More Middlemarch: Who is Mr Casaubon?

My favorite point among Prof Maitzen’s tips for aspiring book-club Middlemarchers is this one, worth quoting in full (emphasis in original):

As you read, keep in mind that one of the most important ideas behind both the plot and the form of Middlemarch is that things look different from different points of view. (A great early example is the number of different perspectives we get on Mr. Casaubon.) This is a simple enough idea but it has significant consequences for the novels’ characters (who often aren’t very good at imagining how the world looks to other people), for us as readers (and as human beings), and for the form of the novel: once you take this idea really seriously, you’ll stop asking why the novel is so long and start thinking that it should have been even longer.

Mr Casaubon is an early and also an easy example, because he’s so polarizing. Undeniably respectable, he still provokes wide-ranging reactions from other characters. Celia, Dorothea’s younger and more conventional sister, is more focused on “[h]ow very ugly Mr. Casaubon is!” While Dorothea considers him “one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw” (not, of course, actually a contradiction to Celia’s statement). The sisters, as such, bicker both amusingly and revealingly about the subject:

“He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets.”

“Had Locke those two white moles with hairs on them?”

“Oh, I dare say! when people of a certain sort looked at him,” said Dorothea, walking away a little.

“Mr. Casaubon is so sallow.”

“All the better. I suppose you admire a man with the complexion of a cochon de lait.”

“I wonder you show temper, Dorothea.”

“It is so painful in you, Celia, that you will look at human beings as if they were merely animals with a toilet, and never see the great soul in a human’s face.”

“Has Mr. Casaubon a great soul?” Celia was not without a touch of naive malice.

“Yes, I believe he has,” said Dorothea, with the full voice of decision. “Everything I see in him corresponds to his pamphlet on Biblical Cosmology.”

“He talks very little,” said Celia.

“There is no one for him to talk to.”

There are plenty of other characters who express other opinions of Casaubon, but for now I’m going to stick just to this seemingly superficial sororal exchange. Clearly, Prof Maitzen’s point above would seem to deal chiefly with the “sympathy” issues that are on my mind, but we have even more than that here. Eliot gets a lot done in this little quarrel. So much that it’s hard to organize: I’m going to try going line by line, from what I’ve quoted.

First, we have a bit of character development for Dorothea: she goes gaga over some pretty, let’s called them “rarefied,” looks—and personality types. She has a crush on someone who reminds her of Locke, basically; I’m not sure I can put it more plainly than the bare facts.

Celia, meanwhile, is playful, and also down-to-earth (or, if you want to put it in the least charitable light, base). And she certainly seems like the more normal for a teenage girl, whether for better or for worse.

Dorothea, we can see, is much more serious-minded, and would rather walk away than joke about such a reverend personage. When Celia keeps at it, this seriousness turns arch, and we learn that Dorothea does indeed have a temper, rather a biting one. This is something Celia disapproves of; Celia is always lovingly gentle (to her friends) and sisterly (and wifely and motherly).

From the “great soul” portion of the exchange, we confirm that Dorothea has a crush on Locke (and Milton, ugh!), and that Celia doesn’t think her sister knows everything in the world. Dorothea, in fact, seems a bit gullible (“everything I see in him corresponds to his pamphlet”), while Celia is again the one with her feet on the ground, simply noting the lack of evidence in any direction about Mr. Casaubon’s soul. But Dorothea is quite ready with an excuse for the Great Soul.

At the end of the exchange, we have learned much, but we have also created new questions. We certainly don’t know, after this, what Mr. Casaubon is actually like; and if we’re paying attention we should probably assume we know even less than we thought we did. Especially if we listen to Celia, as I think we should (remembering always, of course, that “he talks very little” means simply “he talks very little”). It’s almost something of a curiosity how little we ever come to know Mr. Casaubon; the narrator spends precious little time actively with him, and if the form of Middlemarch teaches us anything it is that we are constantly misinterpreting each other’s actions and words, and even a variety of second-hand knowledge is worth much less than any first-hand scrap. As a reader, I certainly have my opinions of Mr. Casaubon’s character, but I diligently remind myself that I may as well be just another Middlemarch housewife, building fantasies on top of teatime gossip.

3 comments to More Middlemarch: Who is Mr Casaubon?

  • Rohan Maitzen

    I am really enjoying your Middlemarch posts! This is a great dialogue, isn’t it? It’s wonderful how specific the tone and language is for each of the characters in the novel. It’s so interesting the way Celia here is, as you say, the one with her feet on the ground, and then for the next several hundred pages we learn how wrong Dorothea’s more inspired interpretation is. And yet is it really better to be right but in a narrow way, like Celia, or is there something about Dorothea’s error that we admire, despite its negative consequences? I love Mrs Cadwallader’s comments on Mr Casaubon.

  • OK, I know I keep saying it but I will get to Middlemarch. Maybe next year. (I keep saying that, too.)

    One of the first book blogs I started reading was one called “Reading Middlemarch” and I doubt I’ll forget her comment about this conversation and posting Kneller’s portrait of Locke: “Not exactly my type” and “essentially death warmed over”. Well, it’s definitely one point of view.

  • Rohan—Thanks! It’s more than flattering coming from you, since you must read a lot about this book! I definitely agree with you about admiring Dorothea’s error. The first time I read this, I had an impression of the novel as very pro-Dorothea (certainly more than it actually is); this time around, that impression still crept up on me, but I was aware of a lot more evidence against it. But she is hard not to admire!

    Dwight—That’s great. Dorothea’s fantasies about Milton are even better, though—she thinks she would have loved to be one of Milton’s long-suffering daughters, taking dictation from an angry old man. That one really cracked me up.