Friday, September 30, 2011

Middlemarch: 'to know yourself guiltless before a condemning crowd...'

If there is one thing that I have come to learn over the last few weeks, it is that no matter how guilty or suspicious a person or set of events seems, it cannot be assumed to represent the truth. For all intents and purposes one could perceive Bulstrode as a murderer, guilty of the death of Raffles because he has something to gain from it… and yet, Eliot leaves a sense of ambiguity over his intentions. A man is not a murderer just because you believe him to be one.

Appearances are what they are. You can derive from them what you like.

Dorothea and Will could have yielded to society’s expectations, regardless of how pure and innocent their feelings were, they were to be frowned upon. But in the end they refuse to let other people determine how they live their lives. Lydgate, meanwhile, is doomed in the eyes of society from the moment he associates himself with Bulstrode, the resident scapegoat. People are quick to condemn.

Except Dorothea.

She becomes the moral compass of Middlemarch, ready to believe the best in people rather than the worst. It takes time to build trust but seconds to destroy it – only she retains a sense of people’s worth despite their faults or bad actions.

A commendable heroine.  

In the case of Lydgate, Dorothea is the sole person to follow her convictions and stand by him, even though she owes nothing to him. In the latter stages of the novel she finds herself ‘convinced that his conduct has not been guilty. I believe that people are almost always better than their neighbours think they are.’ She challenges the deceptive nature of appearances, how things ‘seem’, a trap even the reader can easily fall into. Dorothea remarks that ‘people glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbours’. Sometimes it is hard to stand by a person others deem as disgraced or ‘fallen’, harder than turning on them. It is so easy to suppose things are a certain way. But this is wrong. Dorothea Brooke is the voice of moral reasoning in a very human and compassionate way, based on the simple notion she stands by that we should always try to make life less difficult to each other.
It is clear Eliot intended Dorothea as the moral crux of the novel, an inspiration to peoples everywhere. Her narrative voice is along the same theme and, for me, the ultimate and most potent message that I took from Middlemarch is this line:

‘that is a rare and blessed lot… to know ourselves guiltless before a condemning crowd – to be sure that what we are denounced for is solely the good in us.’

It always gives me strength. Essentially, you have retained a sense of integrity, stood by your principles, and if you can say this then it does not matter what people think. You still acted in the best way you knew how.
In a sense both Dorothea and Will were born facing a harder struggle than others, it would be harder for them to maintain their integrity. Dorothea possesses what was clearly deemed an uncanny (for a woman) thirst for knowledge and desire for purpose, one that leads her into a bad marriage with the scholar Casaubon whom she idolises for his intellectual endeavours. Will, on the other hand, is artistically inclined and thus sentenced to be regarded as having no prospects financially or socially. He is what critics like Linda Mahkovec call the ‘artist figure’, not dissimilar to Philip Waken in The Mill on the Floss. Mahkovec also draws parallels between Dorothea and Maggie Tulliver, as heroines who are both ‘capable, passionate, and ambitious but their potential remains locked inside them’. Such female characters are drawn to the male artist because they ‘recognise themselves in each other; they see someone who filters and perceives the world as they do, and who are judged harshly by others as they are’. Their struggles are similar and inextricably linked. These are men who ‘go against Society’s model’, and relations with them endanger the ‘status quo’.

In the case of Will ‘it would be impossible for him to show any further interest in Dorothea without subjecting himself to disagreeable imputations – perhaps even in her mind, which others might try to poison’. He is thus led to despair that ‘we are forever divided… I might as well be at Rome she would be no farther from me.’ Eliot is incisive with her observations of human nature, and it is at this point in the narrative that it is written that ‘what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope’. Will is only at this time wary of society’s expectations because he has received no prompting from Dorothea. One cannot help but think that at one word from her he would have forgotten it all. Appearances carry as much weight as we allow them to possess.

Mahkovec labels Dorothea ‘a reworking and development of key aspects of Maggie’. They both embody a ‘struggle for selfhood framed in a tightly bound patriarchal order’.  Both yearn to live a life with meaning and purpose and yet Dorothea is the only woman in Middlemarch who ‘quests for knowledge’ Mahkovec notes that Dorothea, unlike Maggie, does have the benefit of social status but she ultimately puts it to a good end, one that is in line with her integrity.

Bibliography: Dorothea Brooke’s Search for Purpose (Voicing Female Ambition and Purpose: The Role of the Artist Figure in the works of George Eliot by Linda Mahkovec, City University of New York

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