George Eliot On Growing Through Life

| Updated: December 24, 2021 3:41 pm

In a number of novels across world literature does a character grow and learn through one’s life experiences as the novel progresses. Such novels are known as a bildungsroman, a German term which means ‘novel of growth’. There are a lot of notable examples scattered through the realms of literature. Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is one such instance, so would be David Copperfield and many others. Two of my favourite novels in this genre are George Eliot’s Middlemarch and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

George Eliot’s real name was Mary Ann Evans and she had to take on a male pen name to be able to write novels. However, George Eliot (1819-1880) was a literary giant and quite a leading intellectual of her age. She was friends with G. H. Lewes and Herbert Spencer among others and held forth on her own.

You can read more about her at the Encyclopedia Brittanica website: https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Eliot/Major-works

One of George Eliot’s novels is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-1872). It is largely considered as her masterpiece though many readers also display a marked preference for her novel, The Mill on the Floss. Middlemarch is largely known as a ‘panoramic novel’, which represents a slice of English society. It is notably in the period surrounding the events of the set in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act. Two characters, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, go through the vicissitudes of life and learn. 

It is Dorothea here, who is of particular interest to me. She is an earnest and a young religious woman who falls in love with a much older man, Edward Casaubon, thinking that he has a major religious calling in life. As Dorothea gets to know Casaubon, she learns that he’s writing one of the greatest philosophical texts of all time, ‘The Key to all Mythologies’. 

Casaubon, Dorothea slowly learns to her horror, is no scholar and is merely a pedant, who needed a young wife as a mere housekeeper. It is a difficult marriage for Dorothea as she becomes discontented with her relationship. Meanwhile, Will Ladislaw, a young cousin of Edward Casaubon, moves to Middlemarch and Casaubon disapproves of it. Ladislaw is largely a dilettante, and a kind of attraction develops between Dorothea and him. Casaubon, who is extremely suspicious and jealous, is suffering from physical ailments and dies soon afterwards. Later, Dorothea learns that Casaubon had left a Will that would disinherit Dorothea of her property if she married Ladislaw.

There are other marital relationships which are difficult as well in the novel. You can read more them in the novel at The Victorian Web:

https://victorianweb.org/authors/eliot/middlemarch/thompson.html

The entire text of the novel, Middlemarch, is available at The Project Gutenberg website: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/145/145-h/145-h.htm

Through various twists and turns in the different plots as well as subplots of the novel, towards the end of the novel, Dorothea choses to marry Will Ladislaw and lose her inheritance. Ladislaw is lucky to become a politician and they are able to lead a happy life together. Dorothea is full of zeal and enthusiasm, but she is idealistic and that causes her to undergo a lot of problems in her life. She had zeal and ardour in the beginning of the novel as she begins her life with Casaubon. But her zeal is not tempered by wisdom. One of the great lessons of life that George Eliot teaches us, ever so lightly, is that mere idealism—and an inflexible attitude to it—are sure recipes for disaster. Next week, I’ll talk about James Joyce’s novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the problems Stephen Dedalus faces as he grows through bitter-sweet experiences of his life.

Quotes:

And how should Dorothea not marry?—a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers.

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/145/145-h/145-h.htm

Dorothea felt a little more uneasy than usual. In the beginning of dinner, the party being small and the room still, these motes from the mass of a magistrate’s mind fell too noticeably. She wondered how a man like Mr. Casaubon would support such triviality. His manners, she thought, were very dignified; the set of his iron-gray hair and his deep eye-sockets made him resemble the portrait of Locke.

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/145/145-h/145-h.htm

Dorothea said to herself that Mr. Casaubon was the most interesting man she had ever seen, not excepting even Monsieur Liret, the Vaudois clergyman who had given conferences on the history of the Waldenses. To reconstruct a past world, doubtless with a view to the highest purposes of truth—what a work to be in any way present at, to assist in, though only as a lamp-holder! This elevating thought lifted her above her annoyance at being twitted with her ignorance of political economy, that never-explained science which was thrust as an extinguisher over all her lights.

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/145/145-h/145-h.htm

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