after all that you have got James to think for you’ ” (chapter 72). This line states in perhaps its most forthright form a principle that runs through the novel, that a woman’s role is to be “polished, refined, docile” (chapter 16). Women are allowed to think, occasionally, but men make the decisions and women are expected—and expect themselves—to abide by those decisions. Lydgate, the narrator says, relies on the principle of “the innate submissiveness of the goose as beautifully corresponding to the strength of the gander” (chapter 36). Even between Mr. and Mrs. Garth, who have probably the best marriage in the novel, the principle holds. Mrs. Garth is highly intelligent and thinks through problems. Mr. Garth is equally intelligent, but he is often swayed by his goodhearted tendencies. However we may rate these two approaches to dealing with problems, the principle stands that once Mr. Garth has arrived at a decision, that decision stands, and no one defends the principle more devotedly than Mrs. Garth.
Thus Eliot shows us the practice, shows how people support that practice, and yet undercuts it at the same time. An education in trifles rather than in real matters, for instance, has made Rosamond incapable of understanding Lydgate’s work or of thinking, until near the novel’s end, of anything beyond her own small domestic comforts. Her lack of understanding, in fact, leads her to violate her husband’s orders in a potentially destructive way, but then she lacks understanding because, as a woman, she never learned that she had to understand things. Men would do her thinking for her. Her brother Fred, on the other hand, does learn, and in the Finale we see how really well things turn out for him and his wife.
Without a doubt, however it is Dorothea’s story that implicitly challenges the treatment of women. By marrying Mr. Casaubon, she voluntarily and quite consciously consigns herself to a life of subservience. She thinks that he is brilliant and that she will be able to help him. As she discovers that he is not brilliant and as her perceptions become more accurate, she becomes, almost against her will, more assertive, until at the end she behaves as an independent woman should. And the world does not fall apart.
I hope this discussion of Middlemarch gives some idea of how wonderful the novel is. As I hinted earlier, it is a long, slow read, but it is worth every moment invested in it. Eliot has such a beautiful way with the language and such insight into the complexities of human existence. It would have been easy for her to portray Mr. Casaubon as something of a villain, but at one point she even allows us to see the story from his perspective. We will not agree with it, but she makes us aware that he does have a perspective. So enjoy Middlemarch, and then give her other novels a chance, particularly Silas Marner ( a very brief book), Adam Bede, Felix Holt, and The Mill on the Floss. Romola is a bit different than the others, since it is set not in nineteenth-century England but in Renaissance Florence, but it is a great book. And whatever you do, save Daniel Deronda for last.