Is the morality of Middlemarch appalling?

As a child, I had a reasonable amount of exposure to, if not very good instruction in, Christianity and its texts. One story I didn’t understand until very recently (as in, a couple months ago when the consumption partner finally explained it to me) was that of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Chances are good that you know it: a man has two sons, the younger asks for his share of the estate in advance, then goes away and squanders the cash. Destitute, he returns home and is welcomed by his father, who “said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”

The older son, who’s been home and working hard the whole time, isn’t very happy about this. He refuses to party with the rest of the household, eventually yelling at his dad, “‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’”

Despite knowing now that the point of the story (again, according to the CP) is something like, “God’s reward is equal for everyone,” my only reaction is the same: this shit is completely unfair. And when my man told me this, I immediately shouted back, “Then it’s just like the other one that makes no sense about the workers in the vineyard!” That parable, Matthew 20:1-16, is somewhat less well known, but the gist is that a vineyard owner hires people at different times to do different amounts of work but pays them all the same amount of money.

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Surely you’ve heard the last line, and far be it from me to say the landowner shouldn’t be allowed to pay whatever he wants to whomever he wants, but the point remains that it is completely unfair. And the reason it was impossible for me to understand these stories as religious texts was that I could not see them as anything other than immoral. The prodigal son’s older brother gets completely screwed and his father is a horrible person—no wonder I thought I didn’t “get” it. What I didn’t get was Christian morality.

Which brings me to the actual point at hand, Rohan Maitzen’s excellent essay in this month’s Open Letters Monthly on George Eliot, Middlemarch, and what she characterizes as a “kind of…terrifying” moral philosophy. Eliot may have been a free-thinker, but the morality she develops in her work is a decidedly Christian one. When I wrote about Middlemarch last summer, I didn’t focus overmuch on the sympathy question (except a bit here), which is the key theme of both the novel and Prof. Maitzen’s essay.

Dorothea Brooke and her sad marriage to Mr. Casaubon figure prominently in the piece, in which Maitzen shows how Eliot uses the narrative to forward the moral lessons of sympathy. Late in the novel, it’s clear that Casaubon is near death, and we have seen him from his own point of view as well as Dorothea’s (and those of the other characters in the novel):

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.

For Eliot, it is precisely the idea of offering compassion and sympathy to the unworthy—because we are all fallen and flawed and imperfect and thus unworthy—that is the height of morality. But let me repeat: Mr. Casaubon is unworthy. Eminently unworthy. So far below Dorothea on the scale of goodness and worthiness it is not even funny. Maitzen goes on to point out in this specific instance how Eliot’s morality leads to an uncomfortable place:

[T]he 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”….

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.

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?

My response is: it’s not. Just because no one is perfect does not mean everyone is equally imperfect. Eliot’s moral philosophy can feel uplifting in the same way many people find Christian morality uplifting; forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it is graceful. But dessert exists, even if we humans are not always able to get it exactly right. If “Eliot’s morality…is a trap in which the saint rather than the sinner is most likely to suffer,” I’m going to go ahead and say she is wrong. And I would also dispute Maitzen’s defense that “the purpose of ethics is to make us do good, not feel good.” I believe that, but who is to say that giving kindness and happiness to a certified asshole is in any way doing good? It seems, in fact, that to someone who holds altruism as a good in itself, it is more likely to make you feel good while doing wrong. Dorothea feels noble and moral for submitting herself to her awful husband, and Dr. Lydgate feels the same way about submitting himself to his awful wife. In their own cases, they are too legally tied to these people to get away, so it makes some amount of rational sense that they must go along to get along. But their spouses are worse than they are, and Eliot’s morality is concerned far more with altruistic compassion than with justice (or, let’s be real, rationality). If Eliot’s doctrine seems to have “potentially appalling results,” it is at least in part because it is severely unjust.

It’s important to remember, of course, as Maitzen discusses toward the end of the piece, that most people are not the Dorothea Brookes of the world, and I would never claim to be so. Humility, civility, and kindness go a long way. But the idea that “[t]hose 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” also fails to appeal. Justice and fairness are just more my bag. I won’t say I don’t like Middlemarch and find it very persuasive. Insofar as it admonishes people to be kind to each other, especially people who are in relationships and are supposed to love each other, I think it’s right on—but that’s only part of what it’s doing. It’s also telling you to sacrifice yourself on an altar built by assholes, just because. Even Middlemarch needs an authorial “miraculous intervention” in order for this morality not to appear evil and appalling. I’m going to take that as a sign.

4 comments to Is the morality of Middlemarch appalling?

  • Rohan

    Nicole, what a great and thought-provoking response! I think the best place to start, to work out a response in my turn, would be with the pier-glass passage, which suggests that to make any sense of things at all, we can’t remove the candle (or self) altogether. Maybe Dorothea’s subjugation to Casaubon is not the right answer not (just) because it’s unjust but because altruism is not an unqualified good. My feeling is not so much that Eliot thinks Dorothea ought to submit to Casaubon but that (at this point in the novel, anyway) Dorothea can’t see any moral alternative. When she accepts Will at the end, she finally asserts her right to some kind of happiness, a claim to something for herself. In that sense, Will is a force for good — and, not coincidentally, he’s the character most likely to stand up for justice too.

    Justice is such a tricky subject in GE’s fiction: calling for it maybe comes too class to standing on principle or on what she refers to in The Mill on the Floss as “maxims” — is the concern that we risk losing sight of individual cases in their full complexity if we stand on an abstraction? Yet her novels are awfully good at making us feel the ache of injustice. More to think about – thank you!

  • Rohan

    “comes too CLOSE,” of course, not “too class.” Oh, for the ability to (a) proofread better the first time and/or (b) get in and correct typos in comments!

  • Hanna

    Well, it’s hard for me because it would become a highly theological dispute.
    First of all – the owner of the vineyard is not unfair. The wages he offers for the whole day of working in the vineyard are (according to historians) far more than generous. So everyone in this story gets way more than they really deserve. Everyone is paid in abundance.
    And when you look at it theologically it’s only right. I mean what should the other ones get? Some sort of half-salvation? Worse quality? No. They get the same stuff. And the people who really love God and their neighbour rejoice (at least in the Bible. More happines out of one sinner who repents, because the alternative would be too frightening to consider). This is exactly what the father says in the parable of prodigal son – he’s alive where he could be lost altogether to a horrible fate and that’s why we celebrate, not because we love him more than you [older brother]. Everything I have is already yours anyway.
    People being people try to put limits to Gods mercy, forgiveness and generosity.
    The parable of prodigal son should actually be called the Parable of the Older Brother, because it is the brother who gets a lesson here (the parable is told to pharisees, who are appalled, that sinners get some attention from God, that sinners COULD have access to salvation). In my opinion the older brother stayed with the father and followed his duties as a son, outlined and expected by society not because he loved his father, but because it was expected of him and he was afraid to disobey because of looming punishment. If one’s motivation is such – one WANTS to see sinners punished because it sort of justifies one’s own choice. If God behaves so unexpectedly and forgives they self-righteous ones go berserk. The older brother says even “that son of yours”. He doesn’t consider him a brother anymore.
    And this is the sin both Dorothea and Lydgate are guilty of.
    It’s more visible in Lydgate, who openly considers himself better than other “common” people. Dorothea’s case is more complicated. (Partly because of the way Eliot constructs her character – she’s always on Dorothea’s side. In a way Dorothea is a Mary Sue of Middlemarch). Dorothea is not even a saint anymore, she’s an angel in training, even her weaknesses and errors are proof of her superior (if slightly inexperienced) nature. And I’m afraid she does consider herself better than others (Celia for example). Dorothea’s very sin in my opinion is bringing the morality you talk about to the extreme. When dying Casaubon asks her to commit her life to his work and she agrees – that’s a sin for me. No moral obligation is on her to commit to work, which she knows is dead. No social obligation lies on her. Her own soul rebels against it. And yet – Dorothea is ready to follow it. I’m afraid it’s only to satisfy the standards she set to satisfy – not even God – but her own image of herself as saint(does it even make sense?)

  • Hanna—It makes sense that it becomes a theological dispute for you, because a big part of my argument is that Eliot is basically laying a different underpinning for the same moral philosophy that Christians already shared.

    When I was writing about the two parables, note that I was writing about my reaction to them without thinking the vineyard owner or father in the story was supposed to be identified with God. I actually did not know this until recently. If an earthly father treated his two sons so differently, I think many (though certainly not all) people would think that was unfair. Why should a father be glad his son is back when the son is a bad person? Other than the irrationality of parental emotion, of course—but that itself is not “fair.” The father’s actions also incentivize what many would characterize as bad or destructive behavior: if that’s how you could expect your father to treat you, you would be an idiot not to go out and spend everything you have on hookers and blow, coming home when you ran out of cash. Of course, if everyone did that, the father probably wouldn’t have a fatted calf left to give you when you came crawling back. Basically, it’s the opposite of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant.

    And your point about Dorothea being “not even a saint…[but] an angel in training” is also important. If you think of the prodigal son’s father as God, He has infinite mercy (and infinite fatted calves). But real people don’t. Forgiving Casaubon for everything he does has costs for Dorothea, but as an angel in training she feels she must ignore those costs, however high they may be. Eliot, I think, would like to ignore some of those costs to real people (why she has to introduce her own miracles, for example). She illustrates that forgiveness and mercy are difficult, but seems to posit that there is some level at which we can simply sublimate that problem the same way God might be able to.

    Rohan—All very good points. And perhaps a good point about why I disagree with Eliot to some extent; I will have to keep it in mind if I get back to finishing The Mill on the Floss.

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