Small, hungry and shivering.

Continuing with my mini-miniseries on the men of Middlemarch, I give you an exemplary passage in which the author explains Casaubon to us. The metaphors she uses to convey the intricacies of his stunted self are many but not too many for me. Even with their being descriptive of a truly pitiable man, my own soul can’t help but “thrill into passionate delight” over George Eliot’s imagination and skill.

He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic; it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity.

…even his religious faith wavered with his wavering trust in his own authorship, and the consolations of the Christian hope in immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten Key to Mythologies. For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self – never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

From the movie I’ve not seen.

If Dorothea could only have seen into Casusbon’s mind and heart the way his creator does, then she would have realized that he is not a man prepared to be a husband — maybe. But more on Dorothea later.

My tendency to be flippant or dismissive of Casaubon flows from his being fictional. (In the earlier version of this post I wrote fictitious, but then I realized that fictitious connotes false to me, which is reason enough not to use that word for a book character who is drawn so clearly in the shape of reality.) We can examine him closely and analyze each of his parts and guess at his destiny without being gossips. He is an archetype of one form of Lost Soul, and thinking about him and his engagement with other characters can enrich our understanding of humanity, and perhaps even instruct us in love.

Celia hasn’t the ability to debate the “notions” and idealism that are leading her sister toward marriage to Casaubon, but her instincts tell her that something is not right about this “death’s head warmed over.” That her beloved sister is planning to join her life with his disturbs her greatly.

“O Mrs. Cadwallader, I don’t think it can be nice to marry a man with a great soul.”

“Well, my dear, take warning. You know the look of one now: when the next comes and wants to marry you, don’t you accept him.”

5 thoughts on “Small, hungry and shivering.

  1. Thank you for that quote. It is always good to hold up a magnifying glass to a particularly wonderful passage. I am a very fast reader and often miss the details. This line is wonderful:

    ..it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.

    What a wonderful metaphor for Casaubon’s damaged soul..

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  2. Eliot indeed has an excellent literary gift of getting you to “know’ the characters in this novel, and you are rightly molded into how you will perceive them for the most part. I find my lips curling ever time I read of Casaubon.

    I have not seen the movie either, yet I am considering it when I have finished reading the novel. Thank you again for the initiative to get me to the point of picking up this book…I am enjoying it very much.

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  3. “… and the consolations of the Christian hope in immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten Key to Mythologies.” One of the examples of how incisive and sardonic Eliot could be. Actually, if she were here today, she would have made one great screenwriter to adapt her own novels to the big screen!

    While the blame is heavily put on Casaubon in their dysfunctional marriage, I do feel Dorothea’s naiveté, inexperience and idealism ought to be mentioned as factors leading to her error in judgement, and the rashness of her decision. Eliot is kind of too lenient on her maybe.

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