George Eliot: Queen of (Changing) Hearts – An Essay on Middlemarch

24 May 2010 | 1 Comment

Note: The following critical essay was written for Tracking British Literature in the spring of 2010.

In a world with billions of people sometimes it is easy to forget just how connected we humans are to one another. One person’s action may have a reaction elsewhere in the web of connections and not think twice about it. Sometimes it is easy for a person to think they are the most important node in the entire network, the center of the universe, so to speak. George Eliot’s Middlemarch attempts to build a realistic network of people who all affect one another. When one person fails the network, or tries to break away, sometimes the only thing they can hope for is a second chance to reconnect. The giving and receiving – or denying – of second chances and their consequences in George Eliot’s Middlemarch plays a vital role in Eliot’s effort to change the heart of not only her characters, but also her readers.

Sometimes the receiver of a second chance like Fred Vincy is changed. Fred’s ultimate dream is to marry Mary Garth, but his hopes are dashed several times throughout the novel, partially due to his own mistakes but partially due events out of his control. Eliot sets up Fred as the perfect character in need of a second chance: he has flunked his clergy examinations and is in debt due to unwise spending. At one point, Fred hopes to make a profit to pay off his debt: ‘Fred felt sure that he should have a present from his uncle [Mr Featherstone], that he should have a run of luck, that by dint of “swapping” he should gradually metamorphose a horse worth forty pounds into a horse that would fetch a hundred at any moment’ (Ch. 23, pp. 189-190). Fred depends on these two factors to pay off his debts. Caleb Garth gladly lends Fred money for the horse but not without a ‘friendly hint as to conduct’ and a ‘rather strong admonition’ (Ch. 23, p. 192). Here Eliot shows Garth’s position as a positive moral mentor. After Garth puts his trust in Fred, the narrator reminds the reader that ‘scepticism, as we know can never be thoroughly applied, else life would come to a standstill: something we must believe in and do, and whatever that something may be called, it is virtually our own judgment, even when it seems like the most slavish reliance on another’ (Ch. 23, p. 198). Chance has its way when Fred’s horse ends up laming itself, and Fred ‘felt smartingly that his father would angrily refuse to rescue Mr Garth from the consequence of what he would call encouraging extravagance and deceit’ (Ch. 24, p. 199). Since few others would be willing to help him, Fred knows that part of his fate lies at the mercy of Caleb Garth, and this ‘slavish reliance on another’ is exactly what gets Fred and those he depends on, the Garth family, into trouble. His risk ends up costing the Garths dearly; in order to cover the damage of the debt, Mrs Garth and Mary must give up their savings. Through Fred, Eliot shows that the choices we as humans make regarding – or disregarding – the lives of others has serious consequences, which simultaneously creates conditions for self-reflection and possible redemption – if others will grant it.

Furthermore the Garths’ great sacrifices for Fred help him to grow into a better man, helping him to see the negative effect he has had on them. Mrs Garth makes ‘Fred [feel] for the first time something like the tooth of remorse’ (Ch. 24, p. 205). Before this incident, Fred ‘had not occupied himself with the inconvenience and possible injury that his breach might occasion them, for this exercise of the imagination on other people’s needs is not common with hopeful young gentlemen.’ The narrator adds, ‘Indeed we are most of us brought up in the notion that the highest motive for not doing a wrong is something irrespective of the beings who would suffer the wrong. But at this moment he [Fred] suddenly saw himself as a pitiful rascal who was robbing two women of their savings’ (Ch. 24, p. 206). These traces of remorse that begin budding in Fred’s heart and the ‘exercises of the imagination’ become a vital component in how not only Fred, but also other characters learn to sympathize with others in Middlemarch. But Fred’s second chances do not end there because he has just started on his moral progress. Eliot does not want her readers to think feeling remorseful will simply make the problem go away; action is required.

But that action does not come about until Fred later runs into even greater misfortune. He does not receive the inheritance he expects to get from his uncle Peter Featherstone, his future is thrown into doubt. Not only is Fred in debt, but he also most likely will have to return to seminary to become a clergyman, which he failed at before and now loathes. He must also face the fact that he may never win over Mary Garth. Though the reader learns that ‘Mary too was agitated: she was conscious that fatally, without will of her own, she had perhaps made a great difference to Fred’s lot’ (Ch. 35, p. 280), for Mary, who was alone with Featherstone at his death, did not comply with Mr Featherstone’s command to burn one of the two of his wills before he died. Mary’s guilt plays an indirect role in nudging her father Caleb Garth to give Fred a second chance. Mr Garth realizes how much Fred loves his daughter and recognizes Fred’s potential after as a hard worker after Caleb’s assistant is injured in a scuffle with railway opponents. Caleb resolves to hire Fred, telling his wife Susan, ‘[Fred] can’t bear to be a clergyman, and Mary says she won’t have him if he is one; and the lad would like to be under me and give his mind to business. And I’ve determined to take him and make a man of him. … I say that young man’s soul is in my hand; and I’ll do the best I can for him, so help me God! It’s my duty, Susan’ (Ch. 56, p. 463 - 464). No longer is this a choice for Caleb, but a duty to serve others and ensure their positive moral growth. Fred’s action – his ability to work hard for Garth and his striving for Mary – and Caleb’s sense of ‘duty,’ a word that implies action, not passive, emphasizes Eliot’s point that the changing of hearts is not easy. Garth’s willingness to give Fred a second chance pays off, and Fred recognizes that he is not worthy of such kindness, telling Mrs Garth, ‘ “I know you think me very undeserving, Mrs Garth, and with good reason. … I happen to have behaved just the worst to the people I can’t help wishing for the most from. But while two men like Mr Garth and Mr Farebrother have not given me up, I don’t see why I should give myself up” ’ (Ch. 57, p. 471). Through Fred’s story of second chances, Eliot shows how individuals have the opportunity to be a positive influence in another person’s life by putting faith in them, even when they have not earned it. Eliot hopes to warm the hearts of her readers as witnesses of Fred’s change because of the Garths’ positive influence, making them more receptive to change in their own hearts.

But the hearts of givers of second chances are also changed in Middlemarch: while Fred’s story involves a change in the heart of the receiver of the second chance, Dorothea’s story involves a change in heart of the giver of the second chance – Dorothea herself. Whereas it was more or less in Caleb Garth’s own nature to be merciful to most people he encountered, it took Dorothea time to learn to be merciful. Dorothea’s confrontation with mercy arose out of her struggling marriage with Casaubon. What had started as a ‘disease of the retina’ on her honeymoon in Rome (Ch. 20, p. 161) – or a failure to see things with a clear perspective – grew only worse upon her return to Lowick Manor: ‘Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colourless, narrowed landscape, with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and the ghostly stage in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight’ (Ch. 28, pp. 227). Words like ‘imprisonment’, ‘shrunken’, and ‘vanishing’ describe Dorothea’s moral state at this point in her life and marriage. The tension between Mr and Mrs Casaubon increases as the story progresses, and after Mr Casaubon suffers a heart attack, Dorothea wonders why her husband continues to treat her coldly about Will Ladislaw: ‘She was in the reaction of a rebellious anger stronger than any she had felt since her marriage. Instead of tears there came the words: — “What have I done – what am I – that he should treat me so? He never knows what is in my mind – he never cares. What is the use of anything I do? He wishes he had never married me” ’ (Ch. 42, p. 352). The heavy use of the personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘my’, and ‘me’ reveals Dorothea is only thinking of herself. But upon reflection later that night, we see small changes in Dorothea, and she begins to see the ‘use of anything [she does]’. At the end of the fourth book, the reader witnesses Dorothea’s meditative struggle, one that ‘changed continually, as that of a man who begins with a movement to strike’ (Ch. 42, p. 353). But a remarkable change comes to Dorothea’s heart when she decides not to strike back and think only of herself and what she deserves. The narrator tells us that ‘the energy that would animate a crime is not more than is wanted to inspire a resolved submission, when the noble habit of the soul reasserts itself’ (Ch. 42, p. 353). Dorothea turns this energy toward submission (‘the resolved submission did come’) and she chooses to give her husband a second chance by waiting on the landing of the staircase for him to come to bed. When Mr Casaubon feels this kindness, ‘[Dorothea] felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature’ (Ch. 42, p. 353). Here Dorothea, like Caleb Garth, exercises the imagination to see things from another perspective. The world that had shrunk in her eyes begins to expand, and a seed for a future of giving second chances is planted. Eliot wants the reader to pay close attention these moments, for they are moments in which choosing mercy over condemnation or rejection changes a person for the good, rather than evil. Eliot knows that as humans, we all have those moments where we just want revenge, we want to strike, but through Dorothea she shows the reader that it is possible to use that energy in a positive way.

Dorothea further progresses after her husband’s death as she learns to give second chances to other people who may not deserve mercy, most notably to Rosamond Lydgate. When Dorothea goes to the Lydgate home on behalf of Tertius, to explain to Rosamond her belief in Tertius’s innocence, she misinterprets the scene where she sees Will Ladislaw, whom she loves, holding a tearful Rosamond’s hands as love, and ‘it was as if she had drunk a great draught of scorn that stimulated her beyond the susceptibility to other feelings (Ch. 77, p. 638). Yet Dorothea draws upon her strife-filled married life to Casaubon and forces herself to think of others instead of just herself: ‘She began now to live through that yesterday morning deliberately again, forcing herself to dwell on every detail and its possible meaning. Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only? She forced herself to think of it as bound up with another woman’s life – a woman towards whom she had set out with a longing to carry some clearness and comfort into her beclouded youth. In her first outleap of jealous indignation and disgust, when quitting the hateful room, she had flung away all the mercy she had undertaken that visit’ (Ch. 80, p. 647). Dorothea realizes her wrong – that she was not alone in that scene – and decides to go back to Rosamond and give her a second chance, despite the pain and difficulty of doing so, showing real change in Dorothea’s heart. Memories of her troubles in her own marriage union ‘returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance’ (Ch. 80, p. 648). In much the same way, Dorothea’s 180-degree turn, from wanting to strike to wanting to do good, show Eliot’s emphasis on the positive outcomes of giving second chances. Eliot reveals the change for the better that has occurred in Dorothea’s heart: ‘She yearned toward the perfect Right, that it might make a throne within her, and rule her errant will. “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!” ’ (Ch. 80, p. 648). Eliot shows that the ability to see outside of the self is something that will change a person from being a ‘mere spectator’ into someone who actively participates in life as a force for good. As with Fred’s story, Dorothea must take positive action in order to get a positive reaction. The advantage Eliot gives the reader is the ability to see this process from start to finish, enabling them to replicate the process in their own lives.

Rosamond changes after she is given a second chance, which serves as proof of the change in Dorothea. Rosamond redeems herself in some small way when she explains to Dorothea that she had it wrong about Will and her all along, and Dorothea responds ‘with her usual tendency to over-estimate the good in others, she felt a great outgoing of the heart towards Rosamond for the generous effort which had redeemed her from suffering, not counting that the effort was a reflex of her own energy’ (Ch. 81, p. 656). Essentially, Eliot says in this scene that seeing outside the self is infectious. The consequences of doing good, by giving others the benefit of a doubt or seeing things from their perspective are good on both the giving and receiving ends and has the ability to change egoism to altruism.

Not every character in Middlemarch gives or receives a second chance, and Eliot creates several counterexamples to the stories of Fred and Dorothea about characters who deny others second chances for self-preservation or self-gain. Mr Casaubon, for example, does not give Will Ladislaw a second chance by reconsidering Will’s motives for returning to Middlemarch after Rome, but chooses to remain jealous and suspicious of Will and Dorothea. In Chapter 37, Casaubon writes a petty letter to Ladislaw about his holding an unrespectable job after Will goes to work for Mr Brooke’s political newspaper, The Pioneer, and the narrator gives one of several reasons: ‘Mr Casaubon had been deprived of that superiority … in a sudden capricious manner’ (Ch. 37, p. 296), a ‘superiority’ he used to enjoy over Will by paying for his education and his studies abroad. In some respects, Casaubon’s jealousy and fear of Ladislaw are understandable, as Will’s youth and dynamism threaten his own old and constraining ways. The reader learns the full extent of Casaubon’s jealousy after his death when rumors that he has added a codicil to his will that forbids Dorothea from every marrying Ladislaw turn out to be true, and if Dorothea does marry Will, she must forfeit all of Casaubon’s money. Casaubon fails to see outside his own situation, and instead of trying to save his marriage and listen to Dorothea, he passes her involvement in the matter off as a delusion and squarely attacks Will. The consequences of not giving Will or Dorothea the benefit of a doubt cost him the happiness of his marriage, replacing it with bitterness and disputes. In Casaubon’s story, Eliot shows that actions for pure self-preservation harm not only the self, but also others. Eliot contrasts the outcomes of Casaubon and Dorothea’s individual choices in regards to others in order that the reader may grow to understand what brings about positive moral change, and what does not.

Nicholas Bulstrode has the opportunity to give John Raffles a second chance when he has the ability to save Raffles’s life, but his denial of this chance only compounds his trouble. In Chapter 70, rumors of Bulstrode’s misdeeds – stealing Will Ladislaw’s inheritance money, among other things – begin to spread through Middlemarch. When Will confronts Bulstrode about the past ‘Bulstrode reddened with irrepressible anger. He had been prepared for a scene of self-abasement, but his intense pride and his habit of supremacy overpowered penitence, and even dread, when this young man, whom he had meant to benefit, turned on him with the air of a judge’ (Ch. 61, p. 514). This reveals that Bulstrode has a similar superiority complex as Casaubon, but to the extreme, when prevents him of thinking of anyone but himself. At Raffles’s deathbed then, Bulstrode does not actively try to save Raffles, but continues to think only of himself:

‘As he sat there and beheld the enemy of his peace going irrevocably into silence, he felt more at rest than he had done for many months. His conscience was soothed by the enfolding wing of secrecy, which seemed just then like an angel sent down for his relief. … In that way the moments passed, until a change in the stertorous breathing was marked enough to draw his attention wholly to the bed, and forced him to think of the departing life, which had once been subservient to his own – which he had once been glad to find base enough for him to act as he would. It was his gladness then which impelled him now to be glad that the life was at an end’ (Ch. 70, p. 586).

In some ways, Bulstrode goes through a similar process as Dorothea, thinking seriously about the life of a person he has affected, but he fails to make that leap or turn of the imagination that put himself in Raffles’s position; he only sees the benefit of having Raffles out of the way – ‘his relief’ – even though he has the opportunity to save Raffles’s life and begin to undo the damage he has done the lives of others affected by his misdeeds. Bulstrode passively denies Raffles the second chance letting him life slip through his fingers without sympathy. Here Eliot sharply contrasts the consequences of denying second chances. Bulstrode’s heart is not only unchanged, but a life is also lost – the consequences are that severe sometimes. Eliot shows her readers through Bulstrode how they will suffer more than just morally if they refuse to think outside themselves, hoping to steer them clear of similar choices.

In the end, even the Bulstrode gets a second chance of sorts when his wife chooses to stay with him ‘now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him’ (Ch. 74, p. 617). Through Mrs Bulstrode’s action, Eliot tells her readers that no one is unworthy of a second chance, even those who have committed the most monstrous acts and are most undeserving. Eliot shows that the choices we make as humans in regard to or regardless of others has consequences great and small, and that making morally wise choices requires effort – an exercise of the imagination. Eliot does not portray these choices as easy, for giving second chances always remains difficult, but Eliot equips her readers with the stories of a people who are changed by the process so they can be changed as well. Only then can the process of human reconnection can begin.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Wordsworth Classics ed. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions, 1994. Print.


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