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.
Earlier this week I focused on one tiny conversation between Dorothea and Celia, and how much of their personalities it contained. Elsewhere, after describing many of the same differences, the narrator remarks:
To have in general but little feeling, seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion.
Dorothea certainly has a lot of feeling; whether it’s too much is for you to decide. That is, of course, the whole idea of Middlemarch. But one thing I remarked going back through my notes is the unusual amount of attention I had paid to Dorothea’s feelings. I don’t usually find I’ve highlighted such a bunch of emotional stuff, but I think Dorothea sort of goads you into it somehow, feeling as much as she does.
After an early marital confrontation with Mr Casaubon:
I am sorry to add that she was sobbing bitterly, with such abandonment to this relief of oppressed heart as a woman habitually controlled by pride on her own account and thoughtfulness for others will sometimes allow herself when she feels securely alone. …
Yet Dorothea had no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself; and in the midset of her confused thought and passion, the mental act that was struggling forth into clearness was a self-accusing cry that her feeling of desolation was the fault of her own spiritual poverty.
This “girl whose ardent nature turned all her small allowance of knowledge into principles, fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick emotions gave the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or pain” is quick to torture herself, holding herself to such high spiritual standards she can hardly hope to live up to them. It’s not the only time she ends up sobbing bitterly in consequence.
She’s not the only strongly drawn character in the book, but the coherence, the believability of Dorothea’s personality—well, I did mention she was reminding me of myself, so perhaps it’s just that, but Eliot’s psychological insights seem quite penetrating:
It was too early yet for her fully to recognize or at least admit the change, still more for her to have readjusted that devotedness which was so necessary a part of her mental life that she was almost sure sooner or later to recover it. Permanent rebellion, the disorder of a life without some loving reverent resolve, was not possible to her; but she was now in an interval when the very force of her nature heightened its confusion.
And of course, that nature is one that hates being tossed about on these storms of emotion. Here again, Eliot is acute:
She was humiliated to find herself a mere victim of feeling, as if she could know nothing except through that medium: all her strength was scattered in fits of agitation, of struggle, of despondency, and then again in visions of more complete renunciation, transforming all hard conditions into duty. Poor Dorothea! she was certainly troublesome—to herself chiefly….
As you can see, we have quite a lot of direct access to Dorothea’s nature and emotional state. The narrator spends a lot of time with her—much more than with Mr Casaubon, for example. We have a sense we know what she is “really” like. But we also see her through others’ eyes. Almost universally noted as an unusual woman, she is seen by turns as simply peculiar, grand and queenly, foolish and young, doing great and selfless works, and throwing herself away on an old man who doesn’t deserve her. And though many of the people who perceive her in these ways have special insights into bits and pieces of her personality and the choices she has made, none really sees her as we do, sees her struggle with emotion and renunciation and all the rest. Maybe, just maybe, one character does, but if Middlemarch teaches anything it’s that that isn’t terribly likely.
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.
You may have noticed in my sidebar, because heaven knows it sat there long enough (it is long), but I recently re-read Middlemarch. There’s something I don’t like about reading a book over a really long period of time—in this case, about a month. It was pretty much the only book I was reading during that time, but I was busy and generally only getting through a chapter here and there, which makes me feel like I’m not “experiencing” the thing properly. I think I am mostly too hard on myself about that, and besides, this was a re-read for me anyway, which makes everything different.
By pure chance, it was just at the same time the lovely and George Eliot–advocating Rohan Maitzen was introducing her Middlemarch for Book Clubs project that I began my re-read. I hadn’t realized, somehow, that Middlemarch was considered so daunting. After all, I’d first read it as a kid. It was long, sure, and memory was light on plot details, but it was definitely lodged in my mind as a “solid Victorian novel with lots of characters and subplots and general stuff going on.” If Anna Karenina can be an Oprah book… In any case, just flipping through Prof Maitzen’s guide a bit made me pause and think about how really to tackle something this big, and I hope it helped me pay attention to some things I might not have otherwise.
So, anyway, there is a lot in Middlemarch, and certainly a lot written about it as well, which can make blogging seem futile. (That’s when you remember that blogging is for yourself!) Most of my writing on the novel will deal with sympathy, but first I wanted to do a little post on something that just made me enjoy it—the deftness with which Eliot includes characters and groups from a wide range of social classes, interacting with each other in various ways.
For a small, if bustling, town, Middlemarch has quite a number of social strata, although I hesitate to use the term. At the same time as it’s very important to know where you and everyone else fit into this community, those stations are fluid; they change over time and depending on company. Probably the easiest grouping to pick out is the gentry: Mr Brooke and his two nieces, Dorothea and Celia, all living at the beginning of the novel at Tipton Grange; Sir James Chettam and the dowager Lady Chettam, at Freshitt Hall; and Mr Casaubon, the rector at Lowick. This is a small circle, and it certainly does not include all of the rich people in the area. Next are the burghers of the town, the millers and dyers and weavers, the Vincys and Bulstrodes and Plymdales and dozens of other families. There are sublayers here—this one’s wife came from the gentry; that one is really wealthy while the other has been in the red lately; and so on. Professionals like Dr Lydgate pretty much fall into this group as well, although there’s plenty of drama among the various doctors and surgeons in the town upon his arrival to make that a whole grouping unto itself as well. The same goes for the clergy. A family like the Garths is harder to place; they are clearly respectable, but the out-of-door nature of Mr Garth’s work, along with their lack of funds, puts them somewhere a bit different. The tenant farmers are mostly in the background, as are shopkeepers and other lower-class townsfolk, and servants are, of course, always around.
These things are important in all the ways you’d expect, not lead of all for the marriages of many of the characters in the novel. But they can also come through in some less obvious ways. In one of her tips on reading Middlemarch as a book club, Prof Maitzen asks “Why, for instance, do Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate belong in the same book although for most of it they spend very little time in the same plot?” First, this question made me notice how very little time they do spend in the same plot, and I was surprised. Because everything and everyone are interconnected in a million different ways in Middlemarch, when you actually stop and think about how Dorothea hardly ever sees Dr Lydgate, and doesn’t meet his wife for ages and ages, it can be striking. And of course the reason for this is that they are not actually in the same circle; Dorothea’s dealings with Dr Lydgate are entirely professional, whether in her capacity as a patient’s wife or as a philanthropist. Of course she hasn’t met his wife; she is not in the same circle at all. But a professional relationship is still a relationship, and Dorothea attains enough knowledge of Dr Lydgate from this relationship not just to recognize his character as a human being but also to consider it necessary for her to help him when he is in need and she is able. And it’s her very position far outside his circle (and, helpfully, far above it) that allows her to do so. Even if she is, to some extent, mixed up in the same overall problem as Lydgate, she’s distant enough from it to give her credibility, and she’s able to use her social position to spread this credibility far and wide in a way that neither he nor, really, anyone else could have done. One possible answer to the question, then, is that if Dorothea and Dr Lydgate did spend more time together (or were more closely involved in the plot together), there would be no reason for them to be in the same book!
As a side note, I was inspired by Amateur Reader’s recent digging into how rich people really were in Washington Square to do a little of the same research of my own. (I used this converter, which I cannot vouch for at all, so a dollop of salt is indicated.) Dorothea, as a widow, has an income of 2,600 pounds; in her own right, 700. When her uncle protests to her that she simply has no idea what it would be like to live on the 700, he is referring to an amount in the neighborhood of $65,000 today, as opposed to the $243,000 she had been used to. Lydgate, meanwhile, looking for a 1,000-pound loan to pay off his debts, was in want of about $93k. And Mr Brooke is right to a large extent; just like in Washington Square, these characters don’t really know how much things cost. Lydgate ends up in debt because not only can he not say no to his wife, but he himself has never really thought about money before, much less budgeted. While Dorothea is unquestionably willing to live on the lesser amount, and certainly intelligent enough to make it work, I have no doubt she doesn’t really know yet what that would be like. And Mr Brooke himself is just as bad—he seems to have plenty of funds, but ends up spending much more than he means to in improving his estate and running for parliament.
George Eliot’s 1859 novella The Lifted Veil has, like Amos Barton before it, renewed my interest in getting back into Eliot’s long works—though hopefully it won’t be another two years before I finally move on that. Here, the themes are among my favorites: the problems of sympathy and understanding other people.
The narrator, Latimer, has laid his tale down for posterity in part because he’s never told a living soul anything about his real inner life. “I have never fully unbosomed myself to any human being; I have never been encourage to trust much in the sympathy of my fellow-men,” he tells us. But while he has never unbosomed himself, his fellow-men have, albeit unknowingly. As a young man, Latimer began to suffer from the strange condition of being able to read other people’s thoughts. And most of the people he spent time around didn’t think very positively of him at all.
At the same time as this condition develops, Latimer meets Bertha Grant, the ward of a family friend who will soon be engaged to Latimer’s older brother. Mysteriously, Latimer cannot read Bertha at all, and this fact makes her unsurpassably attractive to him. Into her coy, coquettish behavior he infers a special playful sympathy, and he has a vision—he is sometimes also clairvoyant—of them married. But in this vision, he can read her thoughts, and they are not pleasant. Still, he can’t help loving her and is determined to marry her:
Behind the slim girl Bertha, whose words and looks I watched for, whose touch was bliss, there stood continually that Bertha with the fuller form, the harder eyes, the more rigid mouth—with the barren, selfish soul laid bare; no longer a fascinating secret, but a measured fact, urging itself perpetually on my unwilling sight. Are you unable to give me your sympathy—you who read this? Are you unable to imagine this double consciousness at work within me, flowing on like two parallel streams which never mingle their waters and blend into a common hue?
Eliot takes on this subject from a different angle than many of my favorite writers and their works: instead of the desperate struggle to understand our fellow beings, Latimer is in a desperate struggle not to understand them. “So absolute is our own soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between,” Latimer avers. The Lifted Veil is a reminder that familiarity breeds contempt, and that a certain something must be left to the imagination.
The Sad Fortunes of the Revd Amos Barton was, according to its introduction, George Eliot’s “first work of narrative fiction”—a novella really, not a novel.
The Revd Amos Barton is the curate in a small English town, and as always a central feature of the small English town is its gossip. Gossip is one of our main sources of information, even though we also have the benefit of an omniscient first-person narrator, who himself (herself?) grew up in the town. That narrator is telling us about the past, and to do so, zaps us into the drawing room (or whatever) of some local personality (e.g., “Mrs Patten, a childless old lady, who had gotten rich chiefly by the negative process of spending nothing”), sets the scene in the present tense (e.g., “the home-made muffins glisten with an inviting succulence”), and then give us the dirt:
‘So,’ said Mr Pilgrim, with his mouth only half empty of muffin, ‘you had a row in Shepperton Church last Sunday. I was at Jim Hood’s, the bassoon-man’s, this morning, attending his wife, and he swears he’ll be revenged on the parson—a confounded, methodistical, meddlesome chap who must be putting his finger in every pie. What was it all about?’
I found it all very effective. Almost every chapter brings us to a new house, full of chatty country folk tucking into tea with cream (I want to try this, now, but Eliot tells me I need to experience it with freshly skimmed cream). It’s February, so it’s cold, and they’re all sitting round fires. It’s so pleasant. Once in a while we find out they aren’t quite accurate in their rumor-mongering (Barton’s father “was not a shoemaker, as Mr Pilgrim had reported,” but a cabinet-maker), but we have that omniscient narrator to tell us all that.
I read Middlemarch ages ago, in high school, and I remember really liking it but don’t remember Eliot being quite as funny as she is here (probably only an issue with my memory). Hesperus liked this part so much they excerpted some of it for the back cover:
And, after all, the Revd Amos never came near the borders of a vice. His very faults were middling—he was not very ungrammatical. It was not in his nature to be superlative in anything; unless, indeed, he was superlatively middling, the quintessential extract of mediocrity. If there was any one point on which he showed an inclination to be excessive, it was confidence in his own shrewdness and ability in practical matters, so that he was very full of plans which were something like his moves in chess—admirably well calculated, supposing the state of the case were otherwise.
That last is a really awesome Victorian smack. I want to use it.
Which brings us to another point: the ridiculous mediocrity of Amos Barton. Everything we hear about him is a bit disappointing, in that none of it makes him sound very interesting or very much worth feeling bad about the “sad fortunes” of. He’s homely, balding, middle aged—“even the smallpox that has attacked [his face] seems to have been of a mongrel, indefinite kind.” He dresses badly, speaks badly, spells badly, preaches badly. His theology is a little questionable, along with not exactly being popular among his parishioners. Don’t hold your breath for some redeeming quality, though as the grieving widower the Revd appears a bit better.
That is not to say that Barton is particularly bad either, just mediocre, and certainly Eliot found it more profitable to focus most of the story on the two women surrounding him instead: his wife, Milly, and the Countess. Both of them much more generally superlative, even if the Countess isn’t nearly as romantic a personage as the townsfolk suspect. Barton almost feels invisible compared with these women—and all the others, too, Mrs Hackit, Mrs Patten, Nanny, even little Patty. They are all more substantial in their actions and feelings. We hardly hear anything out of the Revd Amos other than the preaching and the scolding of the workhouse residents. Not exactly endearing.
But then the other men are more substantial too, when I think about it. Even the one scene with the roomful of clergymen sniping at each other made them more real and personal than Barton.