Berfrois

Middlemarch and the “Cry From Soul to Soul”

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Dorothea_and_Will_Ladislaw
Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, The Works of George Eliot, Vol 11, Middlemarch part 3, 1910.

by Rohan Maitzen

George Eliot’s novels are often painful places to be. Her characters frequently find themselves embroiled in circumstances beyond their control or understanding, struggling to find their way forward in the face of incompatible desires or competing goods. “It is very difficult to know what to do,” Janet Dempster says plaintively in “Janet’s Repentance,” one of Eliot’s first published works of fiction, when she flees her miserable marriage to an abusive alcoholic. “O it is difficult, — life is very difficult!” says Maggie Tulliver to Stephen Guest in The Mill on the Floss as she resists the mutual passion that violates their most cherished loyalties; to her, “one course seemed as difficult as another.”

Who — as a spouse, a lover, a parent, a friend — hasn’t been in such a situation, when to go one way seems as fraught with complications as to go another? If only there were simple rules to follow, or someone to relieve us of the burden of navigating our own way through life’s complexities. That, as Eliot is well aware, is one of the great consolations of religion: it offers us not just scriptures full of precepts to follow, but a hierarchy, both worldly and otherworldly, to which we can submit our problems and subordinate our judgment. But even for believers, the world can be a lonely and confusing place, and the yearned-for help can seem long in coming, while nonbelievers (like Eliot herself) have no comforting expectation that solutions to immediate hardships will be delivered from afar, or that there will be compensations in another life for trials in this one. Moral courage is hard to sustain in the face of such cosmic indifference.

Between prayer and despair, however, lies a different possible response to our common condition, one exemplified in Eliot’s novels in ways that reflect her own most deeply held convictions about our place in and responsibility for the world we live in. Over and over in her fiction she shows us that our best hope and greatest obligation is not faith but fellowship: that while we may not have God, we do have each other. There are still no simple solutions to our problems: indeed, her novels immerse us in the density of the historical, social, and personal contexts in which, like us, her characters are entangled. But her novels, which she called “experiments in life,” teach us through vicarious experience to sympathize with their predicaments and then to recognize our own role in making the world a better — or at least a less difficult — place.

Eliot’s interest in translating sacred impulses into secular action is visible throughout her novels, which are preoccupied with religion to an extent that initially seems paradoxical. She was, after all, as one contemporary observed, “the first great godless writer of fiction.” Yet Scenes of Clerical Life, with its minute and sympathetic attention to parish life, convinced many of its original readers that its then-anonymous author must “himself” be a clergyman. The Methodist preacher Dinah Morris is the moral center of Adam Bede; in Romola the eponymous heroine transforms her life under the influence of the charismatic preacher Savonarola. From Adam Bede’s Reverend Irwine to Felix Holt’s Mr. Lyon or Dr. Kenn in The Mill on the Floss, clergyman often embody her novels’ highest virtues — compassion, generosity, altruism. But there is no real contradiction here. For one thing, from its largest organizations to its metaphorical language, Eliot’s world, and the world of her characters, was saturated with religion; her realism required her to reflect that fact in her fiction. Even more important, though Eliot’s studies had led her to reject Christianity’s supernatural premises as myths rather than truths, she recognized the church itself as a vital historical and social institution, one that had long provided forms and opportunities for people to express their highest moral aspirations. Following Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity) she was the first to translate into English, Eliot believed that what people imagined as “God” was really a projection of their own best and worst capacities. As science and philosophy advanced, she expected that people would reclaim supposedly divine qualities and powers as their own and thus come to accept their own primary responsibility for the state of the world. In the meantime, doctrines mattered less than actions: the real measure of virtue, she held, was sympathy “with individual sufferings and individual joys,” an ethics for which religious faith was neither necessary nor sufficient.

All of her novels guide us towards this revised understanding of religion, not as the earthly manifestation of divine will, but as something essentially and inextricably human. This aim is made most explicit in Silas Marner, which rewrites Christianity’s central salvation myth as a humanist fable: in Eliot’s version too, redemption comes in the form of a small child, but one whose history is anything but miraculous and whose influence is thus all the more profound and touching. Eliot always feared lapsing (in her words) “from the picture to the diagram,” however, and thus she is rarely so overt in pursuit of her philosophical aims. “After all has been said that can be said about the widening influence of ideas,” she observes in Romola, “it remains true that they would hardly be such strong agents unless they were taken in a solvent of feeling.” Though her essays and reviews demonstrate her mastery of argumentative rhetoric, she found that fiction enabled the most potent combination of thought and feeling. “Art is the nearest thing to life,” she argued in her early essay “The Natural History of German Life.” It is “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but 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.

Her novels work in just this way, guiding us, without lecturing us, to put aside the religious doctrines that too often divide or punish, rather than help, and urging us to embrace the simple starting premise expressed by Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”

This philosophical project appears in its most elegant form in Middlemarch, where it is fully integrated into the novel’s moral and emotional drama. An exemplary moment occurs soon after a crisis in Dorothea’s marriage. We know long before she does that this marriage was a terrible mistake. Idealistic but naïve, Dorothea mistook the drearily pedantic scholar Edward Casaubon for the answer to her pressing question: “What could she do, what ought she to do?” Believing he could lead her to the spiritually meaningful future she dreamed of, she accepted his proposal — only to discover on their honeymoon that “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.” She is too preoccupied with her own disappointment to consider his point of view: “she had not yet,” the narrator tells us, “listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.”

Soon after they return home, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon quarrel bitterly over what Dorothea (with some justice) perceives as unwarranted criticism on her husband’s part: “Dorothea had thought that she could have been patient with John Milton,” the narrator remarks dryly, “but she had never imagined him behaving in this way.” Dorothea is full of self-righteous anger — until Mr. Casaubon collapses with a heart attack. Our sympathy for him, like hers, is at a low ebb when it strikes, but it’s a sad spectacle nonetheless, and it is not in Dorothea’s nature to turn away from suffering, even of the man who has blighted her own hopes. In her emotional turmoil, she turns to the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, who has been called in for his medical advice. “Help me, pray,” she says to him piteously; “tell me what I can do.”

It is with her complex existential situation, as much as her husband’s physical health, that she really longs for help, but Dr. Lydgate —who like a good man of science deals primarily in the literal world — is ill-equipped to understand, much less solve, her problem. And so, finding himself at a loss, he rises to go:

He was bowing and quitting her, when an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer, made her say with a sob in her voice —

“Oh, you are a wise man, are you not? You know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do. He has been labouring all his life and looking forward. He minds about nothing else. And I mind about nothing else —”

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal — this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life. But what could he say now except that he should see Mr. Casaubon again to-morrow?

Dorothea’s desperate appeal is all the more moving because there are no simple solutions. What can Dorothea do — what should Dorothea do, indeed? Does compassion require her to sacrifice her youth to a man who is proving wholly undeserving of her ardent devotion? Would it be so wrong to stand resolute against his arbitrary demands and stultifying inhibitions, insisting on her own right to happiness, and never mind his failed hopes and heartfelt sorrows? And yet how can we expect her to turn her back on the man for whom the narrator has only just made this eloquent case:

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 ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon’s uneasiness. 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.

Mr. Casaubon’s “hungry shivering self” surely has some moral claim on Dorothea, especially because the illness that is so distressing to her might well prove literally fatal to him. Before long, in one of the novel’s most moving passages, we will be reminded that he is a man “looking into the eyes of death,”

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.

Unpleasant as Mr. Casaubon is, the reiterated first-person pronouns remind us of our kinship with him, if only in our common mortality. What, then, are the duties of his wife, who — albeit under a naïve delusion — vowed to love, honor, and cherish him? These questions go well beyond any physic Lydgate could provide, and no answer he or we might come up with is going to satisfy all of the competing demands George Eliot has established on our sympathies or our conscience.

Dorothea’s “involuntary appeal” speaks for all of us who have looked at our “fitfully illuminated” lives and wondered what we can — or, often harder, what we should — do. Dorothea’s religion teaches her that at such a time she should appeal to God, and indeed the narrator remarks that if Dorothea had been alone, her supplicating impulse would have “turned into a prayer.” She isn’t alone, though, and what she really wants and needs is not divine intervention of some indeterminate kind but personal comfort and practical guidance. There at hand is someone whose own wider experience might provide the wisdom he needs to offer her, if not solutions, at least support. “You are a wise man,” she says to Lydgate entreatingly; “you know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do.” Caught up in the story, we can feel the emotional urgency of her demand even as we recognize that there is no single clear path through the tangled web of circumstance, duty, and emotion in which Dorothea is caught. Eliot’s ethics are not prescriptive in that way: she does not offer a set of alternative commandments, which in her view would be a mistaken effort to codify the intricacies of human life. “All people of broad, strong sense,” she writes in The Mill on the Floss,

have an instinctive repugnance to the man of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy.

“Moral judgments,” she believed, “must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.” Her novels draw us into just such attention to particularities, never falsifying the difficulty of knowing what to do. But they also insist that complexity is not the same as inexplicability, and that our appeals for help don’t have to dead-end in mystery. Patient inquiry, deep understanding, and sympathy are our best ways forward, and while an appeal to God may momentarily relieve our feelings, Dorothea’s “cry from soul to soul” points us towards what we all really need: not a priest, but a friend.

There’s no reason in principle, of course, that succour can’t be found in clerical form: the church has for centuries provided a useful forum for active benevolence. But the value of churchmen in her novels does not depend on their adherence to church doctrines, only on the good they do other people — on their fellowship, not their faith. In Middlemarch, for instance, the Reverend Camden Farebrother hardly seems an exemplary priest when we first meet him: like Mr. Irwine in Adam Bede, he has rather “lax theology.” By the end of the novel, however, we have learned to value him, even to revere him, over other clergyman with higher notions of their religious vocation — particularly Mr. Tyke, who at the novel’s outset is Mr. Farebrother’s rival for the position of hospital chaplain. Mr. Tyke is primarily concerned with religion as a source of rigid dogma, and with enforcing its rules through threats of punishment or rewards in the afterlife. That is, his attention is not on how well or kindly people live together on earth. His preaching, with its focus on “imputed righteousness and the prophecies in the Apocalypse,” does little good for his audience, never mind for what the novel’s elegiac conclusion invokes as “the growing good of the world.”

Mr. Farebrother, in contrast, though frank about his own shortcomings, and unpretending about his vocation (“I am not a model clergyman,” he tells Lydgate; “only a decent makeshift”), devotes himself without flourish to helping those around him, guided not by scripture but his own kindness and integrity. Thus, for instance, he selflessly petitions the woman he loves, Mary Garth, on behalf of another man, the charming but feckless young Fred Vincy: “a duty much harder,” the narrator observes, “than the renunciation of whist, or even than the writing of penitential meditations.” Mr. Farebrother’s altruism is a better indication of his merits than his theology: once we get to know him, we rightly value him as a man first and a servant of the church second — or, more accurately, as a man who serves his church well despite (even because of) his seeming disregard for its stricter doctrines.

In siding with Farebrother, we align ourselves not just against Tyke but against his sponsor Mr. Bulstrode, the hospital’s chief patron. Bulstrode flaunts his piety, holding himself above those around him despite an erring history that proves his own hypocrisy — he has not learned the lessons he should from his past, namely humility and tenderness for other sinners. “I don’t like the set he belongs to,” Farebrother tells Dr. Lydgate:

they are a narrow ignorant set, and do more to make their neighbours uncomfortable than to make them better. Their system is a sort of worldly-spiritual cliqueism: they really look on the rest of mankind as a doomed carcass which is to nourish them for heaven.

Against Bulstrode’s religious “cliqueism” Eliot sets Dorothea’s much more open-ended spiritual vision. “I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me,” she tells Mr. Casaubon’s young cousin, Will Ladislaw;

“That 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.”

“That is a beautiful mysticism — it is a —”

“Please not to call it by any name,” said Dorothea, putting out her hands entreatingly. “You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it. I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl. I used to pray so much — now I hardly ever pray.”

Her hard experience and inward struggles have given her less, rather than more, faith in the forms of religion, so it’s no wonder that she too finds Farebrother appealing:

I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest — I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it. It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much.

Her appointment of Mr. Farebrother to Mr. Casaubon’s vacated living represents progress towards a world in which humanity trumps theology.

Of course, because Farebrother is a priest, his fitness to serve as moral mentor could be seen as reinforcing the church’s central role. Once we’ve acknowledged that we can (and typically do) judge men of the church in this independent way, however — not by their cloth but by their character — it’s easier to admit that our morality in general can flourish independent of the institution they embody. It also clarifies that you don’t have to be an ordained minister to answer someone’s prayers, though being one makes it more likely they will be directed to you. The “cry from soul to soul” needs only a sympathetic ear, not an official audience, for comfort, and the agent of grace can be anyone who steps forward to help. Eliot’s novels typically turn on such encounters, on scenes of human, rather than divine, visitation in which compassion reveals itself as our real salvation.

Such victories of altruism over egotism require setting aside one’s own selfish needs and looking at the situation from someone else’s point of view, an ethical principle reflected in the form of Eliot’s novels, which never let us rest in a single perspective but always — through shifts in the plot or narration, or commentary from the intrusive narrator — insist that we acknowledge a range of views, experiences, and contexts. They also rely on abandoning hierarchies between sinner and saints: to meet truly face to face, after all, you must recognize each other as equals, in support of which Eliot never lets us forget that even her most admirable characters have flaws or weaknesses, while even her worst are entitled to our understanding and sympathy, if not necessarily our forgiveness. Her frequent use of first-person plural pronouns reinforces this inclusive morality, challenging us to recognize that we really are all in this together, neither exempt from nor above the problems that it thus becomes our common responsibility to address. Ultimately, though, it’s “the solvent of feeling” that makes this sympathetic transcendence possible: in these climactic encounters, characters show, rather than tell, each other what is right, their emotions carrying them past the difficulties and differences that divide them. “You would have to feel with me,” Dorothea tells Celia at the end of Middlemarch, “else you would never know.” Turning feeling into knowledge is the process Eliot’s fiction enables for us as well.

In Middlemarch, the most significant encounter of this kind is between Dorothea and Rosamond, Dr. Lydgate’s pretty, self-centered wife. This remarkable scene, which is both the dramatic and the moral climax of the novel, arises from one simple but demanding moral insight: that what we live for, as Dorothea declares, is “to make life less difficult for each other.” This principle sends Dorothea, late in the novel, to visit the Lydgates’ home at a moment when Lydgate’s association with Mr. Bulstrode has led — in unforeseeable ways — to his own disgrace and a potentially irrevocable breach with the unsympathetic Rosamond. Prompted by the generous hope that her intervention might at least restore some trust between the estranged couple, the now-widowed Dorothea sets out on her errand of mercy, only to confronted with a sight that seems to overturn all her own best hopes: Rosamond in a compromising position with Will Ladislaw, the man Dorothea loves.

Dorothea’s first response is to retreat, literally, to her own home, and also psychologically, into anger and sorrow. But after a long hard night of mournful introspection, she emerges from her “selfish complaining” and, following the novel’s strongest ethical imperative, considers the situation from the other characters’ points of view: “She began now to live through that yesterday morning deliberately again, forcing herself to dwell on every detail and its possible meaning. Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only?” From that refreshed contemplation comes renewed determination:

she said to her own irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful, instead of driving her back from effort.

And what sort of crisis might not this be in three lives whose contact with hers laid an obligation on her as if they had been suppliants bearing the sacred branch?

At the novel’s outset, she was preoccupied with questions about her own life. Her unhappy marriage was a crucible through which her character was tested and strengthened in the service of others. Now, as a result, she is able to turn her attention, not to her own difficult problems, but to theirs: “What should I do — how should I act now, this very day, if I could clutch my own pain, and compel it to silence, and think of those three?” And so, literalizing the novel’s formal pattern of returning to a scene from a different perspective, Dorothea goes once more to visit Rosamond, going herself to answer that “cry from soul to soul.”

Dorothea’s overtures are met at first by resistance. Rosamond expects criticism, not sympathy. She also has a strong protective shell of egotism and little interest, much less practice, in considering how her actions affect other people. Dorothea approaches Rosamond as an equal, however, speaking to her as someone who knows what it is to struggle:

Trouble is so hard to bear, is it not? — How can we live and think that any one has trouble — piercing trouble — and we could help them, and never try?

Rather than insisting on her own moral authority, Dorothea appeals to their common condition, her use of first-person plural pronouns echoing one of the narrator’s key strategies for drawing us into the novel’s moral work as well. Despite her grounds for grievance, she offers her hand in friendship. To do so requires humility, the subordination of her own wounded ego to Rosamond’s needs. This stripping away of the protective coating of vanity (never thick in Dorothea’s case anyway) leaves raw nerves exposed, adult inhibitions and self-conscious reserve undone:

Dorothea, completely swayed by the feeling that she was uttering, forgot everything but that she was speaking from out the heart of her own trial to Rosamond’s. The emotion had wrought itself more and more into her utterance, till the tones might have gone to one’s very marrow, like a low cry from some suffering creature in the darkness. And she had unconsciously laid her hand again on the little hand that she had pressed before.

Eliot’s novels both explicitly and implicitly insist on the value of intellectual effort — knowing, understanding, thinking is essential to the kind of progress they advocate. But at these moments of crisis it is emotion that carries us past our own constraining self-consciousness. Here, Dorothea’s own excitement also affects Rosamond, who for almost the only time in the novel loses her self-control and, “with an overmastering pang, as if a wound within her had been probed, burst into hysterical crying.”

Rosamond might not have given way so quickly if she had not already been traumatized by learning from Will Ladislaw himself that he never imagined himself her lover. This, in fact, was the conversation Dorothea interrupted and misinterpreted as a tryst, and it was “the first great shock that had shattered [Rosamond’s] dream-world.” Still reeling from this blow to her solipsistic view of the world, Rosamond now finds that Dorothea, far from having “a jealous hatred towards her,” comes offering only kindness. Rosamond has the “sense that she had been walking in an unknown world” — which is exactly right, as she had never before seen beyond her own immediate desires to comprehend (as the novel has coached us to do, at this point, for nearly 800 pages) how much more complicated everything is. “What can I do?” has been Rosamond’s version of the novel’s fundamental question, in a subtle but powerful contrast to Dorothea’s earlier “Tell me what I can do.” Now the two women, so different in character and experience, face each other looking “almost childish”; “pride was broken down between these two,” and as the barriers dissolve they can both find and offer solace.

Rosamond is not wholly transformed by this encounter — character may be, as the narrator says, “a process and an unfolding,” but it is also deeply rooted, as the novel emphasizes, in our histories and psychologies. She is profoundly affected by it, though. In the moment, she is moved to offer Dorothea comfort in return, confessing the (to her) embarrassing truth about Will’s feelings: “He has never had any love for me . . . He said yesterday that no other woman existed for him beside you.” And in later years “she never uttered a word in depreciation of Dorothea, keeping in religious remembrance the generosity which had come to her aid in the sharpest crisis of her life.” The novel helps us recognize that no priest could have done more or had a more truly “religious” influence.

Similar transformative moments occur across Eliot’s oeuvre. Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede, for instance, is redeemed by the loving intervention of Dinah Morris, whose visit to Hetty’s prison cell induces Hetty to confess the terrible crime to which she has been driven. “I’m come to be with you, Hetty,” Dinah says to the despairing sinner, “not to leave you — to stay with you — to be your sister to the last”:

Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah’s arms.

They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again. . . . Not a word was spoken. Dinah waited, hoping for a spontaneous word from Hetty, but she sat in the same dull despair, only clutching the hand that held hers and leaning her cheek against Dinah’s. It was the human contact she clung to, but she was not the less sinking into the dark gulf.

Dinah understands her mission in Christian terms, and it’s through prayer that she seeks and offers aid. Prayer is the medium, not the substance, of Dinah’s message, though; while her faith is beautiful in its sincerity, it’s her voice, not God’s, that reaches Hetty:

“Dinah,” Hetty sobbed out, throwing her arms round Dinah’s neck, “I will speak . . . I will tell . . . I won’t hide it any more.”

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie’s sinned-against cousin Lucy brings redemption by the same means:

“Maggie!” the soft voice said. “Lucy!” answered a voice with a sharp ring of anguish in it; and Lucy threw her arms round Maggie’s neck, and leaned her pale cheek against the burning brow. . . .

They sat looking at each other. It seemed as if the interview must end without more speech, for speech was very difficult. Each felt that there would be something scorching in the words that would recall the irretrievable wrong. But soon, as Maggie looked, every distinct thought began to be overflowed by a wave of loving penitence, and words burst forth with a sob.

“God bless you for coming, Lucy.”

The sobs came thick on each other after that.

“Maggie, dear, be comforted,” said Lucy now, putting her cheek against Maggie’s again. “Don’t grieve.”

With a equally simple, loving gesture, Mrs. Bulstrode brings comfort to her disgraced husband in the moment of his deepest despair:

It was eight o’clock in the evening before the door opened and his wife entered. He dared not look up at her. He sat with his eyes bent down, and as she went towards him she thought he looked smaller — he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his which rested on the arm of the chair, and the other on his shoulder, she said, solemnly but kindly —

“Look up, Nicholas.”

He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, “I know;” and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side.

Over and over, Eliot shows us that it’s not an ineffable deity who answers these cries “from soul to soul” but another human being who sits with us in quiet understanding and fellowship. These poignant moments in her novels persuade us of this through the “solvent of feeling”: it is hard to read them and not be, as she hoped, surprised into sympathy.

Truth is one compelling reason to bring us around to this secularized understanding of religion: right understanding is an intrinsic good, one also served by Eliot’s dedication to an unsentimental and analytical realism. But another, even more important, reason is that it returns to us the power — for good and for ill — that she believed we had for centuries wrongly ceded to an imagined deity. “That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been,” she says in Middlemarch’s Finale, “is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life”: this is a call, in part, to acknowledge the unsung but heroic work of history’s unknown multitudes, but it is also a pointed reminder that “the growing good of the world” depends on our own efforts, that we need to abandon the superstitious beliefs that direct our prayers to heaven rather than to earth. That we have only ourselves to depend on is an inspiring but also a somewhat terrifying thought: the moral demands of such a vision are stringent and uncompromising. Our consolation for this burden, and for our inevitable stumbles and failures, lies, as Middlemarch reminds us, in the human capacity for forgiveness and love, which creates moments of unexpected and uplifting grace. Dorothea, for instance, does learn to hear her husband’s heart-beats as well as her own; after “looking into the eyes of death,” Mr. Casaubon finds her waiting to offer the salvation of sympathy:

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.

In moments such as these, our prayers are truly answered.


About the Author:

Originally from Vancouver, Rohan Maitzen has an Honours B.A. in English and History from the University of British Columbia and an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Cornell University. Since 1995, she has been a member of Dalhousie University’s English Department.

  • Bruce

    I wonder how you might compare Mary Garth to Dorothea? It seems to me that Mary is more practical and less enabling. Her regard and respect for Fred is shown by her confidence that he can do better, be more and find himself. Her strength is her patience to hold the relationship at arm’s length until Fred can find peace. She won’t try to find it for him. Dorothea desire to help others is more passionate, more hands on and also broader in scope. Her idealism and Mary’s pragmatism are different approaches to help those in need.

  • Bruce

    In comparing Mary Garth and Dorothea it seems that George Eliot has a firm grasp of economic situations and how people with different backgrounds may view and try to help others. Mary is from a blue collar background. She is sterner, more practical and more realistic. She has observed her father’s struggles. She respects his strength. She thinks Fred just needs to toughin’ up. Dorothea has lead a life of privilege. Her altruism, while genuine, is idealistic. She has no personal experience with hardship. She may even feel guilty and it seems to contribute to her urgency to help others. Ultimately her motives are pure. Eliot could easily identify with Mary because of her childhood. And economically she could also identify with Dorothea because of the financial independence that her career brought. I think that George Eliot sees a bit of herself in both Mary and Dorothea.