Her Hands Full of Sugar-Plums: The Miserable Morality of Middlemarch
The responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.
— George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
George Eliot’s Middlemarch is kind of a terrifying book — and I don’t mean because of its length, though at 800 pages it is one of the longest novels in the English canon. No, the menace of Middlemarch lies in its depths, not its breadth: there’s a dark shadow behind the humane wisdom and ironic wit that otherwise characterize this panoramic story of English country life that Virginia Woolf called “the only English novel written for grown-up people.” Perhaps Woolf’s enigmatic remark (which every critic since has felt entitled to turn to her own purposes, so why not I?) signals that she too felt uneasy about the novel, that she detected in it truths too painful for the short-sighted complacency of youth. Middlemarch is rightly beloved for its psychological acuity, wide-ranging social commentary, and philosophical insight. But beyond its many beauties lurks a disquieting conclusion: that misery is the price we must pay for morality.
How can this be? Sympathy, after all, not suffering, is the structuring principle of Eliot’s ethics as well as her fiction. In an 1856 review essay that doubled as a manifesto, she proclaimed that
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. . . . a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.
The artist’s job is not, however, to offer a fantasy world of idealized virtue: such an artificial picture will not help us either sympathize or act morally in our actual world. (This was Eliot’s major criticism of the social novels of her “inimitable” contemporary, Charles Dickens.) Realism, then, is the other pillar of her program:
The thing for mankind to know is, not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act on the labourer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him.
After all, as she argues in Adam Bede, it’s easy enough to love the heroic or noble when we find it, but most of the people we actually encounter are unlikely to inspire us with their conspicuous merits:
In this world there are so many of these common, coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and frame lofty theories which fit only a world of extremes. Therefore let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things . . .
These principles have, as she indicates, aesthetic as well as ethical implications. When the desired end is sympathy, the necessary means (in both fiction and life) is to see from other people’s points of view. The chief impediment to this aim is egotism: as the omniscient narrator of Middlemarch remarks, “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.” But counteracting egotism is a simple idea that is difficult to put into practice, in life because of the constraints of our character, and in fiction because of the constraints of form. “Narrative is linear, action is solid,” Thomas Carlyle observed in his 1830 essay “On History.” How can a novelist overcome this basic truth of storytelling: that you can only say one thing at a time, only inhabit one point of view at a time?
Middlemarch is dedicated to solving this problem. Its multi-plot structure is its most basic strategy. Its opening chapters focus intently on Dorothea Brooke, a young woman whose awkward blend of inexperience and idealism leads her to mistake marriage to the drearily erudite Mr. Casaubon for an intellectual and spiritual vocation. Our attention is soon diverted, though, to the equally idealistic Dr. Lydgate, also eventually beguiled into marriage with someone he wrongly believes will help him fulfill his ambitions. The painful disillusionment of both characters is more painful still for the novel’s readers because of Eliot’s use of dramatic irony: we know long before they do that they are making the wrong choices, if arguably for the right reasons.
The marital trials of Dorothea and Lydgate dominate Middlemarch, but not by much. Other stories that nearly equal theirs in weight — and often outweigh them in charm or pathos — include that of Fred Vincy, the charming slacker who needs a kick in the pants from fate (or at least from his ungenerous Uncle Featherstone) to take responsibility for his own life; of sensible, sharp-tongued Mary Garth, who loves Fred but will not accept him as a husband as long as he has neither principles nor a work ethic; of Fred’s self-centered sister Rosamond, whose blonde loveliness catches Lydgate’s eye; of Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon’s artistic nephew, who must, like Fred, find a useful place in the world; of the canting banker Mr. Bulstrode, who tries but ultimately fails to make up for past misdeeds with a life of ostentatious virtue; of the Reverend Mr. Farebrother, whose self-effacing generosity quietly sets a moral standard for us as well as for the other characters he helps. Middlemarch is, as its title announces, a “study of provincial life,” and its vast array of characters makes palpable the range and variety of their experience. The novel’s inclusivity gives it literal solidity.
Less literally, we are repeatedly reminded that the characters are all, to themselves, the center of their own novels. As a result, we become increasingly self-conscious about both the artifice and the irresponsibility of attending exclusively to any single story. This dawning awareness on our part corresponds to the moral education of the central characters, particularly Dorothea, whose sad honeymoon is her first hard lesson in self-suppression:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling — an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects — that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.
Poor Dorothea must learn by doing: she has no helpful guide or mentor. But we have the narrator, with her sage commentary to gloss events as they pass before us. And we also have the novel itself, which trains us to emerge from our own stupidity by actively interfering with it.
Take the novel’s complex chronology, for instance. Again and again, we are returned to events already depicted as part of one story, or one character’s experience, in order to experience them again with different significance. In an early example, Chapter 10 takes us to Dorothea’s engagement party, at which she, with us, meets Dr. Lydgate for the first time. We then begin Chapter 11 with Lydgate, but rather than moving forward, we travel back in time to learn his history over the same period in which we have just seen Mr. Casaubon court and marry Dorothea. Only through this process do we, retrospectively, understand his initial judgment of Dorothea: “Evidently Miss Brooke was not Mr. Lydgate’s style of woman.”
Here the implications of this glancing intersection between two plots are touched on only lightly, with an eye to future events that will put this first encounter, and his first impressions, in an ironic light: “Lydgate … might possibly have experience before him which would modify his opinion as to the most excellent things in woman.” A more extended and thematically resonant example is the sequence that unfolds across Chapters 27, 28, and 29. Chapter 27 opens with one of the novel’s most famous passages:
An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent . . .
Rosamond is the narrator’s chief example here. Her egotism has led her to interpret Lydgate’s arrival in Middlemarch by the light of her own romantic dreams; overlooking his actual finances, she imagines that because he has aristocratic connections, marriage to him will mean a life of luxury. When a servant stops the courting couple on the road asking Lydgate to attend on wealthy Mr. Casaubon, it’s a gratifying sign to Rosamond that events are arranging themselves around her just as she’d like. To Lydgate, in his turn, the summons signals a welcome expansion of his practice.
But in Chapters 28 and 29 we circle around and arrive at that moment from a different direction, this time understanding it as part of the unfolding story of Dorothea and Casaubon’s marriage. Their mutual disenchantment has led to alienation and mistrust and finally to an outright quarrel, immediately after which (and probably because of which) Mr. Casaubon suffers a stroke: “he was evidently in great straits for breath. . . he was still for two or three minutes, which seemed endless to her, unable to speak or move, gasping for breath.” Eventually “Mr. Lydgate was sent for and he came wonderfully soon, for the messenger … met him leading his horse along the Lowick road and giving his arm to Miss Vincy.” Any pleasure we might have felt on either Rosamond or Lydgate’s behalf is compromised by this reminder that illness, however profitable to medical practitioners, is serious, even tragic, to its sufferers.
Dorothea’s concern for her husband shows how far she has come in her moral education. “I beseech you to speak quite plainly,” she says to Lydgate when they confer about his patient’s needs:
I cannot bear to think that there might be something which I did not know, and which, if I had known it, would have made me act differently.
Have we come as far as she, though? Unless (as is unlikely) we are as naturally generous of spirit as Dorothea, or as dedicated to serving some higher good, chances are that we lag behind in our lessons and are more inclined to judgment than to sympathy. After all, we’ve been on their honeymoon too, and all our worst impressions of Mr. Casaubon have been confirmed: “such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.” Dorothea may be frustrating in her own way, but I know I find it hard not to take her side against such a nasty husband — maybe even to wish he had not just staggered and fallen but actually died, and saved her (and us) from any more priggish speeches.
Our teacher is ready for us, though, with another tool to disrupt our focus and surprise us (trivial and selfish as we are) into better behavior. “One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick,” Chapter 29 begins, conventionally enough, but then it interrupts itself:
— but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. . . . Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us.
The chapter that ends in Mr. Casaubon’s collapse begins with an extended analysis of his marriage to Dorothea from his point of view, in the context of his past experience rather than hers:
He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. . . . For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of au action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. . . . Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.
By the time we enter the room (again) with Dorothea, we have seen how the lights and shadows fall for him, as he peeps timorously from behind his mask of tedious pedantry. If we aren’t as sorry for him as the narrator is, we know that our own shortcomings are at least partly to blame.
And so, across the novel, the “flattering illusion of concentric circles” — of one story that matters more than any other — is replaced by a complicated pattern with no fixed center. But this diffusion and extension of our sympathies is not an easy process, and Middlemarch both enacts and dramatizes the effort involved. Just as the narrative interruptions and dislocations are jarring and can create either confusion or resistance, so characters’ attempts to set their own desires aside may falter or even fail.
We see Dorothea undergoing just such a struggle, and nearly foundering, in Chapter 42 (which, if I had to pick just one, I would name as my favorite). Once again, the challenge she faces is to put her own feelings aside and reach out to her unlovable husband with compassion. Mr. Casaubon has just consulted with Dr. Lydgate about his medical prognosis. The news is not good, and all our dislike of Mr. Casaubon cannot inhibit us from empathizing with his shock and fear as he faces his own mortality. Even the pronouns in this wonderful passage emphasize our human fellowship:
Here was a man who now for the first time found himself looking into the eyes of death — who was passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die — and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel . . .
It’s less Mr. Casaubon’s imminent death than our own eventual one that preoccupies us as we see Dorothea come out to meet him, embodying just the comfort we all hope to have at that ultimate moment: “that the short hours remaining should yet be filled with that faithful love which clings the closer to a comprehended grief.” Our close involvement makes the “unresponsive hardness” with which Dorothea’s tenderness is met all the more shocking.
Dorothea is certainly devastated by it. Free by now of illusions about the man she married, she can’t help but reflect bitterly on “all the paths of her young hope which she should never find again.” She knows that she is stifling her own needs in service to someone who offers her no corresponding sympathy: “He never knows what is in my mind — he never cares.” “In such a crisis as this,” the narrator warns, “some women begin to hate.”
Dorothea does not, but it’s a close call, and one that turns on her ability to imagine (as the narrator has just helped us to do) the full pathos of Mr. Casaubon’s situation, and to respond (as we have been prompted to do) with charity, rather than condemnation: “He had been asking about the possible arrest of all his work . . . the answer must have wrung his heart.” Finally “the resolved submission did come,” and she emerges from her struggle to offer this unworthy man, once more, her support and compassion. This time, happily, he is more receptive:
When her husband stood opposite to her, she saw that his face was more haggard. He started slightly on seeing her, and she looked up at him beseechingly, without speaking.
“Dorothea!” he said, with a gentle surprise in his tone. ” Were you waiting for me?”
“Yes, I did not like to disturb you.”
“Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching.”
When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband’s, and they went along the broad corridor together.
It’s a poignantly beautiful moment, one that encapsulates everything I love about this brilliant novel. Life is difficult and we are imperfect, it says to us, but amidst our difficulties, and in spite of our imperfections, we can console each other. In a world in which an “epic life” with a “constant unfolding of far-resonant action” is no longer possible,
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 half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Who could not be moved — inspired, even — by the idea that such quiet acts of human fellowship are feats of an unsung but “incalculably diffusive” moral heroism?
But it’s also in Chapter 42 that the dangerous downside of this beautiful idea becomes hard to ignore, and thus our sympathy and admiration might become tinged with fear. Remember: the “lamed creature” in this analogy is not physically but morally deficient. Even when faced with death, Mr. Casaubon does not overcome his “lifelong bias” but remains himself as we have always known him, ignobly preoccupied with “the petty anxieties of self-assertion”:
Mr. Casaubon’s immediate desire was not for divine communion and light divested of earthly conditions; his passionate longings, poor man, clung low and mist-like in very shady places.
While Dorothea tenderly imagines him to be grieving for his lost ambitions, he is in fact more concerned with thwarting “possibilities for the future which were somehow more embittering to him than anything his mind had dwelt on before” — specifically, what he believes to be Dorothea’s desire, once freed of him, to marry his cousin Will. He interprets her well-intentioned repression with morbid suspicion, adding to his own paranoid observations
imaginary facts both present and future which become more real to him than those because they called up a stronger dislike, a more predominating bitterness. Suspicion and jealousy of Will Ladislaw’s intentions, suspicion and jealousy of Dorothea’s impressions, were constantly at their weaving work.
Even as Dorothea is struggling to put her husband’s needs above her own, he is actively planning — based on what we know is a profoundly unjust misreading of her character and intentions — to stand between her and any future happiness. Not that he puts it this way to himself, of course: he rationalizes his plans by arguing that it is his duty to protect Dorothea against “any man who knows how to play adroitly either on her affectionate ardor or her Quixotic enthusiasm.” His concern is ironic: with a little self-reflection, he’d be able to adduce his own marriage as an example of just how far astray she can be led by those warm-hearted qualities!
So Mr. Casaubon is not simply as bad as Dorothea believes— he is worse. And when she subordinates herself to him, it’s his petty, vindictive nature that gets free rein, while Dorothea’s generous ardor is stifled by her “nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread.” The fundamental question of moral philosophy is “how ought I to live?”: how can this be the right answer?
The doctrine of sympathy that sends Dorothea down that broad corridor arm in arm with her husband turns out, then, to have frightening consequences. It’s not that the best lack all conviction, but that their convictions lead them inexorably to a moral victory that by any other standard looks like defeat. There’s no way around it, though: as the narrator in The Mill on the Floss remarks, “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.” Precisely because the Mr. Casaubons of the world are trapped in their own egocentric perceptions, they can’t be expected to either see realistically or act sympathetically. The Dorotheas of the world, in contrast, because wider in their vision and thus stronger in their moral perception, will always be accountable to the demands of altruism.
Eliot’s morality, in other words, is a trap in which the saint rather than the sinner is most likely to suffer. That’s no excuse for shirking, however: the purpose of ethics is to make us do good, not feel good. As Eliot wrote in another early review,
The notion that duty looks stern, but all the while has her hand full of sugar-plums, with which she will reward us by and by, is the favourite cant of optimists, who try to make out that this tangled wilderness of life has a plan as easy to trace as that of a Dutch garden; but it really undermines all true moral development by perpetually substituting something extrinsic as a motive to action, instead of the immediate impulse of love or justice, which alone makes an action truly moral.
This emphasis on the intrinsic merits rather than the future rewards of morality explains the brinksmanship Eliot engages in when Casaubon, anticipating his impending death, demands from Dorothea an open-ended promise:
in case of my death, you will carry out my wishes: … you will avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.
Dorothea understands him only to be asking her to continue his scholarly work, but she has come, rightly, to see his projected Key to all Mythologies as a chimera unworthy of his lifelong labors, never mind her own — as “questionable riddle-guessing” rather than “the fellowship in high knowledge which was to make life worthier.” To refuse his request, however, would be to deny “the only hope left that his labors would ever take a shape in which they could be given to the world.” How can she do this, when her sympathetic imagination makes his perspective so vivid to her? Against her own deep-seated reluctance, she must weigh
his present hard struggle with a lot which had grown out of that past: the lonely labor, the ambition breathing hardly under the pressure of self-distrust; the goal receding, and the heavier limbs; and now at last the sword visibly trembling above him!
To refuse him would be “crushing that bruised heart,” precisely the response prohibited by her own compassion: “she could not smite the stricken soul that entreated hers.” And so after a night of agonizing conflict, Dorothea heads out “to say ‘Yes’ to her own doom.” Even as Dorothea crosses the garden to their chosen meeting place, however, Mr. Casaubon dies. “I am come to answer,” cries Dorothea, but “the silence in her husband’s ear was never more to be broken.”
In bringing Dorothea to verge of disaster in this way, Eliot reveals the relentless logic, and the potentially appalling results, of her doctrine. Grim as the future will be for Dorothea if she says yes, we can hardly root for the alternative — for her to be cruel rather than kind. If acting out of self-interest rather than fellowship was the climactic result of her noble aspiration to be “part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower,” the novel would be even more depressing than it actually is. No: she can’t refuse, so we can only be grateful that she’s spared the consequences. By pulling her back from the precipice, Eliot may be acknowledging that a world in which Mr. Casaubon triumphs at Dorothea’s expense would be too much to bear: it might scare us, not into sympathy, but out of it. Mr. Casaubon’s too-convenient death, however, is such a conspicuous break in the novel’s realism that it can be seen only for what it is, namely a miraculous intervention — not divine, but authorial. We can’t look forward to any such rescue ourselves; with no savior to hand, we must be prepared for a life without succor or sugar-plums.
As a further caution against “the cant of optimists,” we have the woeful story of Dr. Lydgate. (You haven’t forgotten him, have you, while we were focusing on Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon? Remember your lessons!) He too brings a warm heart and a sympathetic imagination to his marriage, and he too finds himself subject to his intransigently selfish spouse because of these same admirable qualities. Unable to change either her or himself, his only choice is to accept that the responsibility of tolerance lies with him: “he must bend himself to her nature . . . because she came short in her sympathy, he must give the more”:
He had chosen this fragile creature, and had taken the burthen of her life upon his arms. He must walk as he could, carrying that burthen pitifully.
Once again, moral success looks a lot like failure: “life must be taken up on a lower stage of expectation, as it is by men who have lost their limbs.” And once again we have to remind ourselves that it would not be better for Lydgate to shun his wife: cruelty to the morally incapacitated is still cruelty, and it’s self-sacrificing tenderness, Middlemarch teaches us, on which the growing good of the world depends.
The prospect of subordinating our best selves to the worst among us, of renouncing our own best hopes because to do otherwise would be an intolerable moral burden: it is, as I said, a terrifying vision that none of the novel’s beauties can altogether eclipse. Yet doesn’t this fear itself come from the flattering illusion that we are all Dorotheas and Lydgates? Eliot’s ruthless program looks a little different from the perspective of the “trivial and selfish” on whom their sympathetic generosity will be squandered — from the point of view of those “common, coarse people” among whom surely, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us deserve to be counted. We were cautioned, remember, against leaving ordinary people out of our philosophy. “There are few prophets in the world,” the narrator of Adam Bede remarks, “ . . . few heroes. I can’t afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities.”
Those of us who are not heroes or rarities can find comfort in Middlemarch precisely because the novel insists that we don’t have to earn sympathy: the moral obligation is all on the other side. As a result, we may be as undeservedly fortunate as Mr. Casaubon or Rosamond. We may even be as blessed as Mr. Bulstrode, whose loyal wife discovers his iniquities only after they have been publicly exposed, her husband’s reputation ruined, and her own dignity and happiness irreparably compromised. For her, as for Dorothea and Lydgate, it is a struggle to respond compassionately to the source of her own suffering, and she retreats to her room to contemplate “her poor lopped life”:
She knew, when she locked her door, that she should unlock it ready to go down to her unhappy husband and espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach. But she needed time to gather up her strength; she needed to sob out her farewell to all the gladness and pride of her life.
Mr. Bulstrode, knowing the world’s verdict, waits in anguish for his wife’s: “Perhaps he should never see his wife’s face with affection in it again.” But when she finally emerges, she puts her hand on his and looks at him gently, full of the “old tenderness.” They sit and weep together in the melancholy fellowship which is our real best hope.
Originally Published in Open Letters Monthly, March 2013