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Ethical Structure in Middlemarch

G. M. Gillard

English 31, 1973

Experience is a flux upon which men attempt to impose form. The environment is chaotic, and something inherent in man revolts against this, and tries to create order from this disorder. To this end, he creates theories and philosophies - and writes novels.

As Frank Kermode says of D.H. Lawrence:

Lawrence observed that a man can only view the universe in the light of a theory, and since the novel is a microcosm, it has to reflect a micro-theory, "some theory of being, some metaphysic".

Whether or not this is said to be a conscious, intentional process is irrelevant: the shaping consciousness of the author is always present in the selection and presentation of plot, character and metaphor.

Furthermore the reader imposes on the novel a further shaping, by an interpretation which seeks a point of view from which one may obtain a view of the novel as a whole. The danger in this venture is that in order to gain this viewpoint the reader may have to remove himself to such a great distance that he may have his head in the clouds, thus obscuring his view of all but the largest and vaguest outlines, and causing him to lose touch with the multifarious reality of what he claims to be trying to see.

Lawrence gives his own warning about this, and in rather more concrete imagery than the Jamesian metaphor above:

The novel is the highest example of subtle inter-relatedness that man has discovered. Everything is true in its own time, place, circumstance and untrue outside of its own place, time, circumstance. If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail. ("Morality and the Novel")

And then, on the other hand, we have George Eliot, who seems to sanction this way of looking at the novel in this quotation from The Impressions of Theophrastus Such:

But man or woman who publishes writings inevitably assumes the office of teacher or influencer of the public mind. Let him protest as he will that he only seeks to amuse, and has no pretension to do more than while away an hour of leisure or weariness ... he can not more escape influencing the moral taste, and with it the action of the intelligence, than a setter of fashions in furniture and dress can fill the shops with his designs and leave the garniture of persons and houses unaffected by his industry.

What this essay interests itself in is the way in which the prospective buyer sees in George Eliot's Ideal Homes Exhibition a display of furniture in the Later Victorian style with which he might deck out a whole house in such a way that not only should each room assume a pleasing and appropriate aspect, but that the whole should observe a tolerable decorum. In other words, it attempts to find
a shaping ethic in the conception of the book which may be said to give form to the whole. To this end it examines the main character in her crises of growth to establish that the fable of her life conforms to a recognizable pattern, a particular moral view of the world.

The present thesis is that the myth of Middlemarch is a Christian one, but secularized. The Christian become agnostic must cast around for some other code of conduct, and it is not surprising that George Eliot should have arrived at an ethic, as demonstrated by Middlemarch, which is not substantially different from the Christian, except in that it is not specifically religious. In my view the book demonstrates the inefficacy of pride, and the necessity of humility.

In Dorothea's case, it is pride in the possibility of her own complete self-fulfilment. For her, this would take two main, but inter-related forms: the giving of her abilities in the service of others less fortunate, in itself a specifically Christian ideal; and the maturation of those abilities, leading to their fullest extension. The first of these self-aggrandizing desires, as manifested in a wish to help the poor and needy in the community, is frustrated by there being no particular need to be fulfilled:

Everybody, he assured her, was well off in Lowick: not a cottager in those double cottages at a low rent but kept a pig, and the strips of garden at the back were well tended. The small boys wore excellent corduroy, the girls went out as tidy servants, or did a little straw-plaiting at home: no looms here, no Dissent; and though the public disposition was rather towards laying by money than towards spirituality, there was not much vice.

There is a little gentle irony here, directed at Dorothea, as, if there were only a little more vice, if only the boys' corduroy were a little less than excellent, there would be something for the would-be do-gooder to do. Dorothea's error is in having a preconceived notion of the appropriate field in which charity should be exercised, derived presumably from the Christian model of helping the poor, and especially when they are one's neighbour. Unfortunately for Dorothea, as Mr. Brooke puts it: "The poor folks here might have a fowl in their pot... " What she has to learn is that it is the people with whom one naturally comes into contact and who have needs of various kinds which one may assist to fulfil are the people whom one should help, rather than some ideal kind. And this is the lesson which she learns near the end of the novel.

And what sort of crisis might not this be in three lives whose contact with hers laid an obligation on her as if they had been suppliants bearing the sacred branch? The objects of her rescue were not to be sought out by her fancy: they were chosen for her. ... 'What should I do - how should I act now, this very day if I could clutch my own pain, and compel it to silence, and think of those three !'

This paragraph is immediately followed by that significant paragraph in which we are told that Dorothea

... felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

This large view is the kind to which we have become accustomed in Dorothea, but it is not the misty vision we are told about in Chapter 3:

For a long while she had been oppressed by the indefiniteness which hung in her mind, like a thick summer haze, over all her desire to make her life greatly effective.

but is full of light:

... there was light piercing into the room. ... Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light ...

The difference is that the view now has perspective, by means of which closer objects are seen as such, and people's needs are seen in their correct relative importance.

The other, related, way in which Dorothea hoped for fulfilment was, of course, that of marriage with Casaubon.

... the union which attracted her was one that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance, and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path.

If Dorothea could not choose a partner with whom she might walk down the path arm in arm instead of following submissively, she must blame herself if she ends up in a 'walled-up maze of small paths'.

George Eliot's use of water imagery in this context very clearly indicates the extent of Dorothea's self-delusion: if these two short passages from Chapter 3 are compared with what the author tells us about Casaubon's marital expectations in Chapter 7:

Dorothea by this time had looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr Casaubon's mind, seeing reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought; ...

'He thinks with me,' said Dorothea to herself, 'or rather, he thinks a whole world of which my thought is but a poor two-penny mirror. And his feelings too, his whole experience - what a lake compared with my little pool !'

Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was. As in draughty regions baptism by immersion could only be performed symbolically, so Mr Casaubon found that sprinkling was the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream could afford him; and he concluded that the poets had much exaggerated the force of masculine passion.

There are several points worth making about the brilliant irony of these passages.

Firstly, the image of Casaubon's mind as a reservoir suggests that he would be the one who supplied whatever sustenance there was to be in the marriage. Dorothea should merely receive and not give. More interestingly, this is one of many images of seeing a reflection rather than seeing through. Dorothea does not see into Casaubon's mind, does not obtain any clear view of what it is like, but merely sees her own ideas reflected in it. That is, Casaubon as she sees him is merely a projection of her ideas about an ideal partner.

Further, the word ‚'vague‚' is naturally associated with the 'thick summer haze‚' mentioned above. 'Labyrinthine', as well as good connotations of vast extensiveness, also carries sinister associations of being lost in a maze, in which perhaps some monstrous Minotaur lurks.

In the second of the passages quoted, we see again the reflection image. Dorothea has turned it around so that she is the reflector, but the principle is the same. Each does not see the other, but only a reflection of what they hope to gain from the relationship. Dorothea wishes to draw on Mr Casaubon's ungauged reservoir to fill her little pool.

How incisive is the irony is shown when that passage is placed beside the one in which Casaubon's reservoir is gauged and found to be only the shallow rill it always was. For a modern reader, the sexual implications of the context add an extra intensity to the use of the imagery of streams, shallow rills and sprinkling, of which the original readers were probably not completely unaware. Be that as it may, the point is that Dorothea might have seen to the bottom of Mr Casaubon if she had only looked. As Lionel Trilling suggest we might call out to Milton's Eve: "Woman, watch out ! Don't you see - anyone can see - that's a snake !"

And what prevents her from seeing the snake is her hubris: her proud desire to fill herself with the fruit of the tree of knowledge. She is tempted, and falls, and must expiate her sin in the earthly purgatory of marriage with something less than man. What Dorothea must learn is put in this way by George Eliot:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling - an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects - that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.

There is a third important way in which we can regard Dorothea's critical problem: it is in relation to the way she plays the role assigned to her by the class into which she was born. In his essay called "Manners, Morals and the Novel", Lionel Trilling argues that this arena is of major importance in the novel. Meaning his words to apply to the novel at large, he says of Don Quixote:

Cervantes sets for the novel the problem of appearance and reality: the shifting and conflict of social classes becomes the field of the problem of knowledge, of how we know and of how reliable our knowledge is, which at that very moment of history is vexing the philosophers and scientists.

He then goes on to talk about 'pride of class':

Pride of class may not please us but we must at least grant that it reflects a social function. A man who exhibited class pride - in the day when it was possible to do so - may have been puffed up about what he was, but this ultimately depended on what he did. Thus, aristocratic pride was based ultimately on the ability to fight and administer. No pride is without fault, but pride of class may be thought of as today we think of pride of profession, toward which we are likely to be lenient.

But in the high moral view of the creator of Middlemarch, all pride being in error, we cannot in conscience be more lenient towards one kind than to another. And Dorothea's position is doubly faulty in that she does not, in fact, deal in any adequate way with the potentialities of her position as a member of the class of gentlefolk. She does not fight. She does not administer.

... there was the stifling oppression of that gentlewoman's world, where everything was done for her and none asked for her aid - where the sense of connection with a manifold pregnant existence had to be kept up painfully as an inward vision, instead of coming from without in claims that would have shaped her energies. - 'What shall I do?' 'Whatever you please, my dear ...'

Again Dorothea's preconceptions about herself and her role prevent her from actualising what is latent in her privileged position. It is not until she marries Ladislaw, thus assuming a more middle-class role that she finds herself in an appropriate arena for the type of activity to which she is suited, which she can now carry out in partnership with a man in whom (we are given to suppose) her esteem is well placed.

... she now had a life filled ... with a beneficent activity which she had not the doubtful pains of discovering and marking out for herself. Will became an ardent public man ... Dorothea could have liked nothing better ... than ... that she should give him wifely help.

Despite George Eliot's idealizing commentary on Dorothea, especially in the St Theresa imagery, a clear picture emerges of a typical erring human being. Given the facts of her life, of the way she is presented in critical situations, and the lessons which she is forced to learn, it is tending towards the irrelevant to claim that a woman may have led the life of a saint if she had been born at another time and in another place. The paradox of George Eliot's presentation of her character is suggested by her own comment:

Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no-one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done ...

I think this comment of the author applies equally well to herself as to the other characters in the book. The point is that we see Dorothea placed in a specific environment and in specific relationships, and again and again we see her dealing with them badly and wrong-headedly. She does not deal adequately with the earlier part of her life because she does not see clearly enough. Her overweening pride obscures the reality of issues and it is not until she attains a state of humility complementary with clearsightedness that she is able to find a functional and useful way of life.


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