We’ve noticed that Eliot sees pride as the most dangerous human quality. In Book 5 she doesn’t limit her attack to foolish pride; she takes on ambition itself. But the real power of Book 5 comes from complex confused emotions …
This was perhaps Mona's most ambitious commentary yet, and as always, it was well worth the wait dropping into our email boxes late on Sunday afternoon. I know I speak for everyone on this thread, both for those who are reading her comments as we proceed now, and for future readers who may be dropping in on this running narrative years from now.... Thank you, Mona. Thank you for taking the time to help us appreciate this masterpiece even more. Reading your thoughts and insights is a highlight of the week, a nourishing gift we can count on to help us resist the sweet urge to read on ahead before we have digested your thoughts about what we've read in the previous chapter.
The issue of pride keeps resurfacing over and over in Middlemarch, as well as the human need to compare ourselves to others in the hopes of recognizing some higher status in ourselves (material, spiritual, intellectual, etc.). It continues to be a disturbing look in the mirror, an intriguing dissertation on these topics, a surgical dissection of the reality behind the reality. And yet -- somehow -- I failed to appreciate the religious pride that Dorothea has manifested until Mona pointed it out. How we are conditioned in this world to put a halo around the heads of those who appear to be self sacrificing and only seemingly interested in the good of others! This is not to bring our saints down a peg (unless their pride is false or infringes on other people as we see in the form of hypocrites like Casaubon and Bullstrode); it simply opens our eyes as to one of the possible motivations that may drive some of our most noble souls in this world. Maybe pride doesn't have to be all that bad. Just ask Ayn Rand.
One of the areas Mona has not touched on yet, but it interests me as a writer, is the choice of names that Eliot chose for many of her characters. Are some of these names perhaps a tad too obvious? Farebrother, an authentic religious figure seemingly free of prideful sin shows us what real love is all about, most touchingly when he learns of Fred's love for Mary and abandons his own affections for her. Is he just being "fair," or has his former card playing and the endowment provided by Dorothea paid the "fare" for him to become even more of an iconic Vicar? What about Bullstrode, headstrong in his religious views like a "bull," or is that he is full of "bull" as his sudden deference to Raffles' blackmail unveils itself? How about the always rambling Mr. Brooke, who meanders about like his namesake? The examples are everywhere. These are just a few of the most obvious associations.
The scene where Mr. Brooke delivers his speech, only to be lampooned by a rival, was another masterful sequence that struck me as powerfully as the death scene for Peter Featherstone (another name that conjures up associations between his lightweight soul and his heavyweight materialistic possessions that proved worthless as he departed this world). Eliot portrays so many of the vagaries of politics with such precision: the importance of timing in the rise of a candidate; the somewhat tarnished value systems of many of those who vie for power; the importance of campaign managers behind the scenes who may be the real "brains" behind a candidate; the "dirty pool" that is played to gain an advantage with the fickle, voting masses. Has anything changed more than a century later? Afraid not (or so it would seem).
We are heading to the finish line. I hate to think it will end. Onward we march through Middlemarch, to Book Six!
There are lots of good and interesting comments here - I just want to pick up on one small paragraph which intrigued me, it does nothing for the plot, and my suspicion is (that its purpose is) that Eliot wanted to ensure that her female readers understood just how attractive Will was, compared to any other man in Dorothea's circle. It is in chapter 46 when she is describing Will's habit of rambling: 'He had a fondness, half artistic, half affectionate, for little children - the smaller they were on tolerably active legs, and the funnier their clothing, the better Will liked to surprise and please them...This troop he led out on gypsy excursions to Halsell Wood at nutting-time...and improvised a Punch-and-Judy drama with some private home-made puppets.' It's quite clear that this is seen as odd behaviour in Middlemarch: but it certainly twangs my heartstrings!
One thing George Eliot does so well is writing a character marching to their inevitable doom, where you the reader know exactly what is going to happen, and everyone around the character seems to know what is happening, but there is nothing to be done because the character is set on this path and won't be moved. We saw that with Fred Vincy and his ridiculous horse-trading scheme that meant he couldn't repay Caleb Garth, and now it's poor Lydgate's turn.
Poor Lydgate. He had such wonderful ambitions but it's already clear that nothing will come of it. He's married someone completely unsuitable to him, gotten himself into debt, alienated half of Middlemarch, and hitched his horse to a carriage that is very clearly headed for the cliff (Bulstrode). He's happy now, but it's very clear to the audience (and to his few friends like Mr Farebrother) that he is headed for doom.
Lydgate's biggest problem is his pride, especially his prideful assumption that everyone will naturally think the same way he does. He doesn't understand that to the people of Middlemarch, social norms are more important than what's medically necessary (it's a question how much they even understand what medical necessity is) and his disregard for these norms alienates a good part of the town. Had he played the social game a bit more subtly, he maybe wouldn't have gotten in hot water with half the town.
His marriage is a big illustration of this fact. The narrator emphasizes that Lydgate still doesn't realize that he and Rosamund are fundamentally unsuited, that she is a very different person with very different interests from him and that this difference will drive them into trouble. He just assumes that she thinks the same way he does, the same way that he did at the beginning of their courtship when he assumed that she also looked at their dalliance as a flirtation with no meaning, without having any thought to the fact that her feelings might be different—and the fact that as a woman, her position is very different when courting than his is. Had he maybe thought of that earlier, he would have measured his affections and not hurtled into a marriage.
The really tragic part? Lydgate is usually RIGHT. It's clear that the other doctors in Middlemarch don't know what they're doing, and to Eliot's audience in the 1860s, let alone to us, it's obvious that the "medicine" they prescribe is the real quackery. He's a good doctor. He's right that he shouldn't have to go through these social rigmaroles, being polite to the doctors just because they've been here longer even though they're wrong. He's perceptive when it comes to his field. It stuck out to me that after Casaubon's death, he was the one that advised Dorothea to jump back into work handling his affairs, perceiving "she was likely now to feel herself only in another sort of pinfold than that from which she had been released." He barely knows Dorothea, yet he realizes that she's been repressing her true nature for so long and what she needs is to let herself be free and passionate, not sitting quietly, something that her friends and family who've known her for her whole life didn't pick up on. (Side note: this chapter really drives home that Dorothea is a better person than I am because if I'd been freshly widowed at 21 and my sister thought the best way to make me get over it was to show off her own domestic bliss I would have probably drop-kicked her baby out the window).
Lydgate is right, but in the rigid world of Middlemarch, that's not enough. He's right, but he doesn't know the right way to go about sharing that he's right, and he's hurtling to his doom. He thought being in a small town would make his career better than London, but didn't realize he'd have to play small town games. It's going to be a great loss for Lydgate—and an even greater loss for the people of Middlemarch, although they don't know it. You could have had a world-class hospital by 1830s standards, dang it!
I caught myself during this section getting frustrated and thinking, "great that we don't live in those times anymore," but that's not true, is it? People are still prideful. People let their pride get in the way of good sense, people still judge others based on social prejudices and superstition instead of sense. That massage of Middlemarch townspeople making fun of Lydgate's methods and saying they know better wouldn't have been out of place on an internet forum during COVID times for example. Considering Eliot was also writing a historical novel when it was published, I imagine this is intentional. Don't think you're so much better than people in the past, because we haven't made as much progress as we may think.
One last thing, although my comments tend to be longer than Mona's essays: I don't understand anyone who says classic novels are boring because I gasped out loud at that last chapter in this section. The drama! You do have to read through some lengthy sentences to get there, but once these doorstoppers get going the twists start coming.
Thanks for noticing the business about Tantripp and for all of your fine observations! Chapter 48 is, to me at least, the climax of the entire novel. The writing approaches catharsis. Justice is rendered, Casaubon gets the death he in some way deserves, and he is seen at his most horrible, wishing to place a kind of curse or imprecation on Dorothea's future. And yet, and yet, it is also an account of the death of a human being whom Dorothea loves. The moment where she comes on him "seated on the bench, close to a stone table," here the writing has become elemental, we get a break from Eliot's frequent abstract polysyllables. "His arms were resting on the table, and his brow was bowed down on them, the blue cloak being dragged forward and screening his face on each side." Then I find incredibly moving (others may not-I greatly value the variety of responses this discussion generates) her call to him. "I am come, Edward; I am ready." Perhaps a hint of allusion to Hamlet's "the readiness is all" but bother me and my allusions. The scene, as a whole, is an instance of mercy. She is on the verge of promising away her future, but mercifcully he is dead, and the promise is nullified, falling on deaf (dead) ears. Still, the chapter is not over. We are told, "Later in the day, Lydgate was seated by her bedside, and she was talking deliriously, thinking aloud, and recalling what had gone through her mind the night before." What are we to say about this? Dorothea is raving mad, but Eliot avoids any gothic coloration. Emily Bronte might have given us a raving monologue, but Eliot reins it in. Still, her delirium in grief is a testimony to the depth of her love for Casaubon, yes, I'm afraid so, however ill-chosen a mate he has turned out to be. Here is manifested George Eliot's extraordinary humanity. Casaubon approaches evil in his malice towards Dorothea's happiness, and yet he is a human being after all and Dorothea loves him still. Otherwise, I can make no sense of the extremity of her grief.
I like Mona's phrase, "a problem of misplaced pride."
You don't even have to visit a barn full of out-of-print books to know that there are lots of books that won't stand the test of time, probably more that won't than will! The task is daunting but it is all in the effort, that makes it worthwhile. I think. And books have a way of sticking around and getting found over and over.
After reading the part about Dorothea's clothes compared to Rosamond's I had to look up "pelisse" as well as "poke" hat - some the images of the latter online are really quite frightening. Even so, we understand that Dorothea has no thought of her appearance (hard to believe, but okay) while Rosamond uses fancy clothes to attract attention to herself.
Dorothea is rather annoyingly burdened by her wealth and can't get rid of it fast enough while Rosamond rather annoyingly pretends as she has always been allowed to do that money does not exist and sincerely believes that things should come to her because she needs them for being so beautiful.
But Rosamond's husband is not that much fun and is hardly ever at home.
In the meantime Will has washed up on her rug, but he's only got eyes for someone else.
I think we are starting to see that sexual compatibility is not a straightforward matter .. Lydgate should have the hots for Dorothea, surely, but does not. She's not his type, after all.
Should Rosamond have gotten together with Sir James? Or is she too low class for him? Have they ever even set eyes on one another?
We keep seeing Dorothea at different moments in her realization of who Casaubon is and what she is doing with him. "She could understand well enough now why her husband had come to cling to her as possibly the only hope left that his labours would ever take a shape in which they could be given to the world." Whoa. She has lost faith in the work and the work was what justified (she thought) the marriage.
Is it very strange that a whole scene the night before Casaubon dies takes place in their bedroom? much of it with them in bed side by side?
And that previously Eliot refers to Casaubon's work as "a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child"?
I think I can hear what she is trying to tell us.
Dorothea is exhausted with her inner struggles.
Casaubon is also exhausted with his, and with the struggle he has determined to continue beyond the grave with his wife.
It has been and is all very horrible.
Where is the doctor with some meds?? I'm feeling kind of exhausted too!
I don't quite know where I land on all of this so take my wonderings and feel free to chime in.
I find Casaubon's request to Dorothea repulsive, selfish, and clueless, like I think many of us do. It made me wonder what I would do if it were me, today. I'm ashamed to say I might agree and then "work" on it an hour or so a month after Casaubon's death. Clearly, Dorothea would have poured her whole life into it, hence, her dilemma in responding.
But, I wonder if, as a society, we've lost something by not honoring dying wishes. We would be very quick to say "Boundaries!". That is my response too. But, again, I wonder if we've lost something in our quest for boundaries that keeps us from honoring dying people. Does anyone even leave dying wishes anymore?
I've wrapped myself around the axle on this for an entire week so I'd be glad to hear your thoughts. What would you have done? Are dying wishes ever appropriate or are they generally as selfish as Casaubon's?
And, like others, I check my emails all day on Sundays and am delighted when Mona's email arrives. Thank you, Mona.
Thanks, Mona, for this long, thoughtful post. I hadn't thought about the names--Babbling Brooke! Great point, Doug. And young Will is emasculated by a dead man's will. Will he get what he wants? I am on tenterhooks. I think the only instance of love so far is when Will leaves Dorothea to spare her the loss of money and reputation.
I was enraged by Casaubon's demand that Dorothea swear to obey his will. That he denied her the right to know what she was to vow, felt cruel. Blind obedience is amoral, since it does not involve choice. She prides herself on her capacity to make moral decisions.
Does anyone know how to load a photo into comments? I think it is not possible? I wanted to share my vision of Will L.
I think you are right, she probably would have frightened him! Which is an interesting comment on Lydgate, now I think about it.
Hi Middlemarch commenters! I was traveling last week and didn’t make it into the comments. Better late than never! Wouldn’t it be great if people checked in in the future as they discover Middlemarch...?