Read an Excerpt
From Lynn Sharon Schwartz's Introduction to Middlemarch
Eliot is not one for indirection or delay, or for obscurity. If anything, she makes things uncomfortably lucid, like a too-bright light that permits no mitigating shadows. On the very first page, Dorothea is likened to Saint Theresa, whose "passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life, . . . some illimitable satisfaction . . . which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self"-an arresting comparison, which is immediately qualified. Many Theresas are born, Eliot says, and then doomed to "a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity." Dorothea Brooke, luckily, does not suffer a lifetime of mistakes, but on the brink of adulthood- she's not quite twenty-she makes just one, and a terrible mistake it is. Against the urging of her uncle and guardian, the foolish and nonchalant Mr. Brooke, her shrewd younger sister Celia, and her would-be suitor, the unimaginative but decent Sir James Chettam, she marries the wrong man.
Victorian novels often turn on choices in marriage, and here Middlemarch follows suit. Eliot hints that if Dorothea had had a mother to advise her, she might not have leaped so hastily into error. But as in so many novels of the time (a stunning example is George Meredith's The Egoist, which turns on a young woman's being coerced into a disastrous match), no such mother-figure exists. No doubt this is partly a practical choice: Any marriage plot would be stymied from the start if the heroine avoided her mistake. Besides, readers loved (and still do) watching young women in sexual and emotional peril. But more important, no serious role existed in fiction for sensible, mature women. Until fairly recently, interesting women characters were required to be young, on the threshold of their one momentous decision. Older women in positions of authority tend either to be superannuated or ridiculous and useless-witness Mrs. Bennet, mother of five marriageable daughters in Jane Austen's much earlier Pride and Prejudice.
In any case, Middlemarch, unlike so many notable works of its period, does not end at the altar with the prospect of a settled, if unsatisfying, future; it begins with the marriage and traces the course of its agonies to the final death rattle.
One could hardly imagine a worse choice for a young woman of brimming energy and "a certain spiritual grandeur." Edward Casaubon is devoid of grandeur of any kind. The chapter in which Dorothea meets him opens aptly with an epigraph from Don Quixote: The bemused knight sees a cavalier with a golden helmet approaching on a dapple-gray steed, while the down-to-earth Sancho Panza sees "a man on a gray ass . . . who carries something shiny on his head." A dry, pompous pedant engaged in a huge and hopeless research project on mythology, Casaubon is more than twice Dorothea's age and singularly unappealing, as Celia-playing Sancho Panza to Dorothea's Quixote-points out with sisterly bluntness: "Can't you hear how he scrapes his spoon? And he always blinks before he speaks." Right from the start, then, the situation offers one of those tortured yet delicious moments in fiction when the reader wants to pluck the heroine back from her impetuous rush to folly but at the same time can't wait to see the folly play itself out.
However grotesque it appears, the choice is implicit in Dorothea's nature. In the first chapter, she shows a taste for righteous self-denial, a streak of ascetic Puritanism. When she and Celia divide up their late mother's jewelry, Dorothea tries to "justify her delight in the colors by merging them in her mystic religious joy." She loves riding horses but "felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it." Obviously she is avoiding the sensual, and by implication, the erotic; in that regard, her choice is uncannily protective. Marriage to Casaubon would certainly keep her safe from physical passion. Beyond that, Dorothea is awed by what she takes to be Casaubon's learning; assisting him in his research, she imagines, will be the ideal goal for her restless energies. She goes so far as to envision his estate, Lowick, as the testing ground for her schemes to improve the tenant farmers' living conditions. In a cunningly ironic moment, she is disappointed to discover Lowick in such good order that little remains to be done. Her reforming zeal is so abstract that she would enjoy finding the farmers ground down by miseries she might then alleviate.
Dorothea's notions of married life are comically naive: She views it as an initiation into ideas. But from the first moment, Casaubon's gloomy house, full of "anterooms and winding passages," and Casaubon himself, with his pigeonhole mind, are more stifling than stimulating. Despite her mighty efforts to make allowances, despite her self-deceptions (Eliot's characters are masters of self-deception), in no time at all Dorothea is sunk in a "nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread." Her limited education abroad is as nothing compared to this schooling in reality.
Casaubon is no less disillusioned. In a grimly humorous passage, Eliot outlines his motives for marrying-entirely willed, painfully rational-and his dismay at the outcome. He had "determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was." If "the quality and breadth of our emotion" is of supreme value to Eliot, then the shallowness of Casaubon's feelings is her supreme censure. Still, it is a measure of her even-handed sympathies that Casaubon is not made wholly monstrous. However unattractive, he is human, and granted human complexity. In the remarkable chapter 29, Eliot reveals his rankling disappointments and self-doubts, his secret awareness of his own failure, with an acuteness that compels a grudging compassion. When his bitterness finally turns against Dorothea, its source is all too clear.
Into this dour nightmare of a marriage steps Casaubon's maverick nephew Will Ladislaw, an unconventional outsider by birth as well as by inclination. Like Dorothea, Will is driven by feeling, not logic. "The bow of a violin drawn near him cleverly, would at one stroke change the aspect of the world for him, and his point of view shifted as easily as his mood." In such volatile natures-maybe even in all natures-ideas are rooted in temperament rather than reason, a notion more congenial to our postmodern sensibility than to a Victorian. Will's feelings do not arise from some vaguely religious morality, like Dorothea's, but from an equally vague aestheticized view of the world. He seems a harbinger of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of Eliot's own era, those poets, painters and critics (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais, William Morris, and John Ruskin, among others) who indulged in a cult of beauty steeped in nostalgia for the preindustrial simplicities of the Middle Ages.
Will and Dorothea meet, fittingly, in an art gallery in Rome. They show their true-and contrasting-colors in one of their first exchanges. Dorothea declares she believes in doing good. If that proves impossible, simply desiring what is good will succeed in "widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower." Will counters this sweet but hopelessly ingenuous outlook with his own philosophy: "To love what is good and beautiful when I see it. . . . But I am a rebel: I don't feel bound, as you do, to submit to what I don't like."
Some readers, especially those who idealize Dorothea and overlook her naïveté, have found Will an inadequate match for her, a comedown from her high-minded dreams. On the contrary, the pairing perfectly suits Eliot's design. Dorothea is never meant to realize her fantasies of mystical transcendence, of transforming the world; detached as they are from anything practical, they may be impossible in any event. Virginia Woolf, in a 1925 essay in The Common Reader (see "For Further Reading"), illuminates the nature of such longings in Eliot's heroines: "The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, overflowed and uttered a demand for something-they scarcely know what-for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. . . . Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy" (p. 241).
Only in fantasy can Dorothea ever be a Saint Theresa. "The medium in which [her] ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone"-Eliot's sober acknowledgment, at the very end, of the unheroic tenor of the times. But besides the narrow opportunities at hand, the unfocused nature of Dorothea's ardor precludes any secular sainthood. Her fate, like most fates, is one of compromise, though not especially melancholy. Will isn't a bad bargain. Their passionate, wayward, ineffectual natures complement each other and perhaps grow more effectual in the bargain. Will's carelessness serves as a check to Dorothea's overblown (even self-aggrandizing) sense of responsibility. His lightness balances her gravity. His aestheticism makes him a more congenial partner than Casaubon's suffocating pedantry. In the end, theirs is a marriage of the moral and the aesthetic-unworldly, yes, but benign and enlivening, and definitely sustained by breadth of emotion.