Middlemarch Revisited: Changing Responses to George Eliot
by Bernard J. Paris
November 30, 2000
In Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values (1965), I subscribed to George Eliot's beliefs and saw her characters in terms of her own interpretations and judgments, as I understood them. I have subsequently come to feel that Eliot's philosophy has serious deficiencies and to perceive her characters as brilliant mimetic creations who subvert their formal and thematic roles when we analyze their psychology. Focusing on Dorothea Brooke, this essay compares my past and present readings, tries to explain why my responses have changed, and argues that George Eliot's Religion of Humanity, which Dorothea exemplifies, is a celebration of what Karen Horney describes as the self-effacing solution. George Eliot dramatizes the destructiveness of this solution, with its compulsively self-sacrificial behavior, but since she employs the solution herself, her rhetoric glorifies it as a sign of moral grandeur.
In Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values (1965), I examined George Eliot's ideas in relation to her time and her art in relation to her ideas. I argued that in her novels, which she called "experiments in life" (Haight, 1955, 216), Eliot explored the moral implications of science and positivistic philosophy in an effort to discover enduring truths that would ennoble human existence and replace the outmoded beliefs of the past. Because of her distrust of "shifting theory" and her reluctance to "adopt any formula which does not get itself clothed . . . in some human figure and individual experience" (Haight, 1955, 216-17), she felt that art was the only means she could confidently employ to verify and communicate her values. Her protagonists arrive, through a varied course of experience, at some version of the Religion of Humanity in which living for others, for something beyond the self, gives meaning and value to their lives.
Experiments in Life was originally my doctoral dissertation, completed in 1959, and while writing it I subscribed to George Eliot's beliefs. I was convinced that she had solved the value problems of modern man living in a universe without God. When my dissertation director, Hillis Miller, posed questions about why George Eliot thought as she did, I felt it was silly of him to ask why someone believed the truth.
A strange thing happened after I completed my dissertation. When I was given the chance to teach George Eliot in a graduate course, I found that my enthusiasm for her ideas had disappeared. I remained convinced that I had understood her correctly, but I was no longer sure of my own attitude toward her philosophy. I was intellectually confused and could not understand the change I was undergoing.
It was at this point that I first read Karen Horney. Her description of how our belief systems are often a function of our defensive strategies seemed directly applicable to me and, by extension, to George Eliot. Miller's questions began to make sense. I came to see that my relationship to George Eliot had been profoundly influenced by a shaky performance on my doctoral oral that had hurt my pride, undermined my confidence, and made me regard my dissertation as the means by which I would vindicate myself. Since the dissertation had to be magnificent, it became almost impossible to write, and there were long periods during which I despaired of ever finishing it. My dreams of a glorious academic career were in ruins, and I needed to find a new meaning for my life.
While I was in this state of mind, I found George Eliot's philosophy of living for others to be absolutely convincing. Even if I did not become a great scholar and critic, I could be a wonderful husband, father, and friend, and I persuaded myself that I was. The stories of Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke appealed to me as celebrations of gifted young people, much like myself, who attained a kind of moral grandeur even though they failed to achieve an epic life. In short, my difficulty in writing my dissertation led me to abandon my dreams of academic distinction, which I now saw no way of fulfilling, and to embrace the self-effacing solution that I found so powerfully set forth by George Eliot.
The successful completion of my dissertation and its warm reception changed everything. Finishing the work in which I had articulated my defense against failure did away with my need for that defense. Since my ambitious goals once again seemed within reach, I no longer needed to live for others in order to feel that my life was worthwhile. Hence my lack of enthusiasm when I had the chance to teach George Eliot. I had been looking forward to preaching her Religion of Humanity, but I found myself strangely indifferent to her ideas.
Looking back on my experience, it seems to me that my personal identification with George Eliot produced a combination of blindness and insight. It enabled me to understand her ideas from within and to give them a full and sympathetic exposition. I still believe that I saw her characters as she meant them to be seen and that I gave their experience the meaning she intended it to have. I was highly responsive to her rhetoric.
That very responsiveness blinded me, however, to a number of things that I think I see more clearly now. Because I was so intent on understanding George Eliot's characters as illustrations of her ideas, I failed to see them as imagined human beings who are fascinating in their own right and who are not always in harmony with their formal and thematic functions. I paid no attention to George Eliot's mimetic achievement and had very little sense of the brilliance of her psychological intuitions. I did not see the need to distinguish between her representation of a character, which is usually complex, accurate, and enduring, and her interpretation, which is often misleading, over-simple, and confused.
My most striking blindness, I think, was to the destructiveness of the solutions George Eliot celebrates. She shared with most nineteenth-century novelists the illusion that suffering and frustration are ennobling. She vividly depicts the conditions that thwart her protagonists' healthy development, but she does not see that their frustrations have damaged them psychologically. She shows us the destructiveness of the self-effacing solution they adopt in response to deprivation; but since she shares this solution herself, her rhetoric glorifies it as a sign of moral grandeur. Since I also shared this solution when I was writing my dissertation, I presented it with a proselytizing zeal that disturbed the members of my committee. In revising the work for publication, I tried to adopt a more dispassionate tone.
As I see it now, one of the most serious deficiencies of George Eliot's philosophy is her emphasis on living for others as the means by which we give value to our lives. Since our life has the meaning that other people give it, we may be driven to satisfy their needs at all costs or to try live up to their values. There is no way in George Eliot's thinking in which we can discriminate between the legitimate needs of others and their neurotic claims. Her characters can rarely defend themselves when other people make irrational demands, and she tends to glorify their compulsively self-sacrificial behavior.
There are two striking examples of this in Middlemarch, Dorothea and Lydgate. George Eliot presents them as contrasting characters, with Dorothea's problems being caused by the deficiencies of her society and Lydgate's by his flaws of character, but they are much more alike than she realizes. Lydgate is destroyed by his compulsive submission to Rosamond, and Dorothea would have been destroyed by her compulsive submission to Casaubon had she not been saved by his death. I only have space here to discuss Dorothea.
In terms of plot and rhetoric, Dorothea's story is a good example of what I have elsewhere described as the vindication pattern in fiction (Paris 1997). Dorothea is presented as a superior being who is at first devalued by her society and the people around her but who receives many tributes as the novel progresses, including some from those who had previously failed to appreciate her. She is championed from the start by the narrator, who employs a powerful rhetoric in her behalf. I think that few readers have realized just how extravagant this rhetoric is; I certainly did not in Experiments in Life, where I not only assented to its celebration of Dorothea but based my picture of her personality almost entirely upon it. When I began to look at Dorothea as a realistically drawn character with an inner life of her own--what E. M. Forster (1927) calls "a creation inside a creation"--I came to feel that the rhetoric and mimesis present quite different stories and that the rhetoric blinds us to George Eliot's brilliant portrayal of Dorothea's psychology. George Eliot's rhetoric is a fairly reliable guide to characters from whom she is distant--such as Rosamond, Casaubon, and Bulstrode--but it tells us much more about the author than it does about characters like Dorothea Brooke and Mary Garth, with whom she is closely identified.
George Eliot's effort to shape our view of Dorothea begins with the Prelude where she distinguishes between the way Dorothea will appear to "common eyes" and the proper view of her as a "later-born" and less fortunate Saint Theresa who is deserving of admiration and sympathy. George Eliot knows that Dorothea is not the kind of woman of whom her readers are predisposed to approve and that they might regard her behavior as foolish when she marries Casaubon. She therefore glorifies her by comparing her to Saint Theresa and exculpates her in advance by putting what might be seen as her mistakes and flaws of character in a favorable light. Readers will be guilty of sharing vulgar prejudices if they agree with Dorothea's detractors, but they can take pride in their enlightenment if they share the narrator's point of view.
The Prelude prepares us to approve of Dorothea's search for glory. Saint Theresa had a "passionate, ideal nature" that demanded "an epic life." Chivalric romances and "the social conquests of a brilliant girl" meant nothing to her: "Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self." This description of Theresa is meant to sanctify Dorothea, who also demands an epic life and is indifferent to things that interest ordinary girls, such as fashions, jewelry, and suitors like Sir James Chettam. The craving for some "illimitable satisfaction" is presented as a sign of nobility, the mark of a "passionate, ideal nature," rather than of insatiable claims. The mention of "self-despair" suggests a dim awareness on George Eliot's part of the compensatory nature of the need for an epic life, but it is not intended to reflect on the mental health of either Saint Theresa or Dorothea. I think that Middlemarch appealed to me so profoundly while I was working on my dissertation because it promised to help me find a way to achieve glory despite my despair about not being able to write.
Saint Theresa's search for glory was successful. She "found her epos in the reform of a religious order." Dorothea's search for glory fails, but this is not her fault. She tries to shape her "thought and deed in noble agreement," but because she is "helped by no coherent social faith and order" that can "perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul," her struggles seem "mere inconsistency and formlessness" to "common eyes." Although her aspirations are as lofty as Saint Theresa's, she lives in an age in which the medium for heroic deeds no longer exists, especially for women. As a result, she leads "a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity." This is the formula by which Dorothea's mistakes are not only excused but made the sign of her noble, ardent nature.
George Eliot does not deny that Dorothea makes mistakes or that the outcome of her life is disappointing (we are meant to feel dissatisfied with the marriage to Ladislaw), but this is because of external obstacles. Dorothea is "a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances." It is the usual fate of such women to "sink unwept into oblivion" with no "sacred poet" to memorialize them, but George Eliot will be Dorothea's sacred poet, and Middlemarch will celebrate her spiritual grandeur. It will be an epic poem in prose about a heroine who cannot find a grand life because of the meanness of opportunity. Dorothea's frustrations become the basis of George Eliot's social satire.
The Prelude is almost entirely rhetoric. It gives us little concrete information about Dorothea but much about how George Eliot wishes us to see her. When the story begins and we have an opportunity to learn about Dorothea for ourselves, the large admixture of rhetoric tends to obscure the mimetic portrait of her character. Dorothea is linked to the Virgin Mary and other religious figures throughout the novel. She is presented as being in a different class from most other people, much as an epic hero far outshines ordinary soldiers. The claims for Dorothea's superiority are often accompanied by a condescending or satiric attitude toward ordinary mortals. After she begins to develop a rapport with Will Ladislaw, Dorothea is compared to a "princess in the days of enchantment" who has encountered a "human gaze" in one of the "four-footed creatures" that "live in herds" and who looks for that gaze again as "the herds" pass her by (Ch. 54). In this analogy, Will is a human being who has been turned into an animal but has retained his human gaze, while just about everyone else in Dorothea's world is regarded as a sub-human creature. George Eliot's exaggerated claims for Dorothea and her condescending attitude toward the mass of mankind did not register on me when I was writing Experiments in Life, probably because they corresponded to my own condescension and my claims for myself.
George Eliot defines Dorothea's problems in such a way that they increase rather than diminish her stature and are an indictment of the people around her. What is a noble, ardent, gifted woman to do in nineteenth century England, with its demeaning attitudes toward women, its refusal to give them a real education, and its exclusion of them from socially important work? There is little Dorothea can do except marry, but marriage is bound to be a problem for such an unusual female. The only possibly suitable man in Middlemarch is Lydgate, but he has conventional attitudes in everything but medicine, and Dorothea is not his "style of woman" (Ch. 10).
When Dorothea chooses the highly unsuitable Casaubon, George Eliot goes to great lengths to defend her. Dorothea is incorrect in her inference that Casaubon is "a man who could understand the higher inward life," but life could not have gone on without "this liberal allowance of conclusions, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization. Has anyone ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?" (Ch. 11). Dorothea is a victim of the conditions of civilized courtship, which do not allow the parties to gain much knowledge of each other. She is also a victim of semiotic problems, since "signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable" (Ch. 3). These problems are compounded by her "sweet, ardent nature," which leads her "to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky" out of every sign. George Eliot is quick to observe that Dorothea's being hasty in her trust does not necessarily mean that it was misplaced, since discovering the truth is often a matter of luck. Later she will point out that the believing disposition that contributed to Dorothea's mistake about Casuabon leads her to have a redeeming faith in Farebrother, Lydgate, and Ladislaw.
Dorothea is attracted to Casaubon because he seems to offer her the opportunity "to make her life greatly effective," but the people around her cannot understand her feelings (Ch. 3). They "would have thought her an interesting object if they had referred the glow in her eyes and cheeks to the newly-awakened ordinary images of young love," such as "Miss Pippin adoring young Pumpkin and dreaming along endless vistas of unwearying companionship," but no one has "a sympathetic understanding for the dreams of a girl whose notions about marriage took their colour entirely from an exalted enthusiasm about the ends of life."
If she had had some endowment of stupidity and conceit, she might have thought that a Christian young lady of fortune should find her ideal of life in village charities, patronage of the humbler clergy, the perusal of 'Female Scripture Characters,' unfolding the private experience of Sara under the Old Dispensation, and Dorcas under the New, and the care of her soul over her embroidery in her own boudoir--with a background of prospective marriage to a man who, if less strict than herself, as being involved in affairs religiously inexplicable, might be prayed for and seasonably exhorted. From such contentment, poor Dorothea was shut out. (Ch. 3)
In defense of Dorothea, George Eliot paints a satirical picture of the conventional ideal of young love and of "a Christian young lady of fortune." Dorothea is perceived to be odd, perhaps even a little mad, by ordinary folk, and to counterbalance this, George Eliot mocks ordinary people and the social norm.
The rhetoric turns Dorothea's oddness into a mark of her superiority rather a sign that there is something wrong with her. She is shut out from the contentment available to Christian young ladies of fortune by her lack of stupidity and conceit. She chooses a Casaubon rather than a young Pumpkin because of her "ardent, theoretic, and intellectually consequent" nature. She wants a union that will satisfy her "intensely religious disposition" and give her "a guide who would take her along the grandest path." She thinks that Casaubon is the man for whom she had been looking because "the radiance of her transfigured girlhood" falls "on the first object that [comes] within its level" (Ch. 5).
From the perspective of the rhetoric, Dorothea's error about Casaubon is the product of her spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity. A lesser woman, like Celia, would never make such a mistake. Dorothea is carried away by her feelings, but George Eliot observes that "to have in general but little feeling, seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion" (Ch. 7). Dorothea's "passionate faults lay along the easily-counted open channels of her ardent character" (Ch. 77) and are difficult to distinguish from her virtues (see the epigraph to Chapter 55).
George Eliot offers us two ways of looking at Dorothea: from the perspective of "common eyes," which she satirizes, or that of the narrator, who is Dorothea's "sacred poet." She seems to be afraid that most readers will share the attitudes of Dorothea's detractors and will have to be convinced of her spiritual grandeur. Dorothea does not simply exist in the opinions of others, however. A brilliantly rendered mimetic character, she can be seen independently both of George Eliot's favorable rhetoric and the chorus of disapproval by which she is initially surrounded. As an imagined human being, she is intelligible in motivational terms (see Paris 1997).
When I look at Dorothea as a mimetic character, she seems different from the person described by the rhetoric. Her desire for intensity and greatness and need for an epic life are not manifestations of spiritual grandeur but of a compulsive search for glory. Her craving for "illimitable satisfaction" is an expression of insatiable neurotic needs, and her "self-despair" results from hopelessness about actualizing her idealized image of herself as a person of world-historical importance. She misperceives Casaubon not because of the pilulous smallness of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship and the difficulty of interpreting signs, or because the "radiance of her transfigured girlhood" falls on the first object that comes within its level, but because her need for glory leads her to idealize him. Dorothea's mistake is the result of her experience as a sensitive, intelligent young woman living in an environment that frustrates her healthy needs and turns them into neurotic ones.
We know nothing about Dorothea's childhood before she loses her parents at the age of twelve. Attempting to "remedy the disadvantages of her orphaned condition," her uncle has her educated, along with her sister, "on plans at once narrow and promiscuous" (Ch. 1), first in an English and then in a Swiss family, but he provides neither emotional support nor an appreciation of her aspirations and abilities. Dorothea wants to be taken seriously and to do something significant with her life, but she feels poorly educated and is uncertain about her ideas. Her sense of inadequacy is exacerbated by the dismissive attitudes toward women in her culture. These are conveyed to her in many ways, most directly perhaps by Mr. Brooke, who comments on the "flightiness" of young ladies (Ch. 2), the "lightness of the feminine mind" (Ch. 7), women's inability to think (Ch. 6), and their incapacity to understand such serious subjects as political economy (Ch. 2).
Having been devalued because of her gender, Dorothea embarks on a search for glory, seeking to actualize an idealized image of herself as an extraordinary person who will make a great difference to the world. This project is bound to fail not only because of the meanness of opportunity but also because of the grandiosity of Dorothea's objectives. In Experiments in Life, I failed to see that George Eliot bases her criticism of society on its frustration of Dorothea's compensatory needs. She feels that there is a tragic quality to Dorothea's story because, as a woman, she is unable to lead an epic life. As I see it now, the saddest aspect of Dorothea's story is that she is forced into a self-alienated development because of the frustration of her basic needs for love, esteem, knowledge and understanding, and a fulfilling vocation. Many of these frustrations are gender-related, of course. Instead of lamenting the damage done to Dorothea, George Eliot glorifies the resulting neurosis and criticizes society for not providing her with the opportunity to actualize her grandiose conception of herself.
Dorothea's dream of glory chiefly takes the form of fantasies about marrying a great man: "She felt sure that she would have accepted the judicious Hooker, if she had been born in time to save him from that wretched mistake he made in matrimony; or John Milton when his blindness had come on; or any of the other great men whose odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure . . ." (Ch. 1). George Eliot characterizes these ideas about marriage as "childlike," making them seem a matter of inexperience or immaturity, but they clearly reflect Dorothea's compensatory needs. Because she is a woman, Dorothea cannot dream of doing splendid deeds herself but must live vicariously through a man. "It always seemed to me," she later tells Will, "that the use I should like to make of my life would be to help some one who did great works" (Ch. 37). She longs to marry a great man not only to participate in his glory but to facilitate his achievements and thus do something of world-historical importance herself. She needs him to need her help.
Casaubon seems to be exactly the man for whom she is looking, especially since she perceives him in the light of her fantasies. She has wanted a husband who would be "a sort of father" and "teach [her] even Hebrew" if she wished (Ch. 1), and the much older clergyman qualifies on both counts. She has constantly doubted her conclusions because of her feeling of ignorance, but here is a man "whose learning almost amounted to a proof of whatever he believed!" (Ch. 2). Dorothea looks to him as a kind of "Protestant pope" who will provide the certitude and authority for which she hungers. No one has sympathized with "the intensity of her religious disposition" (Ch. 3), but she thinks that Casaubon has a great soul and can "understand the higher inward life" (Ch. 2). He has weak eyesight and requires help with his work, which serves her need to be needed.
What makes the marriage to Casaubon so disgusting to other people--the age difference and his lack of "red-blooded manhood" (Ch. 8)--is part of his appeal to Dorothea. Since she has an idealized image of herself as an ascetic who scorns worldly pleasures, she feels threatened by the "amiable handsome" Sir James (Ch. 1). Marriage to him would be too much like riding, which she intends to give up because she feels she enjoys it "in a pagan sensuous way." Mrs. Cadwallader says that marrying Casaubon will be "as good as going to a nunnery" (Ch. 6), and perhaps that is what Dorothea wants. She will be able to achieve a glorious piety through sacrifice and self-mortification.
Casaubon appeals to Dorothea above all because he is reputed "to be engaged on a great work" (Ch. 1). She looks forward to meeting him with a "venerating expectation," and, captivated by the wide embrace of "The Key to All Mythologies," she sees him as a "living Bossuet," a Pascal, a "modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint" (Ch. 3). If he wanted her as his wife, "it would be almost as if a winged messenger had suddenly stood beside her path and held out his hand towards her!" It would be like stepping into her dream. Such a marriage would enable her to rise above the trivial routines of her social world and "to lead a grand life, here--now--in England." Casaubon "would take her along the grandest path"; she would "learn everything" in order to "help him the better in his great works."
Many critics feel that George Eliot sees Dorothea pretty clearly early in the novel but that she loses her critical distance later, when she identifies too closely with her heroine. George Eliot does have more distance in the beginning, for she wants us to be aware of Dorothea's mistakes, which she treats with gentle mockery, and she presents her as a slightly ludicrous figure. She compares her to Don Quixote in the epigraph to Chapter 2 and keeps us aware of the difference between Dorothea's illusions about Casaubon and the reality. As Celia says, Dorothea sees "what nobody else sees" but "never see[s] what is quite plain" (Ch. 4).
But while George Eliot makes fun of Dorothea's excesses and misperceptions, which are similar to those of her own Evangelical girlhood, she does not understand their source but persists in rationalizing them. She idealizes Dorothea much as Dorothea idealizes Casaubon. Her language calls attention to the coerciveness of Dorothea's religious disposition, to her obsessive need for greatness, but these traits are treated sympathetically. From the author's point of view, Dorothea's problem is that she cannot find a grand life, not that she is driven into delusional and self-destructive behavior by her compulsive need for glory.
It is important to recognize that Dorothea's story has an education as well as a vindication pattern. Even as she glorifies Dorothea, George Eliot also presents her as an immature young woman who must undergo a process of moral development. It is only after Dorothea is "educated" by her suffering in marriage that the author's treatment of her becomes unreservedly favorable. Whereas I agreed with George Eliot's view of Dorothea's development in my earlier interpretation, I now have serious reservations. What she sees as moral growth, I see as compulsive self-effacement.
Let me begin with George Eliot's perspective as I presented it in Experiments in Life. In George Eliot's novels, there are three basic ways in which individuals relate to the world. They may relate to the world subjectively, or egoistically, seeing themselves as the center of the world and the world as an extension of self. They may be overwhelmed by an encounter with harsh realities, leading them to see the world as alien and themselves as insignificant. Or they may relate to the world objectively, accepting its autonomous existence but feeling that they have a place in the network of relations that make up the human order.
The three ways in which people relate to the world are also stages of moral development through which George Eliot's characters go in the course of maturation. The inevitable awakening to the disparity between the inward and outward is frequently a source of moral growth; it makes clear the real relations of things and is the baptism of sorrow that renders individuals capable of sympathy. It makes them sharers in the common lot, and if it does not drive them back into illusion or an embittered egoism, it nurtures their capacity for human fellowship. In the third stage of moral development, their painful sense of living in an alien universe is moderated by a vision of their connection with their fellows and a sense that all human beings share a common nature and destiny. Their purpose becomes not merely the pursuit of personal gratification but the achievement of genuine significance by living for others. Their feeling of solidarity with other human beings gives them a sense of religious orientation in the cosmos.
George Eliot presents Dorothea's initial response to Casaubon as egoistic. Instead of regarding him as a being with needs and desires of his own, she sees him as a means to her ends. She is immensely gratified by his desire to marry her but never dwells on his motives and expectations, only on her hopes for an exalted existence. Casaubon's way of relating to Dorothea is equally self-centered. He is given "to think that others were providentially made for him, and especially to consider them in the light of their fitness for the author of a 'Key to all Mythologies'" (Ch. 10).
Dorothea enters the second stage of moral development when her illusions about Casaubon are shattered. The incomprehensibility of Rome intensifies her feelings of disenchantment, and when she returns to England, her once familiar surroundings also seem strange. The reality into which she awakens is so alien to her experience that it seems dream-like, while her self-reflecting dream world had seemed genuine.
Dorothea's disillusionment gradually leads her to the third stage of moral development in which she understands her husband as he is for himself. George Eliot proclaims that "we are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves" (Ch. 21). Dorothea had "early begun to emerge from that stupidity" as a result of her frustrations, and her education is completed when she realizes through the intimate experience of marriage that Casaubon has "an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference." As she becomes aware that he also is suffering, there are stirrings within her "of a pitying tenderness fed by the realities of his lot and not by her own dreams." She is now capable of sympathizing with her husband, despite her disappointment.
For George Eliot, a sympathetic feeling is one that is excited by the signs of feeling in another person, and mental vision is needed to read the signs. Vision and sympathy are both dependent on experience. Unless we have had an experience much like that which another person is undergoing, we cannot recognize and share the states of feeling signified by his or her behavior. Thus George Eliot felt that suffering humanizes. Our own suffering, if it does not simply embitter, leads us to understand and sympathize with the unhappiness of others and to try to lighten their misery.
Instead of rejecting her disappointing husband, as Rosamond does, Dorothea is moved to sympathy by her vision of his inner state, and she strives to resign her claims for herself and to comfort him. She is even ready to promise that she will try to complete his work in the event of his death, although she no longer believes in its value. She is "compelled" to this, says George Eliot, neither by law nor the world's opinion, "only her husband's nature and her own compassion, only the ideal and not the real yoke of marriage" (Ch. 48).
I still believe this to be an accurate account of George Eliot's view of Dorothea, but I can no longer assent to her interpretations and judgments. Dorothea does become more sympathetic toward Casaubon as she understands his problems, but she becomes even more alienated from herself as a result. Once she decides to give Casaubon the promise he wants, she feels that she is "going to say 'Yes' to her own doom." She is "too weak, too full of dread at the thought of inflicting a keen-edged blow on her husband, to do anything but submit completely" (Ch. 48). George Eliot celebrates this as a manifestation of compassion and loyalty to the ideal of marriage, but her language suggests an uneasiness with Dorothea's decision. Dorothea is compelled to act out of weakness and dread in a way that she knows to be self-destructive. She saw "clearly enough" the consequences of her submission, "yet she was fettered: she could not smite the stricken soul that entreated hers. If that were weakness, Dorothea was weak."
The object of George Eliot's rhetoric is to dismiss the idea that Dorothea is weak; but Dorothea is weak, and I suspect that George Eliot would not have raised the issue had she not had some sense that this was the case. She obscures the self-destructiveness of Dorothea's behavior by having her spouse die in a timely manner, a favor she does not extend to Lydgate, who ruins his life when he compulsively submits to the irrational demands of his wife. Dorothea's weakness would have had a similar result had Casaubon lived another half-hour, until he had secured her promise to complete his work.
Why is Dorothea compelled to commit herself to a task she feels to be pointless? To answer this question, we must understand the psychological changes that have occurred as a result of her disappointments in marriage. When Dorothea realizes that she will not be able to do something of world-historical importance, she must redefine her idealized image and seek glory in a different way. In order to avoid despair, she tries to give her life a sense of purpose through devotion to duty. To be heroically self-sacrificial in the absence of high prizes has its own kind of grandeur for her. In order to actualize her new idealized image, she must regard the feelings of others as more important than her own and try to have "no desires merely for [herself]" (Ch. 39).
Dorothea's disillusionment begins on her honeymoon. Frustrated by her exclusion from her husband's work, she urges him to make use of her help and "begin to write the book" that will make his "vast knowledge useful to the world" (Ch. 20). Casaubon reacts defensively, asserting that only he knows the "times and seasons" for the "different stages" of his work and attacking the "facile conjectures of ignorant onlookers." Initially he had fed Dorothea's pride by praising her "elevation of thought" and regarding her as a fit helper in his scholarly endeavors (Ch. 5), but now his dismissiveness reinforces the sense of uselessness and inferiority she had married him to escape.
George Eliot glorifies the way in which Dorothea eventually handles her frustrations. She initially reacts with "anger and despondency" but fights against this and reaches "towards the fullest truth, the least partial good" (Ch. 20). Shaken out of her "moral stupidity," she becomes aware that "there might be a sad consciousness in [her husband's] life which made as great a need on his side as on her own" (Ch. 21). Looking steadily at Casaubon's "failure, still more at his possible consciousness of failure, she seem[s] to be looking along the one track where duty [becomes] tenderness" (Ch. 37). The "educated" Dorothea relinquishes her illusions about her husband, and, becoming aware of his equivalent center of self, seeks to succor him in his pain. Casaubon's pride leads him to repel her sympathetic concern, even when he learns from Lydgate that his death may be imminent, and Dorothea has a fit of "rebellious anger" (Ch. 42). But when she thinks of her husband's grief at the arrest of his work, the "noble habit of the soul reasserts itself," and she achieves a "resolved submission."
There is something wrong with all this that I was unable to see when I was writing Experiments in Life. Dorothea is not reaching "towards the fullest truth, the least partial good." In George Eliot, the least partial good does not involve a balancing of the legitimate needs and desires of all concerned. It is other people's good, as they define it, and it leaves out what is good for oneself. After Dorothea arrives at a resolved submission, she feels that she will "never again expect anything else" (Ch. 42). When George Eliot's characters reach the third stage of moral development, they often become enslaved by the wishes of others and incapable of asserting their own. Once they become aware that others have an equivalent centre of self, they tend to give in when there is a conflict of interests. Dorothea tries not to have desires merely for herself "because they may not be good for others" (Ch. 39). This is hardly the least partial good.
When Casaubon asks her to promise to carry out his wishes in case of his death, Dorothea is "crushed by opposing fears" (Ch. 48). Some of her fears are for herself and some are for her husband. Balanced against the prospect of a long and futile servitude is the pain a refusal would cause Casaubon. She pictures his lonely labor, "the ambition breathing hardly under the pressure of self-distrust, the goal receding," and "now at last the sword visibly trembling above him!" If "she were to say, 'No! if you die, I will put no finger to your work'--it seemed as if she would be crushing that bruised heart."
Dorothea is torn between fears of ruining her own life and of crushing her husband. Neither she nor George Eliot seems able to envision a response to Casaubon other than cruel refusal or complete surrender. Neither can imagine saying "no" in a sympathetic manner, showing concern for the other person's feelings but refusing to be governed by them. This illustrates the flaw in George Eliot to which I referred earlier: the characters of whom she approves are often incapable of healthy self-assertion and feel compelled to submit to the irrational demands of other people. George Eliot's philosophy leads in the direction of self-abandonment. For her, the meaning of life lies not in self-realization, of which she seems to have no conception, but in being of value to others. If they need us to serve their neurotic needs by behaving in ways that are destructive to ourselves, we must do what they want if we are not to feel selfish and useless.
Dorothea asks if it would be "right, even to soothe [Casaubon's] grief" to promise "to work as in a treadmill fruitlessly" (Ch. 48). This is a good question to which she does not have a good answer. It would be a crime against herself to give her husband the promise for which he asks. She feels that it would be cruel not to content his "pining hunger," but he has no right to ask her to sacrifice herself to him. Neither Dorothea nor George Eliot seems to have a position from which it is possible to assess the demands that others are making and to refuse to satisfy them when they are illegitimate. Neither sees that we do not have a moral obligation to submit to other people's neurotic claims and that we have a right to defend ourselves against them. It would pain Casaubon greatly if Dorothea denied his request, but that is his problem and does not have to be hers. It is hers, however, because her neurotic needs compel her to give him what he wants. Lydgate is similarly compelled by Rosamond's neurotic demands, and once again George Eliot can see no alternative but submission.
I do not mean to suggest that had Dorothea been capable of healthy self-assertion it would have been easy for her to say no to Casaubon. The whole meaning of his life depends on his "Key to All Mythologies," and he would have been deeply distressed if she refused to complete it. Still, he had no right to ask her to choose his needs over hers, and if she had had a clear sense of this she might have been able to decline in a compassionate manner. Instead of saying "No! if you die, I will put no finger to your work," which is the only kind of refusal she can imagine, she might have been able to tell him that she understood his feelings and did not wish to hurt him but could not do what he asked without great damage to herself. I realize that Middlemarch is set in a patriarchal society in which wives are expected to obey their husbands, but, as George Eliot observes, Dorothea's intended submission is well beyond what "law," "the world's opinion," and "the real yoke of marriage" would require (Ch. 48).
George Eliot portrays Dorothea as being caught between the fear of crushing Casaubon and of having to devote her life to his meaningless work. These are not her greatest fears, however. As we have seen, she is going to say yes to her own doom because she is "too full of dread at the thought of inflicting a keen-edged blow on her husband to do anything but submit completely" (Ch. 48; my emphasis). What does Dorothea dread? I do not think it is her husband's pain but the self-hate and despair she would feel if she violated her tyrannical shoulds and shattered her idealized image of herself.
Dorothea is forced to relinquish her dream of helping a great man with his work, but once she becomes aware of Casaubon's frustrations and sorrows, she constructs a new idealized image as a noble, devoted person who has no desires for herself. Now she will strengthen her husband's life and exalt her own by succoring him. Casaubon's demand that she promise to complete his work puts Dorothea's idealized image to the test. If she accedes, she may ruin her future chances for happiness, but if she does not she will have to hate herself for the rest of her life. No unhappiness resulting from submission to her husband could equal the despair she would feel if she violated her shoulds by "crushing that bruised heart" (Ch. 48). Such an act would make her despise herself. By submitting, she not only escapes self-hate but becomes a noble person who sacrifices herself for the good of others.
Casaubon's demand gives Dorothea a magnificent opportunity for heroic self-sacrifice. George Eliot so arranges things that Dorothea can have credit for her nobility without paying the price. Casaubon dies before she makes her promise, but George Eliot celebrates her readiness to do so, ascribing it to her compassion and fidelity to the ideal of marriage.
After the death of Casaubon, Dorothea's story focuses on her relationship with Will Ladislaw and her continuing effort to find something worthwhile to do with her life. These two strands come together at the end when, in what George Eliot describes as "a self-subduing act of fellowship" (Ch. 82), Dorothea overcomes her anger at finding Will with Rosamond and acts in a way that makes possible her marriage, finally giving her a life filled with "beneficent activity which she had not the doubtful pains of discovering and marking out for herself" (Finale). Dorothea becomes a mother, and Will becomes an "ardent public man" to whom she gives "wifely help" in his struggle for political reform.
Despite the fact that Dorothea is presented as having found emotional fulfillment and a meaningful life with Will, the novel concludes on a mournful note. Her marriage is described as "not ideally beautiful," and George Eliot continues to bemoan the social conditions that are responsible for Dorothea's lapses and her inability to do something of historical importance (Finale). Dorothea always feels there was "something better which she might have done," and George Eliot describes her fate as a sad sacrifice. Many who knew Dorothea "thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother."
Although George Eliot glorifies Dorothea almost beyond measure at the end, we are told that Dorothea herself "had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better" (Finale). Dorothea has engaged in numerous acts of everyday heroism that have had a saving influence on others, and she has found love and a life of beneficent activity with Will, but she feels dissatisfied because she has not attained the grand life of which she had dreamed.
As a self-effacing person, Dorothea blames herself rather than others. George Eliot places the blame on society, however, arguing that "there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it" (Finale). Dorothea's "young and noble impulse" has struggled "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." The foil to Dorothea is Lydgate, who, as a man, had an opportunity to lead an epic life but wasted it because of his "spots of commonness" and conventional views of women. The moral of his story is opposite to that of Dorothea's: "It always remains true that if we had been greater, circumstance would have been less strong against us" (Ch. 58). Lydgate could have triumphed over circumstance, but Dorothea is the victim of an age in which women have no opportunities for heroism. The medium that permitted the "ardent deeds" of an Antigone or a Saint Theresa "is for ever gone" (Finale).
It is not only the fault of the age but of people like you and me that women like Dorothea are so frustrated. In a sentence that startles me now, George Eliot turns on her readers: "But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know" (Finale; my emphasis). George Eliot includes herself among the insignificant people, but she is really talking about the rest of us. I did not find this sentence offensive when I was writing Experiments in Life because I identified with Dorothea as a superior being and felt exempt from George Eliot's criticism.
Looking at the novel from my current perspective, I find the claims for Dorothea's heroic stature to be excessive and at odds with the mimetic portrait of her character. Dorothea craves an epic life, but she has no special calling or ability, unlike Lydgate, or, for that matter, George Eliot. Her story is what George Eliot's might have been had she not been able to become a great novelist. It is certainly true that, as a woman, Dorothea had no opportunity to develop her talents and discover a calling because a good education and a choice of vocation were denied to her. It does not necessarily follow, however, that under different conditions she would have been able to do something great.
Since Dorothea does not have a chance to develop her abilities, we can only guess about her potential, but she seems to have the desire but not the capacity to do something of world-historical importance. What distinguishes Dorothea from ordinary people is her ardor and the loftiness of her aspirations, but it takes more than ardor and ambition to make a memorable contribution to the world, even for a male in a patriarchal society. If Lydgate had not been derailed by his personal weaknesses, it still seems unlikely that he would have made a great discovery, since, as George Eliot points out, he had not framed his question correctly. In addition to being ardent and enamoured of greatness, Dorothea is an unusually loving, caring, empathetic person, but this does not make her the potentially heroic figure George Eliot claims her to be.
It is instructive to compare Dorothea not only with Lydgate but also with Ladislaw. As a male, Will does not suffer from her disadvantages, but he is no more successful than she in leading an epic life. Like Dorothea, he thinks himself an extraordinary person but does not know how to actualize his potential for greatness. He has an inner insecurity that is comparable to Dorothea's and an emptiness he can fill only by attaching himself to someone else. Dorothea does not need Will as desperately as he needs her, but she, too, seems to have no inner core and is dependent on others for her sense of direction and worth. Although both Will and Dorothea find a focus for their lives through their attachment to each other, George Eliot presents Will as having been rescued by Dorothea, while she has been sacrificed to the meanness of opportunity. Presumably Will's fate is adequate to his deserts but Dorothea's sharing it is a disappointing result. Is Dorothea really so superior to Will?
Dorothea, Casaubon, Lydgate, and Will are all searching for glory in their own way. Although they are all driven by an underlying need for self-aggrandizement, they are treated very differently by George Eliot. All of these characters slip below their intentions, Lydgate the most cruelly, it seems to me. He not only fails to become a great discoverer, or even a reformer of medical practice, but he becomes his despised self, since a fashionable physician is the opposite of what he intended to be. It is Dorothea's disappointment, however, for which George Eliot mourns most deeply, partly because Lydgate is presented as having brought his downfall on himself while Dorothea's sad fate is entirely the fault of an imperfect social order and the daily words and acts of insignificant people like you and me.
At the end, George Eliot seeks both to celebrate Dorothea and to lament her sad sacrifice. Dorothea's "finely-touched spirit" has "its fine issues," but they are "not widely visible." The effect of her being is "incalculably diffusive"; she has made things better for ordinary folks and has contributed to "the growing good of the world." The problem is that this is not enough for George Eliot, and presumably for Dorothea. They really are obsessed with glory in a way that I find disturbing, since it threatens my efforts to feel good about my life without it. However fine Dorothea's acts, they are "unhistoric." She will leave "no great name on the earth," but will live "a hidden life" and rest in an "unvisited tomb." Her "not ideally beautiful" marriage to Will is a "lapse" because it does not bring her the fame she was seeking and that, according to George Eliot, she deserves.
George Eliot criticizes society because it will not honor Dorothea's claims. I have suggested that a more appropriate criticism is that society has frustrated a number of Dorothea's basic psychological needs, partly because of her gender, leading her to develop a search for glory that dooms her to feel discontented with herself and her life. In a discussion of the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot complained about their idealization of the slaves: "If the negroes are really so very good, slavery has answered as a moral discipline. But apart from the argumentative suicide involved in this one-sidedness, Mrs. Stowe loses by it the most terribly tragic element in the relation of the two races--the Nemesis lurking in the vices of the oppressed" (1856, 573). A similar complaint can be made about Middlemarch. It is a novel of social criticism that shows the devaluation of women and the constriction of their lot producing a saintly creature like Dorothea. But this contradiction exists only in the rhetoric. The mimetic portrait of Dorothea shows the ways in which she has been damaged by adverse conditions and the self-defeating nature of the defenses she has adopted in order to cope with them. Dorothea is not only dissatisfied with herself and her life but has been ready to say yes to her own doom. George Eliot portrays the "Nemesis lurking in the vices of the oppressed" not in Dorothea's story, but in the destruction of Lydgate by Rosamond. That is a topic for another essay.
In concluding, I wish to emphasize that my quarrel throughout has been with George Eliot's view of Dorothea, not with her mimetic portrait of Dorothea nor with Dorothea herself. When we understand Dorothea as an imagined human being, she is a less exalted figure but more human, complex, and sympathetic. She is also a better illustration of the ills of a patriarchal society.
Eliot, George (1856). Belles Lettres. Westminster Review 66: 566-82.
Forster, E. M. (1927). Aspects of the Novel. London: Edward Arnold.
Haight, G. S. (1955). The George Eliot Letters. Vol. 6. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Paris, B. J. (1965). Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State University Press
----- (1974). A Psychological Approach to Fiction: Studies in Thackeray, Stendhal, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Conrad. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.
----- (1997). Imagined Human Beings: A Psychological Approach to Character and Conflict in Literature. New York and London: New York University Press.
Received: September 1, 2000, Published: November 30, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Bernard J. Paris