Maitzen on Middlemarch and morality| Open Letters Monthly

So Mr. Casaubon is not simply as bad as Dorothea believes— he is worse. And when she subordinates herself to him, it’s his petty, vindictive nature that gets free rein, while Dorothea’s generous ardor is stifled by her “nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread.” The fundamental question of moral philosophy is “how ought I to live?”: how can this be the right answer?

The doctrine of sympathy that sends Dorothea down that broad corridor arm in arm with her husband turns out, then, to have frightening consequences. It’s not that the best lack all conviction, but that their convictions lead them inexorably to a moral victory that by any other standard looks like defeat.

How indeed? And yet, despite the apparently perverse nature of this altruistic conception of morality Maitzen stands with Eliot.

There’s no way around it, though: as the narrator in The Mill on the Floss remarks, “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.” Precisely because the Mr. Casaubons of the world are trapped in their own egocentric perceptions, they can’t be expected to either see realistically or act sympathetically. The Dorotheas of the world, in contrast, because wider in their vision and thus stronger in their moral perception, will always be accountable to the demands of altruism.

Maitzen quotes Eliot herself on this issue.

The notion that duty looks stern, but all the while has her hand full of sugar-plums, with which she will reward us by and by, is the favourite cant of optimists, who try to make out that this tangled wilderness of life has a plan as easy to trace as that of a Dutch garden; but it really undermines all true moral development by perpetually substituting something extrinsic as a motive to action, instead of the immediate impulse of love or justice, which alone makes an action truly moral.

There’s much truth to this and it feels wonderfully pious but I can’t escape the sense that it’s also profoundly, perhaps fatally, mistaken. Is it truly loving to so patronise those we ostensibly care about most? Equally, is it just that those deemed less morally capable need never confront the consequences of their actions, or inactions? Is it not in any case a little presumptuous of those “who have the wider vision” to assume that the incapacity of others is permanent?

Maitzen lays bare the ugliness (although she doesn’t see it as such) that can so easily flow from this vision of the duty that falls upon “morally superior” individuals.

The prospect of subordinating our best selves to the worst among us, of renouncing our own best hopes because to do otherwise would be an intolerable moral burden: it is, as I said, a terrifying vision that none of the novel’s beauties can altogether eclipse. Yet doesn’t this fear itself come from the flattering illusion that we are all Dorotheas and Lydgates? Eliot’s ruthless program looks a little different from the perspective of the “trivial and selfish” on whom their sympathetic generosity will be squandered — from the point of view of those “common, coarse people” among whom surely, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us deserve to be counted. [ . . . ]

Those of us who are not heroes or rarities can find comfort in Middlemarch precisely because the novel insists that we don’t have to earn sympathy: the moral obligation is all on the other side. As a result, we may be as undeservedly fortunate as Mr. Casaubon or Rosamond.

I think actions flowing from an “immediate impulse of love or justice” are morally superior to self-interested actions. Motive, however (even assuming it can be accurately ascribed) isn’t all. One must also consider the real-world consequences that follow.[1]

Was it in Mr Casaubon’s best interest to spend his life in the ineffectual pursuit of an intellectual chimera which exhausted and embittered him? More particularly, was it kind and loving to indulge him in such delusions? Seeing through them, had he been able to do so (perhaps with help from someone truly loving) would no doubt have been intensely painful. Which is better, brief shocking pain or chronic lifelong subterranean agony? At least the former can be grappled with honestly, out in the open where dissembling, to oneself and to the world, is no longer necessary.

I don’t see how it’s moral to deny Mr Casaubon the potential for redemption, to presume that cosseting him in his emotional and intellectual prison is in his best interest. Isn’t this astoundingly patronising, however nicely it may be dressed up in the guise of a morally superior duty?

Of course any such attempt at redemption might fail, might entirely break him; the world, as Eliot rightly says, is “not full of sugar-plums”. Life doesn’t come with guarantees but it seems to me openness and truthfulness with those we love is likely to make it more tolerable rather than less.


1 Reading Middlemarch I didn’t come away with as clear-cut an impression about Eliot’s take on morality and altruism as Maitzen. Without rereading it I can’t be sure but I do wonder if Maitzen hasn’t superimposed some of her own views on these matters.

There is in any case much in Eliot’s moral message that I find immensely attractive. Not least is her constant reminder that whatever good there is in the world today, much more of it stems from countless unheralded little generous, compassionate acts than from all the extravaganzas of those we label heroes.


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