On the 150th anniversary of its first installment, George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch is the book for our pandemic times. Idealist novels paint with luminous clarity the virtuous life; we draw aesthetic, moral, and spiritual nourishment from their aspirational nature. But, coming off of 2020—a decisively pessimistic year that is described most accurately with colorful expletives—we are just too jaded for the crisp optimism of, say, a Jane Austen novel. After months of political turmoil, pandemic deaths, and quarantine isolation, many of us are overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness. We need stories of realism, ones that acknowledge the world’s cold ambiguities and harsh dilemmas.
Middlemarch does not sugarcoat reality’s rougher edges. Most of the characters we meet have spun plans for themselves that, we are warned, will end in glorious failure. The story’s golden-hearted heroine is Dorothea Brooke, who at nineteen has a “theoretic” mind that “yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world.” Dorothea is “enamoured of intensity and greatness … likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.” “Open” and “ardent,” she’s stricken with an “eagerness to know the truth of life.”
Dorothea incurs her unplanned martyrdom when she marries the dour Reverend Edward Casaubon. Expecting to find intellectual and spiritual fulfillment assisting Casaubon in his scholarly endeavors, Dorothea instead finds that his intellectual work is incoherent, interminable academic nonsense. Tragically, in his insecurity and defensiveness he rebuffs all her tender offers of affection and assistance. Mutual misunderstanding escalates, and Dorothea finds that a wall of ice has arisen between them.
Tertius Lydgate, a benevolent but prideful doctor with grand ambitions to revolutionize medicine in the town of Middlemarch, also receives unsought martyrdom. He falls in love with Rosamond Vincy and fancies she will be a supportive partner in his bold schemes. Unfortunately, she is instead an infinitely vain and narcissistic young woman with tastes too expensive for a doctor’s salary. Lydgate much sooner than Rosamond realizes he must modify his expectations when confronted with her invincible will and sly manipulation.
Does Eliot surmise there is any meaning, any sort of sacred value in the muddled, difficult circumstances her characters face? Noting St. Theresa of Avila’s grand and ardent thirst for a righteous life in Middlemarch’s prelude, she writes, “Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action … perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.” She continues, lyrically: “With dim lights and tangled circumstances they tried to shape their thought and deed into noble agreement,” yet they lived in an era without a “coherent social faith” that could provide “knowledge for the ardently willing soul.”
In other words, there is no doctrine, no satisfying account of the cosmos that makes sense of the disjointed chaos surrounding us. Those who long for uprightness and the beauty of a well ordered soul find themselves without a coherent idea of goodness or virtue to guide them. And for us, the ethical dilemmas posed by pandemics and unsatisfying political choices only compound our era’s philosophical disorientation.
The Pain of Uncertainty
But Middlemarch’s final word is not that we’re all doomed to be stifled Theresas, lost in the uncaring dustbin of forgotten history. Eliot’s view of human fate is more meliorist than pessimistic, according to Rosemary Ashton in her 2019 Times Literary Supplement essay. To Eliot, Ashton explains, the world is “neither the best nor the worst of all possible worlds, but … it may be improved up to a point, and suffering alleviated, at least in part, by human effort.” Ashton writes that Eliot’s conclusions are “persuasive, yet they allow for doubts and errors.” Eliot strives for a delicate balance, and “makes a safe landing just this side of pessimism.”
So is Middlemarch’s lesson for the recovering denizens of 2020 merely that our lives should be read with narrow optimism and faint hope? Or does the book offer a more complex vision of reality? Eliot’s critique of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s pantheism reveals that she held a fundamentally tragic outlook—one that eschews a simple optimism versus pessimism dichotomy. In a recent essay from The Lamp magazine, Robert Wyllie traces Spinoza’s influence on Eliot’s thinking, deeming her a “sympathetic critic” of his. Eliot translated his Ethics into English, where she encountered his exuberant pantheist sensibility, which perceives “that everything is in God.” For Spinoza, the world is “is only one of the infinite expressions of an impersonal ‘God,’” according to Eliot’s preferred interpretation of him.
But to Eliot, Spinoza’s quasi-pantheistic notion of God was too abstracted from lived experience. Wyllie writes, “The world is a web of causes, most of them obscure to us…. If the mysterious, the tragic, and the unexpected remain ineradicable aspects of modern life, then Spinoza’s God can only appear in the guise of chance.” Eliot thus sees tragedy, in the form of hidden causes and random accidents, as an inescapable part of lived experience, from which a pantheistic God cannot redeem us. In Middlemarch we see in literary form these intricate networks of mystery, unfathomable to us finite creatures, that sustain our lives’ narrative arches and unexpectedly unleash calamity into our world.
Eliot is right to pinpoint the “unknowability” of reality as a central component of human agony. After all, how much is the pandemic distress compounded by the fact that we understand so little about the virus’ origins, its behavior? How can we make worthy, noble choices when information is intractably lacking? And, worst of all, we have no idea why this pandemic is happening to us in this way and at this time. Maybe we can identify the material causes of some tragedies (cancer ended someone’s life prematurely; covid-19 led to economic ruin that extinguished someone’s job and a family’s livelihood), but the reasons behind such suffering are not easily seen on a cosmological scale.
The uncertainty of any transcendent reasons or redemptive qualities of suffering is the reason Eliot’s narrator assumes a tone of epistemic humility. It’s also the reason she mourns the loss of a “coherent social faith” that supplies “knowledge for the ardently willing soul.” There is no longer a widely accepted metaphysical account of existence that can help us understand why ugliness, suffering, or tragedy come knocking at our doors.
The Solace of Kindness
Yet Middlemarch nonetheless has striking moments of clairvoyant philosophic insight about tragedy. After Lydgate falls into disrepute thanks to libelous rumors connecting him to unspeakably base and murderous acts, Dorothea ardently seeks to vindicate his reputation. In a spirit of what Eliot calls “impetuous generosity,” Dorothea petitions her family to join her in defending him: “Mr. Lydgate would understand that if his friends hear a calumny about him their first wish must be to justify. What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”
Dorothea is the first to confirm to Lydgate that she is fully confident in his innocence, something not even his wife has done. (Rosamond could not see past the inconveniences her husband’s sullied reputation posed to herself.) Eliot describes Dorothea’s effect on Lydgate: “The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.”
Dorothea’s impression suggests something profound: contact with noble natures helps us see new dimensions of reality, to perceive new and subtle shades. The great-souled among us, the Dorotheas, show us previously unnoticed possibilities and the trappings of hope all about us. Think of Alyosha from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, who helps those around him perceive that ugliness can be transfigured into beauty, that evil can be redeemed to righteousness. It’s not that we are converted into naive optimists; rather, our saints and Dorotheas—and even those of ordinary virtue in their moments of grace—help us see more soberly and clearly, alleviating the tangled confusion that often begets suffering. Even though naked reality is obscure, muddled, and unreadable, the light of their charity illuminates its natural dimness. Noble natures lead us out of the small circles of habituated cynicism that we’ve forged in our minds.
Saintly neighbors not only clear our minds and sharpen our vision, but they also make us more like them. Eliot writes, “There are natures which, if they love us, we are conscious of having a sort of baptism and consecration; they bind us over to rectitude and purity by their pure belief about us.” Dorothea repeatedly disarms others by her conspicuous presumption of their good intentions. These presumptions even beget moral restoration in those around her.
Though Eliot sometimes seems to write off Dorothea’s cleansing kindness as naivety, Dorothea certainly was endowed with a rare warmness toward her fellow creatures. After marriage to a husband who was filled with “suspicions of hidden wrong” in her (he essentially accuses her of adulterous inclinations in his will), it seems impossible that there isn’t some determination behind her bottomless goodwill. Few people could walk away from such base accusations without newfound conviction that darkness dwells deep in the human heart.
Eliot’s creation of a heroine as compelling as Dorothea in a narrative braided with philosophical insight tells us that optimism and pessimism are equally myopic. They are the wrong framing for a world that consistently defies expectations, good and bad. Unpredictability will always be with us. But our ability to understand our world’s meaning, even to surmise reasons for suffering, is deeply shaped by our relationships with our neighbors. The interconnectivity of human minds is yet another facet of our race’s vulnerability and finitude—but also its glory. We choose how to see those around us, how we evaluate their motives, and whether or not we want to make life a little less difficult for one another.
After an unusually trying year, when everything seems so beyond control, Eliot teaches us that we bear weighty responsibility: even the innermost movements of the soul reach out and brush our neighbors. Our actions can reinforce the darkness that shrouds the human condition, but they can also broaden our vision so that it encompasses reality’s myriad qualities, not just tragic ones. We can allow cynicism to reinforce the shadows we’re born into, or we can help those near us see the secret hopes brimming just beneath the surface of this afflicted world.
Elayne Allen is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute’s social, cultural, and constitutional studies department. She is also an alumna of Hudson Institute Political Studies, the Hertog Foundation, and the John Jay Fellowship.
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