Imagine the pressure of falling in love, becoming engaged, and then marrying in a matter of weeks. So much anticipating happiness hinging on the single wedding night is bound to disappoint more frequently than we’d like to admit.
Thinking about how Eliot is emphasizing how little is happening to Dorothea—she barely gets out in Rome, the "stifling oppression" of her forced indolence back in Lowick—and yet she undergoes these big internal shifts. By the end of Book Three it seems like she is finding her big project: Caring for a husband who will be, not a titanic leader, but a helpless invalid, whose own ego needs to be protected along with his failing organs. Also noticing how Eliot structures these books—which came out serially, like episodes of big TV shows!—around cliffhangers. She picks us up in the middle of Fred's debt emergency ("we have seen"), weaving us back into the story, and then drops us off with sudden turns: Rosamond and Lydgate's engagement, Casaubon's collapse, the death of Featherstone and the mystery of the will.
I've been reading it too! Let's do an event!
An important theme of Book Three ("Waiting for Death") is the awakening or deepening of conscience. Mrs. Garth makes Fred "feel for the first time something like the tooth of remorse." For Lydgate, it is "a helpless quivering which touched him quite newly," a moment of naturalness like a feather-touch, making Rosamund his inescapable reality. Mary's difficult decision gives her pangs of conscience presumably. And above all, we have Dorothea's realization that she had in her anger helped bring on Casaubon's fit. This comes across in her discussion with Lydgate: "Dorothea sat as if she had been turned to marble, though the life within her was so intense that her mind had never before swept in brief time over an equal range of scenes and motives." I also love the part where she turns to Lydgate "Oh, you are a wise man, are you not? You know all about life and death..." The tone here is almost like Lear turning to Edgar on the Heath, asking the cause of thunder. Eliot speaks of a cry from soul to soul.
Reading Mona’s comments this week, and Ann’s new response to my comments from last week, and all I can say is, “Wow!” There is so much to be gained by checking into this thread and following along with the readings each week. Thank you, Mona and Ann, for taking the time to share your thoughts. Your contributions are very much appreciated.
Last week I was protesting about some of the book’s long narratives, and Eliot’s tendency to look at key situations from every angle. This week I learned "why." Instead of continuing to be a repellent, I found myself drawn into the story now with emotional attachments I rarely hold for fictional characters. The illness of Fred Vincy? OMG Heartbreaking. Lyndgate’s call to serve the house of Sir James Chetam? A really exciting prospect. Mary Garth’s admonitions about Fred’s lack of contribution to the world and insensitivity to all but himself? What a missive we should all think long and hard about. The revelations go on and on. The bricks Eliot mortared into place paragraph by paragraph have built a monument to the ages.
The issue of social standing was again thrust before me this week. Eliot has given me more of the awareness and vocabulary to address an issue that has not been at the forefront of my mind for long, even though I may be dimly conscious of it at times. There is a social hierarchy running through almost everything, if you take a moment to analyse most social encounters. For the moment I have become sensitized to my own desires for similar standing with friend and relationships, and to the feeling I get from more “successful” friends (in terms of career, monetary accomplishment, publications, etc.), that their time is somehow more valuable than my own. What to do with this momentary awareness, before I lapse back into the blind routines and actions of life (or is this a permanent reality template)? Probably not much, but boy oh boy, it’s like that Great White shark prowling the beach that you never see or think about just below the surface of the waves. If the movie Jaws made you think twice about swimming at the beach, the book Middlemarch makes you think twice about the social constructions of class and where you fit into them.
I can see something of myself in Mr. Casaubon when it comes to writing a book. Quivering, afraid to commit something to writing for fear it will be criticised. It makes me want to stick to my plot lines and the points I want to make and just write it for myself — to hell with the critics. I don’t need to go back and keep editing over and over and never finishing because it’s never going to be perfect. Criticism will come no matter what we write, good or bad! So just keep writing. Go team!
I asked last week if Eliot’s constant citation of other historic works was a desire to 1) rise to the level of a classic by comparison; 2) leaven the situation with emotions comparable to a prior well known work; 3) make it known she is consciously aware that in the big picture nothing is new or original but simply a rebirth of a similar concept or theme; or 4) impress us with her knowledge and prior learning? Ann let it be known it may also be none of these things. Eliot may also have simply made up the quotes in some chapters to be funny! What a sense of humor. Bravo!
I am coming to look at this book as a satire on egotists who do not have the ability to think of anyone but themselves, who in the process of living their own lives of self righteousness and self importance, make clowns of themselves instead. I wonder if my theory will continue to have merit as we proceed to the end of the story....
I found the Featherstone death scene to be unbelievably masterful. I am in awe of Eliot’s narrative. Amazing work. I must stop here.
Lead on Mona. Thank you again!
The English critic Barbara Hardy long ago argued that Casaubon is impotent--as Mrs. Cadwallader says, a great bladder for dried peas to rattle around in....and then there's the line, in this week's reading I think, in which D thinks of Lowick as now seeming terribly shrunken. Go back to that moment in Rome when we're told that Casaubon had not found marriage a raptuorous state, but that since he cannot find any fault in Dorothea he assumes that the poets have exaggerated the force of masculine passion. He may not think anything is wrong....but can we imagine that she does, and moreover that she might blame herself? Given how little she knows, and given too that in Rome she has been exposed to all those naked bodies painted on the ceilings of palaces and churches,
I also wished that Dorothea had not been so allergic to Sir James! But then where would we be!
Does anyone else feel that Eliot is having her cake and eating it too, especially over Casaubon? On the one hand she says that for her part she is very sorry for him, and on the other she shows us how horrible he is. And he is horrible, even if we know why or whatever the heck else.
If I'm understanding her correctly Eliot says that procreation did fall under the list of things Casaubon saw as the outward correct way of marriage. ".. he had always intended to acquit himself by marriage .. a reason to for losing no more time in overtaking domestic delights before they were left too far behind in years."
But marriage not to mention sex is stronger stuff than he can take.
So they both made a mistake, and not of an altogether opposite nature. Since reality seems to be playing little part in either of their imaginations.
I like the stag book cover illustration very much! It's from a pretty sad chapter though, where Dorothea feels as if life were shrinking away from her and she is being relegated to some land of the ghostly and perpetually ineffectual.
She's reduced to talking to a picture on the wall.
And this is also rather disturbing: "No one would ever know what she thought of a wedding journey to Rome." But we know!
But I still wonder why she ever wanted "the delicious repose of the soul on a complete superior" in the first place! Sounds like another form of ghostliness to me!
Will check in in a day or so. Have to finish the readings first! (Was going to say the dog ate my homework ...)
I don’t disagree with you. The aridity of Casaubon‘s mind makes his actions more and more cruel as time goes on. He has his propriety and his “Christian” principles and his big project (he senses it is a failure or is going to be one), but they are really a screen for not having to deal with others as living-breathing human beings. It seems like everyone in his world is a function of whether they impose on his frail constitution or work schedule, and this is especially so after his illness. So while I felt some sympathy for him early on, sympathy that I think Eliot’s writing prepared us for, I now find him in this part of the novel more and more repugnant. As readers we can measure that repugnance by the rising level of Dorothea’s feelings of desperation. Precisely because Dorothea is by nature, kind and solicitous and wants to serve something noble this desperation should tell us something.
This was my favorite section of the book so far, like others have noticed things are picking up. Instead of easing into a bath we are now going whitewater rafting. There's a lot to comment, but what sticks out for me is the last scene between Mary and Mr. Featherstone. It just feels so dramatic, I want to see how it could be so adapted on the screen.
Another thing that really interested me is how Eliot drives home the theme of selfishness. Practically all of the men in the book are incredibly selfish, from the loveable rogue Fred Vincy who manages to get his much poorer friend in debt, to Lydgate whose egoism blinds him to the damage he is doing to Rosamund's reputation and affections by courting her (and who has no evidence to assume she is playing like he is except for the fact that he really wants it to be that way), to Casaubon who not only won't provide his wife with the affection she desperately needs, but who wants to cut her off from potential friendships due to his own jealousy. It seems like a proto-feminist commentary—the way men are able to be selfish because they don't have to see how their actions affect the women around us.
Arguably the only two characters that are truly unselfish are Mary Gaunt and Dorothea Brooke, who form an interesting dichotomy. Mary is unselfish in part because she has to be. Due to her family's class, she has to part with her wages to get them out of a debt, or make a difficult choice that she knows will ruin her reputation. Dorothea, as a member of the upper class, doesn't have to be generous (she could have the attitude of Rosamond Vincy and be far more justified in it if she chose to), but at the same time, her wealth gives her more leeway to be unselfish instead of striving.
I highlighted a lot of lines in this section, but my favorite definitely comes from Mary in the last chapter. "I will not let the soil of your life close the beginning of mine."
Sorry to leave the Casaubon marriage bed :), but I peeked ahead and there’s more to say about that in book 4. There’s so much comedy in the unwelcome family at Featherstone’s house as his end nears: “None the less they came to Stone Court daily and sat below at the post of duty, sometimes carrying on a slow dialogue in an undertone in which the observation and response were so far apart, that any one hearing them might have imagined him listening to speaking automata . . .”
I confess haven't read the books, just your excellent analysis of them. I had an interesting thought from your opening paragraphs. Would you say that the prevalence of birth control had the biggest effect on destroying the traditional, rigid and ceremonial structures of marriage described in Middlemarch?
It’s fun to collect some of the literary allusions in part three. When Fred approaches, Mary is reading Mrs. Piozzi’s recollections of Samuel Johnson, an alternative to Boswell. We have William Blake in one epigraph. Brooke recommends Dorothea read Smollett to Casaubon, which he compares to eating thistles. Sir Walter Scott is a frequent presence. He was at the height of his popularity. Mary had already referred to the novel the Pirate in part two. Now our auctioneer flips through Anne of Geierstein, reading its opening out sonorously and proud of his correct pronunciation of the title. Lydgate knew Scott’s poetry by heart when younger but no longer reads any literature. Reading as a shared pleasure is associated with Scott, for Eliot, who even includes a poem epigraph about reading Scott with her brother as a child (ch.57). She and her father also read Scott to each other later when he was failing. So polite literature, reading as shared pleasure and adventure, something of the late eighteenth century and what you might read together in Keepsake.
I thought I'd share that there's a new book about George Eliot, and a livestream talk with the author through the New York Society Library. More info here:
Yes, Dorothea clings to the shreds of romantic illusion like the castaways in The Raft of the Medusa, a French painting of 1818. Link below.
GE loved her science and everything Darwin was about (cf. Gillian Beer). Adapt or your species, in this case, subspecies, dies out. Sounds totally apt, although going on under the surface.
Yes! I'd probably end up changing my mind about everything if that happened : )