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Chapter 29 of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch opens, fittingly, with a deferral:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. (Eliot Ch. 29)
By making Dorothea – who has already been the centre of numerous chapters by this point in the novel – the subject of this sentence, the narrative teasingly suggests that the passage which opens with a dash and the exclamation ‘but why always Dorothea?’ will simply be a lengthy parenthetical digression, of which there are many in the novel and even a few in this passage. Instinctively the reader skims over the first few lines of this apparent interjection, seeking the matching dash that will close out the parentheses and hence introduce the main verb. It is only after reading for several sentences – and perhaps two or three paragraphs – that the recognition dawns that no main verb is forthcoming: the sentence – and whatever was going to be communicated about Dorothea, has been infinitely deferred, at least in its present form.
The lingering sense of dissatisfaction generated by this opening serves as a grammatical mirror of the character the passage instead goes on to explore: that of the ageing, emotionally distant scholar Casaubon. Casaubon himself is a study in deferral: his failure to find an underlying code in mythology – which underlies Casaubon’s unfinished work, the Key to all Mythologies – is an ‘exemplary instance of the persistence of the persistence of difference and deferral’, to the extent that Casaubon has ‘unwittingly written a masterly demonstration of post-structuralist premises’ (Reilly 55). The passage’s reference to his deferral of matrimony and procreation – his failure to ‘receive family pleasures and leave behind that copy of himself which seemed so urgently required of a man – to the sonneteers of the sixteenth century’ – is explicitly paralleled to his failure to complete his Mythologies work: ‘no sonneteer had insisted on Mr Casaubon’s leaving a copy of himself; moreover, he had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of himself’ (Eliot Ch. 29). The detachment that is suggested by this equation of love and marriage to work and social convention, coupled with the positioning of Dorothea as the initial – and permanently unfulfilled – grammatical agent of the passage, serves also to foreshadow Casaubon’s emotional and physical neglect of Dorothea, the opening sentence’s grammatical frustration paralleling the sexual frustration of ‘the predicament of being married to an older, possibly impotent man’ (Mueller 81). The parallel in Casaubon’s mind between his marriage and his scholarly pursuits comes when he reflects that Dorothea ‘might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, and aid which Mr Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of (Eliot Ch. 29).
Several of the key characteristic features of the Middlemarch narrator are on display here: the first-person narration appears omniscient with respect to the characters but retains sufficient personality of his/her own – so as to become a kind of character in the narrative – that his/her accounts of characters’ internal thoughts and motivations seem at once authoritative and speculative, a device which in turn permits the narrative voice to stage a kind of dramatic irony: the characters are rarely as aware of their own natures as the audience or the narrator, from whose ironic distance and wry asides the reader gains insight into the characters’ limitations and self-deceptions. This ironic distance is epitomised by the narrator’s two uses in this passage (and multiple others elsewhere in the narrative) of the term ‘conscious’ in characterising Casaubon’s inner life: the term variously takes on meanings including a capacity for deep and refined sensibility, self-awareness, and self-consciousness (in the sense of social awkwardness). We are first told that Casaubon is possessed of an ‘intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually hungered like the rest of us’ (Eliot Ch. 29) – an apparently sincere defence that is presented in opposition to the superficial objections raised by others: ‘the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James’ (Eliot Ch. 29). Yet the suggestion that this ‘intense consciousness’ arises from a depth of fine feeling is immediately compromised by the revelation that he believes he has ‘ done nothing exceptional in marrying – nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths and bouquets’ (Eliot Ch. 29) – a functional view of marriage that inspires the series of reflections that leads to the reference to Dorothea as a ‘helpmate’ who will forestall the need for a secretary.
The audience’s emerging view of Casaubon’s ‘intense consciousness’ is thus continually under modification in this passage, and the narrator goes on to suggest it might reflect a certain awkwardness (‘ Mr Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind’) and a serious demeanour coupled with capacity for (and tendency to) sombre self-reflection. This too is shattered by the narrator’s ironic distance, though: in one of many proto-feminist interjections in the novel the narrator notes that his reflective nature in fact masks (or perhaps encourages) a form of self-obsession that allows little in the way of engagement with the internal lives of others:
Whether Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooke in presenting her with Mr Casaubon was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy. As if a man could choose not only his wife but his wife’s husband! (Eliot Ch. 29)
The narrator is perhaps particularly harsh on Casaubon, mercilessly deflating his pompous and serious persona by mocking the areas in which he is least self-aware. But the gently mocking, ironic tone of the narrator, along with the strategy of increasing and decreasing distance from its subject for comic effect, is one of the novel’s foundational characterisation styles. Of Mr. Lydgate, for example, we learn that he ‘had the medical accomplishment of looking perfectly grave whatever nonsense was talked to him’ and that his habit of simply agreeing with those with whom he is in conversation leads to Lady Chettam declaring that ‘He seems to me to understand his profession admirably’ (Eliot Ch. 10). Lydgate is in many ways the polar opposite of Casaubon, but the narrator conveys in a very similar manner: by alternately claiming total understanding and total bewilderment.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.
Mueller, Monika. George Eliot U.S.: Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Perspectives. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 2005. Print.
Reilly, Jim. Shadowtime: History and Representation in Hardy, Conrad and George Eliot. Routledge, 2013. Print.