Paradise For Our Neighbors
Realism Vs. Moralism in Middlemarch
The book opens upon the inner workings of the mind of Dorothea Brooke, its main character. Earnest, passionate, idealistic, naïve—Miss Brooke felt immediately recognizable to me, as she has to so many readers. No doubt those of us likely to pick up a book like this are predisposed to feel sympathetic to the industrious and philosophical. With youthful ignorance but admirable intentions, Dorothea soon marries Mr. Casaubon, a scholar many years her senior. It is a bad match; he turns out to be a cold, deceptive, and generally repellent character, unwilling and unable to share his knowledge of the world in any way satisfying to Dorothea’s probing mind and lofty ideals. Luckily for everyone, he bites the dust a year into their unhappy marriage. Unluckily for his widow, the old man allowed his jealousy to get the better of him, adding a provision to his will forbidding Dorothea to marry his cousin, Will Ladislaw; if she does she will lose her inheritance. Though she recognizes her fondness for Will, Dorothea is too controlled by her passion for purity and saintliness to realize her romantic feelings for the young man—at least until much later, that is. Of course she doesn’t care about losing the money, but only the social good she might accomplish with it. She is, however, human enough to worry about how it will look if she runs off to marry Will with half the town knowing about her husband’s prohibition.
Dorothea and Will are far from the only young lovers in Middlemarch. There is also Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, the aforementioned Rosamond Vincy and Dr. Lydegate, and Celia (Dorothea’s sister) and James Chettam. Robert McCrumm, writing in The Guardian on the “100 Best Novels in English” (he places Middlemarch at #21), says that “Dorothea's fate […] dramatise[s] [one] of the novel's major themes, the place of women in a changing but still patriarchal society.” Indeed, the theme extends well beyond Dorothea. All the young women in Middlemarch are confident and strong-willed. Each is provided some degree of freedom to choose her husband, and several do so against the wishes of their family. The results of this liberty are mixed. Dorothea’s first marriage is unhappy but through it she meets Will, whom she loves and who loves her in return. Fred Vincy’s family is no more enthusiastic about his marriage to Mary than hers is about him, yet these two wind up making a very good match. What at first seems like a promising pairing between Fred’s sister Rosamond and Dr. Lydegate ends disastrously, primarily because Rosamond’s self-confidence far exceeds her judgment. Celia, the sensible but somewhat superficial Brooke sister, picks a mate who would have preferred Dorothea, a fact of which Celia is happily unaware. Her marriage may lack passion but it possesses solidity and, with the birth of their son, both she and her husband seem reasonably content. In other words, Eliot’s world is realistic rather than moralistic. Traumatic events don’t occur because women are making decisions about their lives, but neither does their relative autonomy result in paradise on earth. Women and men are equally fallible. Very fallible.
There is a danger, one feels at the start of Middlemarch, that it will turn out to be a moralistic novel. Dorothea, after all, is supposed to be a “modern St. Teresa,” according to the back cover of my ancient Penguin paperback. But Eliot is much too smart to be pedantic. Rather than making Dorothea a blameless character, the epitome of selfless beatitude, Eliot paints a picture of a saintly-hearted woman hindered both by imposed as well as self-inflicted limits. Her goal of healing the world via the knowledge she hopes to gain from her husband blinds her to the sacrifices she will have to make to live with such a man. The question of how much we ignore when considering whom to marry consumes at least the first quarter of the book, and while Eliot’s insights are certainly still relevant today—“The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted 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”—they become far more fascinating and convincing later in the text, when we finally start to see them take shape in the lives of the characters. This reader, at least, resembles Eliot’s characters in more ways than one: I too wanted to rush through the beginning to get to the good stuff. It wasn’t until page 300 or so that I could honestly say I was engrossed in the novel, but when I fell, I fell hard.
George Eliot in a portrait by Samuel Laurence. The voice in her fiction is realistic rather than moralistic.
he most exciting plot developments don’t happen until the final quarter of the book, when Mr. Bulstrode, a pious banker, receives an unwelcome visit from a less-than-upstanding former business associate. Bulstrode is desperate to keep his past a secret and so pays off Raffles, the blackmailer, a little at a time. But Raffles is a drunk, and suffers more from the large infusions of cash than he would have without them. Eventually, he shows up desperate at Bulstrode’s house; he has run out of money and developed delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal as a result. For a time, Bulstrode acts honorably. He calls Dr. Lydegate to treat the patient and at first follows his orders to the letter. Lydegate’s instructions are admittedly unusual for the time: rather than treat the patient with small doses of alcohol, the doctor denies him that very thing. When Bulstrode allows his servant to take over the duty of sitting up with Raffles, a crossroads appears—will Bulstrode assent to the servant’s (unwitting) desire to stray from the doctor’s orders, or will he do what he’s been told is most likely to keep his tormenter alive? Bulstrode folds and allows the maid to give Raffles alcohol. He dies the following day, but the narrator, and Bulstrode, vacillate between blaming the banker and pointing out that the reason for Raffles’s death is unclear. While it cannot be proven that his actions killed the man, Bulstrode certainly has reason to feel guilty. His intentions were not honest, and no matter how much he rationalizes to himself, that point is clear enough.
Intentions seem to be the main criteria by which Eliot would have us judge her characters. The way things turn out for them occasionally matches their intentions but other times it does not—we cannot judge a person purely on the result of his or her actions. And although plenty “happens” in the plot, the novel is ultimately an interior study. What affects reality the most are the stories the characters tell themselves and, more often than not, what stories their emotions tell them. “All through his life Mr. Casaubon had been trying not to admit even to himself the inward sores of self-doubt and jealousy,” for example. Had Mr. Casaubon been able to acknowledge these feelings perhaps Dorothea, Will, and Mr. Casaubon himself would not have had to suffer in this particular way. Or take Dorothea’s reaction to one of her husband’s subtle cruelties: “Her anger said, as anger is apt to say, that God was with her—that all heaven, though it were crowded with spirits watching them, must be on her side.” What I find so interesting about Eliot’s language in this and many other instances is the way she personifies emotions and moods, writing as if they are characters as much as the humans are. This attitude is both radical and totally accurate. What is demented is that a compassionate stance towards human frailty should seem revolutionary more than 140 years later. But why be upset by human failing? Eliot suggests a pose of gentle acceptance is more appropriate.
Ultimately, the stance of Middlemarch is the opposite of moralizing fervor. Instead, the effect is to make the reader more mindful, considerate, and charitable towards themselves and others. We are all wrestling with the demons inside us, and these are just as difficult to slay as the “real” ones out in the world. We spend so much time telling ourselves stories about what other people think, how they judge us, and why they make the decisions that they do, but Eliot gently reminds us “how little we know what would make paradise for our neighbors! We judge from our own desires, and our neighbors themselves are not always open enough even to throw out a hint of theirs.” Indeed, they may not even know themselves.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, and The Montreal Review, among other publications. She recently wrote about “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” by David Mitchell.