09 October 2013

Review: Middlemarch by George Eliot

Trade paperback, 853 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1871-72)

Acquired October 2012
Read December 2012
by George Eliot

I said in my review of George Henry Lewes's Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences (1853) that I thought Middlemarch was a utopian novel, because it “examines the ways in which the ideals of positivism do and do not work.” Positivism, as envisioned by Comte and Lewes, rests its premises on detailed historical, social, and psychological observations of human beings, which can then be used to recreate society on scientific grounds. What's more utopian than that? Middlemarch is a utopian novel because it shows the beginning of that utopian project.

The difficulty of obtaining accurate scientific observations of people is shown consistently throughout Middlemarch. Most famously, this is done via the poor social choices of Tertius Lydgate, the physician and naturalist, but I would like to look at other elements of the novel’s engagement with scientific observation: the narrator’s use of scientific metaphors and the character of Dorothea. Dorothea, though not a scientist, is heavily invested in the idea of doing good in general and reform in particular, and she often advocates for an approach to reform with a scientific edge. In the first few chapters of Middlemarch, she is involved in a scheme to build new cottages for the villagers of Middlemarch, but she constantly reflects how she wishes her efforts had a stronger basis in knowledge: “The thing which seemed to her best, she wanted to justify by the completest knowledge; and not to live in a pretended admission of rules which were never acted on” (29). This seems to be a perfect example of the positivist desire: Dorothea cannot create a new society (even if on her scale a “society” is merely a set of new cottages) if she does not first understand the way the current one works.

Where Dorothea initially runs into difficulty is in her inability to find the best (or even a good) way to accomplish her goal of finding the completest knowledge. She ends up deciding that marrying Causabon, who is attempting to develop The Key to All Mythologies, is best, because she can help him in his great works: “It would be like marrying Pascal. I should learn to see the truth by the same light as great men have seen it by” (29). Here, as in so many other cases, her increased knowledge is figured as more penetrative sight; a new light will come upon her sight and enable her to see old objects in a new way. Dorothea’s desire is at its most explicitly Comtist when she first hears Causabon describe his project: “To reconstruct a past world, doubtless with a view to the highest purposes of truth – what a work to be in any way present at... though only as a lamp-holder!” (18).

Her desire to reconstruct history recalls Lewes’s grandiose claim that in giving his theory of development, Comte had “explained all the great historical phases… whence results the conception of a homogenous and continuous connection in the whole series of anterior ages, from the first manifestation of sociality, to the most advanced condition of mankind” (327). Dorothea too believes that all she needs to envision the future accurately is a complete conception of the past, and this leads her into her marriage with Causabon. Of course, Causabon’s work is not exactly the noble endeavor she imagines it to be, and the marriage quickly becomes unhappy for both of them. Ironically, but perhaps typically, for someone who wants to know all humanity, Dorothea struggles with just knowing the desires of herself and her husband.

The difficulty of knowing others is consistently reinforced throughout Middlemarch, from Dorothea’s bad choice in marriage to Lydgate’s inability to judge how the Middlemarch community will react to him (not to mention the Middlemarch community’s inability to understand him!). But certainly misunderstanding and bad judgments are part of the plots of most novels. What makes the ones in Middlemarch interesting and relevant to a project on scientific vision is that the inability is most often communicated with scientific metaphors. When Mrs Cadwallader tells Sir James that he did not and cannot win the hand of Dorothea, the narrator wonders why she has done this, commenting that “a telescope might have swept the parishes… without witnessing any interview that could excite suspicion… Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse” (59). The narrator goes on to explain that only with the strongest of lenses can we see why the simple life-forms in a water-drop act as they do—but the implication is that science could not achieve this level of insight into a human being, with either a telescope or a microscope. In fact, it takes the insight of the novelist three full pages to explain why Mrs Cadwallader acts the way that she does—and no one else has that level of access to interiority.

Another scientific metaphor points to a different difficulty when it comes to observation, sifting out the observer’s own thoughts and position from an observation. If a surface of polished steel is “minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against a lighted candle as a centre of illuminations, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion… These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent” (264). The metaphor employed here compares observing human events to an experiment involving light and glass, and the danger of assuming that one’s first inclination is the true one. The threat here is the human ego, which puts itself in a primary position far too easily. This is a recurrent threat throughout Middlemarch; characters’ observations are often endangered by what they want to see. This metaphor carries an implicit critique of scientific work like Comte’s: when Lewes says that the “foremost portion of mankind is now approaching the positive state… and now only await their general co-ordination to constitute a new social system” (328), he is both assuming that his portion of mankind is the foremost one, and that his age is the one on the verge of the new social system. What is this but egoism? What would it be like if Lewes and Comte had moved that flame and seen scratches emanating from the fourth-century Middle East?

The way Middlemarch warns against such dangers of observation makes it a fictional counterpart to Eliot’s own essay “The Natural History of German Life,” published in 1856, just three years after Lewes published Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences. I've already covered that essay as well, but suffice it to say that Eliot ends up suggesting is an alliance between the novel and science. The distance of science can be combined with the closeness of the novel to make truly useful observations, for a true understanding of character will “check our theories, and direct us in their application.” It is not just that the novelist is the only one who knows why Mrs Caldwell acts the way she does; the novelist’s knowledge of character is necessary to all society.

But even this is not enough to save Comte’s grand theories, to let us believe that everything about civilization can be summarized in an equation or theory. If observation is flawed, and if no theory can ever be universal, what are we left to work with in creating Comte’s future society? Within Middlemarch, Eliot shows her solution in action with Dorothea’s actions at the climax of the story. Here, she goes back and re-observes an earlier encounter with Rosamond and Ladislaw with her “vivid sympathetic experience,” which “asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance” (788). She quite literally cannot see the way that she used to.

She does not know everything, but she can discern that there are “hidden as well as evident troubles” in the Lydgate marriage (788). At this moment, Dorothea looks outside and sees “involuntary, palpitating life”: a woman with a baby, a shepherd with a dog, the field beyond the entrance gate. Dorothea experiences sympathy in the way that “The Natural History of German Life” calls for all would-be sociologists to do so, and armed in this way, she is able to help Rosamond and Ladislaw. What she tells Rosamond is based on a misinterpretation of events—but it helps Rosamond anyway, and in fact, it is exactly what Rosamond needed to hear. Eliot suggests that when we ally sympathy with observation, we can do good, and even if we have misunderstood the situation, our good can be good enough anyway. Dorothea’s actions here are just the beginning of her finally fulfilling her desire to help change the world, as she marries Ladislaw and he becomes a reform politician.

The moment where Dorothea helps Rosamond despite her misunderstanding was foreshadowed all the way back at the beginning of the novel, where the narrator points out the tendency of young women to interpret facts incorrectly, but then claims that is not that bad of an outcome: “They are not always too grossly received; for Sinbad himself may have fallen by good luck on a true description, and wrong reasoning sometimes land poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zig-zags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be” (25).

We are all but poor mortals trying to do our best in solving the world’s problems, but if we look around keenly and let the novelist guide our sympathies, we might do some good in the world, even if it’s not the good we intended, whether we have scientific theories on our side or not.

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