Middlemarch (1869) by George Eliot (1819-1880)
The printed word, including this book, by its very nature often seeks to “enlighten” or offer sage words of advice to those who have yet to experience the rough patches of life or perhaps have yet to awaken to the nature of Simple Reality. Most of that advice echoes from the halls of illusion and involves the blind leading the blind. But for the discriminating listener, much that we hear can help us break the bonds of fear that enslave us. Misogyny is a disease infecting the global village. It has taken many and will take many more courageous women to complete the diagnosis and effect the cure of this fatal habit of men and women projecting the dark shadow of the false self onto hundreds of millions of innocent victims.
Mary Ann Evans changed her name twice. First she chose the pseudonym George Eliot to disguise the fact that the author of her brilliant novels was a woman. Secondly, later in her life, to Marian Evans to assert her independence from a past identity that was too much associated with a world in which women were deprived of the opportunity for the same freedom of expression enjoyed by men. Despite being born in 1819 the accomplishments of this highly intelligent and talented woman were quite remarkable given the restrictive paradigm she had to face in developing her talents and expressing her gift of storytelling.
George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, “has long been recognized as a work of great psychological and moral penetration, a ‘modern’ novel that disturbs as well as comforts the reader.” How does this story “disturb” the reader? Our guess is that the characters are acting unconsciously and creating a “disturbing” amount of self-destructive suffering and that the reader can easily identify with this universal and painful behavior.
We characterize the behavior of Eliot’s characters as universal because the author created, “the metaphor of a complete world, a piece of provincial England that is a microcosm of the greater world beyond.” The critic Frank Magill reveals the intuitive insights that Eliot possessed related to human behavior that make this novel so instructive. “She is concerned with the mating of lovers, because they are most vulnerable in love, most nearly the victims of their romantic illusions. The greater the capacity Eliot’s characters have for romantic self-deception, the greater their suffering.”
Dorothea, the protagonist of Middlemarch, clearly expresses the spirit and personality of the author. The cultural context into which Dorothea was born is indicated in the original subtitle of the book: Life in a Provincial Town. Life in a British small town of the early 19th century has some of the same traits that small town life has today. Anti-intellectualism, intolerance and lack of perspective characterize the thinking of the townspeople of Middlemarch. Dorothea finds her fellow citizens highly resistant to change and ignorant of the larger world outside Middlemarch. Middlemarch is, in short, a cultural backwater. “[The] author’s introduction to Dorothea Brooke in Chapter 1 captures the frustration of Victorian females and successfully predicts the path the heroine must follow—‘Since I can do no good because a woman/Reach constantly at something that is near it.’”
Dorothea (Dodo) Brooke tries to live vicariously through her husbands since in Victorian England a woman’s identity was defined by her husband’s identity. She had to acquire what little power she could through her husband, through being associated with his status and his accomplishments and above all his money.
The sensation energy center is very complex and can manifest a vast array of motives. “Dorothea, idealistic and noble-hearted chooses the worst possible mate as her first husband. Dorothea had favored the elderly scholar because he was unworldly, despised by the common herd. In her imagination, he seemed a saint of intellect. Will [her second husband] is also despised by most of the petty-minded bigots of Middlemarch, because he has suffered from injustice, and because he seems to her a saint of integrity.”
The citizens of Middlemarch are also subject to the influences of the false self which this incident early in the novel reveals: “Early one day when Dorothea returns from an infant school which she has started in the village, Celia [her younger sister] asks if they cannot take a look at their mother’s jewels and divide them equally between them [their mother had died]. Dorothea at first says that she has no use for such vain trinkets, and she asks Celia to keep them all.” This reaction is an intuitional response which reveals an unconscious understanding of the toxic influence of the security energy center. “But trying on an emerald ring, Dorothea realizes the beauty of the gem. Feeling that the ring has a supernatural, religious beauty, she consents to keep it, together with a matching bracelet.”
Here Dorothea is vacillating between present moment insight and the emotion of future oriented craving. “Celia is happy that her sister wants to keep them, but when she asks her if she will wear them, Dorothea betrays a shamefaced consciousness of her own weakness. She makes her sister understand that she wants no more questions about the jewels.” Dorothea senses something profoundly important within herself which prompts her afflictive emotions and her ambiguous behavior. Because she has no context in which to explain her vacillation—she represses the emotions and ignores what has just happened—a common behavior within P-B.
George Eliot’s novels often contain the “theme of disenchantment.” For example, Dorothea marries an older man because she is impressed by his supposed superior intellect. In P-A she would not have been so easily taken in by such an illusion and would have been able to see more objectively, what he was really like. In analyzing the novel’s meaning we could say that she was a victim of an illusion. Eliot “is concerned with the mating of lovers, because they are most vulnerable in love, most nearly the victims of their romantic illusions.” This is true but it would be more accurate to say that she was a victim of her own projection—again a common behavior in P-B. It is the whole of P-B that is an illusion, the entire milieu of Middlemarch that is “unsatisfactory” for Dorothea as it is for humanity in the Global Village today.
Nevertheless, we gain wisdom from our experiences and as the romantic and sentimental nineteen-year-olds mature into adults in Middlemarch, attitudes change. “Each of the three sets of lovers Dorothea Brooke/Edward Casaubon/Will Ladislaw; Rosamond Vincy/Tertius Lydgate; and Mary Garth/Fred Vincy—mistakes illusion for reality. Eventually, all come to understand themselves better, whether or not they are completely reconciled with their mates. Each undergoes a sentimental education, a discipline of the spirit that teaches the heart its limitations.” The limitations are less of the heart and more of the head and afflictive emotions but the language of P-B and of P-A are different as we have learned.
The security energy center looms large in Middlemarch particularly for women who must strive to make the best match possible and that means marrying someone who has a secure income. Eliot was particularly mindful of this dynamic in her society. “The conversations among Featherstone’s relatives show how greed and envy can become the only reasons for existing, and the author’s sarcastic comments reveal how she detests this kind of avarice.” The character Mary Garth had little hope of material wealth and she learned to live with little expectation of it and was thereby “free” of “craving” and was able to live more fully in the moment. At the reading of a will where everyone else is anxious with security center yearnings, she can experience the occasion with equanimity. “Mary, who never had unrealistically high expectations, can leave the room without feelings of anger, regret, or jealousy. Everyone else, however, must learn that avarice frequently brings disappointment.”
The security, sensation and power energy centers of the false self are clearly evident in Middlemarch but with the flavor of a 19th century British “backwater.” Dorothea has married an older man with romantic notions that would have not been uncommon in a nineteen-year-old 200 years ago with the inevitable outcome. “Dorothea repents of a hasty, misbegotten alliance—in her case, with a musty old scholar too set in his bachelor ways to accommodate a dewy naïve, and quixotic nineteen-year-old bride.” To satisfy her need for “sensation,” Dorothea projects on her husband Edward Casaubon a romantic image that has no basis in fact. “[She] expects life with the learned and revered Edward Casaubon to satisfy her “soul-hunger.” It takes her a while to become disabused of this illusion. “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.”
The power energy center is also alive and well among the citizens of Middlemarch. “In George Eliot’s microcosm, ambition [power] (however well-conceived and altruistic) is the golden touch that spoils what it seeks to enrich.”
“To even the least sophisticated dwellers in Middlemarch, power is represented by wealth and status.”
The epigraphs found in Victorian novels can often be insightful and profound even beyond the intention of the author. These philosophical introductions to chapters are often more than mere food for thought. George Eliot uses the wisdom of “Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.” This quote is reminiscent of J. Krishnamurti’s summary of his teachings: “I don’t mind what’s happening.”
“It has been said by many critics that George Eliot’s novels represent “psychological realism” and that this can be seen again and again in her treatment of the theme of illusion versus reality.” However, the “illusion” and “reality” that Eliot is using for her theme are not the more profound concepts that are found in P-A. Eliot’s psychology is much like the mainstream psychology prevalent in the world today. It is a shallow psychology that describes “how” characters behave but not “why” they behave the way they do.
In Eliot’s novel, Dorothea seems more satisfied in the end than Victorian women in “real” life probably were but she was a projection of Mary Ann Evans and served her purpose. She “acquires moral integrity, a superior virtue for Eliot.”
Things in the last century and a half since Middlemarch was published haven’t changed much whether in provincial England, or provincial Alabama or anywhere else. Humans are still mistaking illusion for reality and wondering why after striving so hard, life can end up being so unsatisfying. Relative progress, however, has been made during that time because today Mary Ann Evans would not have to use a pseudonym to get her novels published. However, it is not relative progress that we should strive for because that will ultimately come to nothing if we cannot make profound progress involving changing our very definition and experience of reality.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.