As Dorothea learns to her dismay, other people do not necessarily crave the treatment we expect them to appreciate. To thrive in sustained intimacy requires learning to provide not what we think someone else wants, or should want, but what actually makes him or her happy.
This struggle to see others is the moral drama of Middlemarch, and of life. Eliot never stops resisting the autocracy of the self; what Copernicus was to geocentricity, she is to egocentricity. The most striking example of this resistance appears not in her books but in a letter, quoted by Mead, that Eliot wrote to a bereaved friend. “I try to delight in the sunshine that will be when I shall never see it any more. And I think it is possible for this sort of impersonal life to attain great intensity,—possible for us to gain much more independence, than is usually believed, of the small bundle of acts that make our own personality.”
Reading that passage is like watching Eliot drift upward to become the narrator of Middlemarch: omniscient, compassionate, seeing life more clearly for the distance but sharing not one iota less in its delights. From a narrator, we take such a position for granted. From a person, it’s a startlingly radical separation.