George Eliot and Prayer

Further to my earlier post on George Eliot as the ‘friendly face of unbelief,’ here’s a passage that stood out to me as I was rereading Middlemarch this weekend for my classes:

Lydgate rose, and Dorothea mechanically rose at the same time, unclasping her cloak and throwing it off as if it stifled her. He was bowing and quitting her, when an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer, made her say with a sob in her voice —

“Oh, you are a wise man, are you not? You know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do. He has been laboring all his life and looking forward. He minds about nothing else. — And I mind about nothing else — ”

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal — this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully illuminated life. (Chapter 30)

It’s a charged moment in the novel for several reasons, not least because it sets us (and Lydgate) up for the painful contrast between Dorothea’s desire to do something if at all possible, and Rosamond’s later indifference to her role in Lydgate’s financial crises (“What can I do, Tertius?”). But it also nicely, and subtly, illustrates George Eliot’s appreciation for religion (as distinct from theology, we might say) as a yearning to have and receive help and guidance in our “fitfully illuminated” lives–and her commitment to redefining it in secular terms. Dorothea is deeply religious, and George Eliot never belittles her for seeking understanding and connection beyond what she can readily see in the world around her. But, as this example implies, prayer (appealing to supernatural forces) is the resort of those who are “alone,” or who fail to understand the primacy of the human connections and resources available in their “embroiled medium.” Her impulse to prayer is rightly channeled here into an appeal to a “kindred nature,” one with the secular wisdom to advise her, at least in this medical crisis. The “cry from soul to soul” repeatedly proves more valuable in the novel than any appeal to doctrine or to supernatural authority: Rosamond, for instance, is famously brought to a sort of ‘confession’ and even ‘salvation’ (though limited in scope) by Dorothea’s climactic visit in Chapter 81:

Her voice had sunk very low: there was a dread upon her of presuming too far, and of speaking as if she herself were perfection addressing error. She was too much preoccupied with her own anxiety, to be aware that Rosamond was trembling too; and filled with the need to express pitying fellowship rather than rebuke, she put her hands on Rosamond’s, and said with more agitated rapidity, — ” I know, I know that the feeling may be very dear — it has taken hold of us unawares — it is so hard, it may seem like death to part with it — and we are weak — I am weak — ”

The waves of her own sorrow, from out of which she was struggling to save another, rushed over Dorothea with conquering force. She stopped in speechless agitation. not crying, but feeling as if she were being inwardly grappled. Her face had become of a deathlier paleness, her lips trembled, and she pressed her hands helplessly on the hands that lay under them.

Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own — hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect — could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea’s forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck.

“You are thinking what is not true,” said Rosamond, in an eager half-whisper, while she was still feeling Dorothea’s arms round her…

To do better–to act morally–they need each other, a sufficiently strong sense of human fellowship and need, and a sufficiently strong sense of responsibility for the outcome of their actions. There’s no need in this scenario for the supernatural. In fact, as George Eliot argues in several essays and reviews (and implicitly in all of her novels) religious doctrines such as belief in an afterlife actively work against “genuine feelings of justice and benevolence.” To go back to my first example, the impulse to prayer is simply the form taken by a natural longing for help and connection, validated and given form by historical tradition but, as our society and our moral philosophy matures, properly redirected to each other.

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