The Wit and Wisdom of George Eliot (II)

I just figured out that I’ve turned around approximately 150 student assignments already this term. No wonder my own wit and wisdom feel a bit strained and it’s so refreshing to spend time with someone whose fund of both seems inexhaustible. And so, without further ado, some more treats from this year’s reading of Middlemarch.

Wit

Another candidate for high honours in this category is Uncle Featherstone, though he’s another who furnishes us with amusement without altogether intending to do so. One of the best such occasions, I think, is Chapter 34, in which we get our own chuckle out of his perversely gleeful anticipation of his own funeral:

We are all of us imaginative in some form or other, for images are the brood of desire [there's a nice little bit of wisdom tossed in for good measure]; and poor old Featherstone, who laughed much at the way in which others cajoled themselves, did not escape the fellowship of illusion. In writing the programme for his burial he certainly did not make clear to himself that his pleasure in the little drama of which it formed a part was confined to anticipation. In chuckling over the vexations he could inflict by the rigid clutch of his dead hand, he inevitably mingled his consciousnss with that livid stagnant presence, and so far as he was preoccupied with a future life, it was with one of gratification inside his coffin. Thus old Featherstone was imaginative, after his fashion.

His whole family is actually a barrel of laughs and provides many opportunities for the narrator’s sly wit. Here they are heading in to hear his will read (and to discover that his ‘dead hand’ does indeed distribute unexpected ‘vexations’):

When the animals entered the Ark in pairs, one may imagine that allied species made much private remark on each other, and were tempted to think that so many forms feeding on the same store of fodder were eminently superfluous, as tending to diminish the rations. (I fear the part played by the vultures on that occasion would be too painful for art to represent, those birds being disadvantageously naked about the gullet, and apparently without rites and ceremonies.)

The same sort of temptation befell the Christian Carnivora who formed Peter Featherstone’s funeral procession; most of them having their minds bent on a limited store which each would have liked to get the most of. (Ch. 35)

That’s a good point about the vultures, just btw.

Wisdom and Tenderness

One of the ways in which I think George Eliot is wisest is in her insight about the moral consequences of the kind of sympathetic understanding her novels all (and Middlemarch most particularly) both model and inspire. The famous pier glass passage from Chapter 27 cautions us that our egocentric perceptions of the world are just ‘flattering illusions,’ but reaching the crucial insight that everyone else has an “equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference” brings us not into a condition of liberated enlightenment but into a much more complicated realm of duty and obligation. Through the first half of the novel, Dorothea moves from the youthful and idealistic, but still self-centred, illusion that Mr. Casaubon has arrived on the scene to fulfill her own dream of leading “a grand life here–now–in England,” through the inevitable process of disillusionment that is the essence, in many ways, of George Eliot’s realism. On their honeymoon, poor thing, she discovers that “the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither” (Ch. 20). The crucial question is, will she be able to move from this more realistic perspective to sympathy, following, for instance, the narrator’s pressure to consider

what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings or capacity: with what hindrances he is carrying on his daily labours; what fading of hopes, or what deeper fixity of self-delusion the years are marking off within ihim; and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which will one day be too heavy for him, and bring his heart to its final pause? (Ch. 10)

Will she be capable of her own “but why always Dorothea?” moment? By Chapter 42 (which is about where I’ve tried to bring my class up to this week), we can’t be sure, but we do see signs that she is struggling to turn her own hard-won wisdom into tenderness. For instance, here she is in Chapter 37, listening to Will take another careless “pinch at the moth-wings of poor Mr. Casaubon’s glory”:

But Dorothea was strangely quiet–not immediately indignant, as she had been on a like occasion in Rome. And the cause lay deep. She was no longer struggling against the perception of facts, but adjusting herself to their highest perception; and now when she looked steadily at her husband’s failure, still more at his possible consciousness of failure, she seemed to be looking along the one track where duty became tenderness.

Still, Mr. Casaubon (albeit unintentionally) does what he can to turn her aside from that track, as when he rebuffs her offered comfort after his interview with Lydgate in Chapter 42. To Dorothea, there is “something horrible” in his “unresponsive hardness,” and in the throes of a “rebellious anger stronger than any she had felt since her marriage,” she retreats to her boudoir and struggles with her feelings of rejection and resentment. “In such a crisis as this,” the narrator points out, “some women begin to hate,” but she thinks hard about his feelings, convinced “that he had been asking about the possible arrest of all his work”–”the answer must have wrong his heart.” Thus “the resolved submission did come,” and she goes out once more to meet him as he comes upstairs from the library. Her tenderness here is a kind of wisdom, and does finally elicit a sympathetic connection, beautiful in its understated simplicity:

‘Dorothea!’ he said, with a gentle surprise in his tone. ‘Were you waiting for me?’

‘Yes, I did not like to disturb you.’

‘Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching.’

When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness tha tmight well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband’s, and they went along the broad corridor together.

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