Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Middlemarch and Rigidity

Middlemarch is an incredibly complex novel that can be seen from many different angles and in many different lights. Often compared to a web (Eliot herself uses the metaphor many times throughout the work) it is a little like the Hindu concept of the net of existence—each nexus of the fabric is a jewel that reflects all the other jewels in the grid of the universe. But though webs are flexible, there is a sense of rigidity reflected in many of the attitudes of the Middlemarchers themselves that contributes greatly to the conflict in the novel. And it is a habitual rigidity, a sort of inbred inertia, that causes a lot of the trouble among the inhabitants of Middlemarch.

It seems to me that the primary nexus in that vast web of connections that is Middlemarch is the symmetry of the Dorothea/Casaubon and Lydgate/Rosamond marriages. Although Dorothea and Lydgate have their faults—he more than her—both are practical idealists who unfortunately have been paired with impractical and headstrong partners. Dorothea is under Casaubon’s yoke as much as Lydgate is under Rosamond’s. If there are protagonists in Middlemarch—the novel seems to me unique in being practically free of any clear-cut heroes or villains—they are Dorothea and Lydgate.

Dorothea marries Casaubon chasing some false ideal of service to a great intellect since, being a woman in pre-Victorian England, the great intellectual quest has been denied her. She eventually finds that Casaubon is no great intellect, a fact of which he himself is well aware, and that his life’s work, the Key to all Mythologies, is nothing more than a Penelope’s cloth—a hopeless work that justifies his existence but can never be completed because it would expose him as the mediocrity he is. Her horror at finding that he expects her to go on weaving and unweaving this pointless fabric after his death is palpable. And the codicil to his will that prevents her from ever considering marriage to Will Ladislaw is the final link in a ponderous chain that binds her to him even in death. Casaubon’s chief failure, however, is stubbornness. It is his unwillingness to compromise with Dorothea that causes most of the strife in their marriage. His jealousy of his cousin, Will, however unfounded, is something he sticks by even in the face of proofs to the contrary, just as he sticks to his plodding and pointless scholarship.

Lydgate is under a similarly stubborn enslavement to Rosamond Vincy, the entitled daughter of the mayor of Middlemarch. Rosamond is a poster child for viciously passive-aggressive behavior. The more Lydgate struggles to free himself from the web of debt that she will not even acknowledge, the more she wraps him in it’s sticky shroud, until she has poisoned his relations with his uncle and with her own father. Eliot poses a paradox here—she surely doesn’t want to suggest that wives should blindly obey their husbands, yet Rosamond’s flouting of Lydgate’s specific orders is the root of terrible consequences. Her manner in this puts her husband totally in her power, for she always leaves him feeling that he is in the wrong no matter how outrageous her own behavior. And her rigid refusal to abide by his wishes drives spike after spike into the coffin of their marriage.

Of course, Rosamond is not Lydgate’s only problem. It is the rigidity of the other Middlemarch medical men that cast doubt on his methods in the first place, rendering his dearly bought practice worthless and his opinions suspect. And the fact that Lydgate is allied (in the town’s eyes, certainly not in his own) with the Bulstrode/Reform faction, labels him an outsider right from the beginning. Rigidity is an insider’s game, after all.

Bulstrode himself shows his own rigidity in his religion, but it is not only morally suspect characters in Middlemarch who are stubborn. Will Ladislaw shows his rigidity in his refusal of his uncle Casaubon’s support and later of Bulstrode’s money. Mary Garth shows hers in her refusal to help Featherstone alter his will in favor of Fred Vincy and her father shows his by his rejection of Bulstrode’s commission after hearing Raffle’s story. Each of these rigidities has consequences, some fortunate, some not, and Eliot remains as neutral as is possible in an author in order that we may see how a slight compromise here or there would have changed so many lives so drastically. Would Casaubon have suspected Dorothea and Will if Will had not been so adamant in breaking the connection to his cousin? Would Lydgate have been able to pull himself out of debt if Rosamond had acquiesced? Would Fred have inherited Stone Court if Mary had not been so rigid, and in doing so, would the whole Rigg/Raffles connection have fallen apart? Perhaps, but then there would have been no novel Middlemarch, although the town of Middlemarch would have certainly been a more peaceful place.


Anonymous rachel said...

Hi, Joe, and welcome!

(I have more to say, but no time this instant -- just wanted to make sure somebody drove the welcome wagon over your foot! Er...!)

4:44 PM  
Blogger piksea said...

Really well thought out post, Joe. You've given me a lot to ponder here.

I go over points that I agree and disagree with in my mind, but a case can be made for so many different viewpoints, that I am at a loss.

3:05 PM  

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