Tag Archives: George Eliot

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.”

Middlemarch – Ladislaw’s force of unreason.

One Saturday evening Will Ladislaw is thinking about the foolishness of his current situation, in which he has taken work in the town near to where our heroine Mrs. Casaubon lives, because of his feelings for that woman “for ever enthroned in his soul.” But he has been forbidden by Dorothea’s jealous husband to visit their home. So, “he could hardly ever see her.”

His thoughts are going irritably round and round on this subject when, “suddenly reflecting that the morrow would be Sunday, he determined to go to Lowick Church to see her.” It’s not his parish, and his presence would annoy Casaubon certainly, but he reasons,

“It is not true that I go to annoy him, and why should I not go to see Dorothea? Is he to have everything to himself and be always comfortable? Let him smart a little, as other people are obliged to do. I have always liked the quaintness of the church and congregation; besides, I know the Tuckers. I shall go into their pew.”

Having silenced Objection by force of unreason, Will walked to Lowick as if he had been on the way to Paradise, crossing Halsell Common and skirting the woods, where the sunlight fell broadly under the budding boughs, bringing out the beauties of moss and lichen, and fresh green growths piercing the brown. Everything seemed to know that it was Sunday, and to approve of his going to Lowick Church. Will easily felt happy when nothing crossed his humour, and by this time the thought of vexing Mr. Casaubon had become rather amusing to  him, making his face break into its merry smile, pleasant to see as the breaking of sunshine on the water — though the occasion was not exemplary…. Will went along… chanting a little, as he made scenes of what would happen in church and coming out….The words were not exactly a hymn, but they certainly fitted his Sunday experience….

…. Sometimes, when he took off his hat, shaking his head backward, and showing his delicate throat as he sang, he looked like an incarnation of the spring whose spirit filled the air — a bright creature, abundant in uncertain promises.

This is one of a thousand passages in Middlemarch that so delightfully convey the personality and the feelings of one of the characters. I wish that I could transcribe a score of them just because I admire so much Eliot’s art. In this case Will is to himself in happy concord with even the weather and the season, and with the landscape that the author paints with a few perfect phrases. I think that Eliot is a little bit in love with Will Ladislaw, for how else could she make me fall in love with him?

The last phrase, though, comparing Will and springtime, is suddenly ominous, because, as we all know, the weather is unpredictable at this time of year. And the spirit of spring — I am as susceptible to its easy promises as anyone.

I did read this novel aloud with my husband 15 years ago, an acquaintance that was too shallow and distant for me to retain more than vague impressions. This time, on my own, I’m more engaged and enraptured, but still, I don’t want to take a year to read as thoroughly and meditatively as this book seems to warrant. So I’m glad Arti proposed two months, and I look forward to the remaining weeks and stories.

photo credit: Pippin

George Eliot and The Paralytic


This Lord’s Day we were remembering the paralytic, who sat by the pool waiting for a chance to get into the water at those times when an angel stirred it, so that he might be healed. After 38 years, Jesus came by and healed him.

Father John in his homily highlighted one aspect of the Gospel story: how we are like that man in our seeming paralysis when it comes to overcoming our sins. Priests often hear in confession the lament of the Christian who continues to battle the same weaknesses and failings year after year, feeling that he makes little progress.

I think a lot about the truism that habits are like a second nature to us. As we read in Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”

It sounds very little like one chipper exhortation you might have read: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Well, yes, why not just start today? When I read that on Tuesday, I remembered the paralytic, and I thought on my own unchanged bad habits. After his 38 years, wasn’t it in fact too late for many things? (The assumption is that one might have been greater; the reverse is probably more true, that it’s never too late to start a downward spiral.)

For myself, let’s see…how many years have I been cultivating certain of my bad habits? More than that, I’m afraid. But it’s a simple thing: “The only thing that stands between me and greatness is me.” (Woody Allen)

George Eliot

George Eliot is credited with having made that bold assertion, “It’s never to late to be what you might have been.” She was the subject of a New Yorker article from February of this year, “Middlemarch and Me,” by Rebecca Mead, who questions the validity of the quote and whether it even reflects the true outlook of the author Mary Ann Evans.

Mead has been a lifelong lover of Eliot’s books, Middlemarch in particular, and she points out some hints that the author leaves in her novels, as well as forthright confessions from her journals, to show that her general attitude was wiser and more modest.

In Middlemarch, we read of the main character,  “Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better.”

Mead writes: “Middlemarch is not about blooming late, or unexpectedly coming into one’s own after the unproductive flush of youth. Middlemarch suggests that it is always too late to be what you might have been — but it also shows that, virtually without exception, the unrealized life is worth living. The book that Virginia Woolf characterized as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’ is also a book about how to be a grownup person — about how to bear one’s share of sorrow, failure, and loss, as well as to enjoy moments of hard-won happiness.”

Let’s look back at the Paralytic by the Sheep’s Gate Pool. He must have had some way to propel himself, perhaps one limb that was functional, so that he could sit there for much of his life hoping to get down to the water first. He certainly had patience — and perseverance, to keep trying.

Father John said that even if we feel we have nothing more than a big toe’s worth of strength against our sins, we must keep struggling. Because we never know when Jesus will come to us. When he came to the cripple by the pool, He Himself was the source of the healing, and the man was delivered from his afflictions and was able to walk and carry his bed. For most of us, we will not receive the equivalent healing until we are resurrected in the coming Kingdom.

In the meantime, we will have failures. Maybe we will even think we are failures. It is very discouraging when one realizes what Samuel Johnson found: “The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” On another aspect of this human experience, Dorothea said in Middlemarch about her husband’s intellectual labors: “Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.”

The most helpful sort of activity to persevere in, if one wants to be on the path to God, is prayer. “A long perseverance” of this sort would never be disappointing. The very moments of prayer have the potential to be Heaven itself, in the presence of the God Who is Love.

“In patience you possess your souls,” we read in Luke 21, and Mark Twain elaborates: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”

Whether we are being too easy on ourselves is the question. If we are being lazy, of course, that is one of the sins we are trying to overcome. And pride in thinking we are equal to any task, we can be anything we put our minds to — that also must be set aside.

Mary Ann Evans put it this way in her journal: “The difficulty is, to decide how far resolution should set in the direction of activity rather than in the acceptance of a more negative state.”

But I like best the way St. Seraphim of Sarov speaks about this, and will close with his gentle words: “One should be lenient towards the weaknesses and imperfections of one’s own soul and endure one’s own shortcomings as we tolerate the shortcomings of our neighbours, and at the same time not become lazy but impel oneself to work on one’s improvement incessantly.”