Social Satire

Middlemarch by George Eliot

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published as a full-length novel for the first time in 1874, is one of the longest, most complex and influential works written during the Victorian era. Its realistic depiction of small-town English life is superb at a number of levels. Consequently, a truly comprehensive review is outside the scope of this blog. I read (and recommend) the second Norton Critical Edition of Middlemarch by W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2000. It includes a variety of criticism and background information about the novel, the text of which is 515 pages long. The entire edition is 678 pages, and the textual references in this blog are to Eliot or one of the other writers included in the edition.

George Eliot from The GuardianGeorge Eliot, courtesy of The Guardian.

The novel’s influence is illustrated by the fact that Virginia Woolf referenced Middlemarch in her novel, To the Lighthouse (a book group selection), by having one of her less literary-minded characters note that she had not been able to read the entire book! (Shelston 656). Shelston also notes that “George Eliot and Virginia Woolf…shared the distinction of being probably the most well-read of the novelists of their respective generations” (Id.). Henry James wrote about the work, and I will discuss his opinion later.

“George Eliot” was the pen name for Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a woman who moved from her home in provincial England to London where she lived with a man she was not married to, and did so openly (Edwards 623). This was an independent and courageous act for a single woman from the provinces in the Victorian Era. She defied society’s expectations and achieved financial independence through her writing, but had to do so by adopting a male pen name. Lee R. Edwards’ analysis of Middlemarch, “Women, Energy, and Middlemarch” (The Massachusetts Review, 13 (1972)) is an insightful piece written by a woman who felt, in the beginning, that it was one of the books of her life. She compares Eliot’s life to her own, stating that “Like her, I felt harassed by pressures to marry some nice young man and abandon my private and no doubt weird ideas” (624). Yet, Edwards confesses that she “misread” the book, and concludes her review by saying that “it can no longer be one of the books of my life….I am alternatively angered, puzzled, and finally depressed” (625, 630).

I share Edwards’ puzzlement at certain aspects of the novel, but it did not leave me angry. For example, the book could have been more interesting if the character of Dorothea Brooke (modeled on both St. Theresa and, loosely, on Eliot) would have run away with Will Ladislaw to London, reflecting more closely Eliot’s own life. Dorothea’s first husband, Casaubon, was significantly older and died, leaving a will that eliminated Dorothea’s right to a significant amount of property if she should marry Ladislaw (371). Couldn’t she sell the property, put the sale proceeds in the bank, and then marry Ladislaw?  Unless a character died, every marriage in the story was in existence at the end, presumably because divorce was not an option for Victorians. Not surprisingly, some of those relationships were unhappy, particularly that of Dr. Tertius Lydgate and his wife, Rosamond Vincy–if one goes beyond the fact that he eventually became a successful doctor, and his wife remained with him. We are, of course, going to go beyond that fact after considering the thoughts of Henry James.

Henry James, the author of The Turn of the Screw (read by this book group) and other stories, reviewed Middlemarch in 1873, calling it “a picture, vast, swarming, deep-colored, crowded with episodes, with vivid images, with lurking master-strokes, with brilliant passages of expression; and as such we may freely accept it and enjoy it. It is not compact, doubtless; but when was a panorama compact?” (James 579). James’ positive impressions are not carried through the rest of his review, though. He takes issue with Eliot’s decisions to emphasize some characters over others. In particular, the emphasis on Fred Vincy versus Will Ladislaw, the latter being far more important in James’ opinion, yet still “the only eminent failure of the book” (580).

I am now going to flatter myself by saying that the character intriguing both James and I more than Fred Vincy, Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Brooke is Dr. Lydgate, “the real hero of the story” (James 580). James goes on to say that “The most perfectly successful passages in the book are perhaps those painful fireside scenes between Lydgate and his miserable little wife….There is nothing more powerfully real than these scenes in all English fiction, and nothing certainly more intelligent” (580). Hyperbole? Let’s take a closer look at Lydgate and his circumstances.

Lydgate, the young doctor, moves to Middlemarch to begin a medical practice. He gets off to a good start in the sense that he is an above-average doctor, using his knowledge of modern medicine to successfully treat some of the locals, and begins attracting patients–much to the irritation of the other doctors in town who write bogus prescriptions and still believe in bleeding people. Rosamond Vincy, an attractive local woman, catches his eye and, without much in the way of courtship, marries him. Each has very different expectations as to their respective marital roles. Lydgate expects his wife to defer to his opinion in all matters of importance. Rosamond expects Lydgate to earn enough money for her to be able to enjoy a pleasant middle-class lifestyle. Unfortunately, Lydgate commits the same blunder that many young professionals commit by taking an unrealistically optimistic view of what they will earn when they are young. He borrows too much money to purchase a home and some furniture for his new wife. (Rosamond’s brother, Fred, is in debt as well, but she has nothing to say about that when she argues with her husband.) Soon, the creditors come calling and begin repossessing their furniture. In a small English town, socioeconomic class matters and their indebtedness is humiliating for both of them. While Lydgate tries to extricate himself from this financial hole, Rosamond defies him through various deceptions (408). Her justification for this disobedience is that Lydgate’s financial missteps have ruined their lives, and she feels that she was deceived by him. Therefore, having reasonably expected an upscale lifestyle as opposed to downsizing, she can do as she pleases to better their situation, regardless of whether her husband approves.

Lydgate is depressed and feels guilty about what he’s done, and apologizes to Rosamond about the need to economize. Instead of forgiveness, though, Rosamond is cold toward him, and thinks only of the damage to her social status. She knew that her discomfort took an emotional toll on Lydgate, whereas his difficulties garnered little sympathy from Rosamond. To avoid further embarrassment, she tries to convince Lydgate that they should go to London and start over, but Lydgate was reluctant to agree to this course of action. Then life became worse for Lydgate after he accepted a loan from an unscrupulous banker, Bulstrode. If Lydgate could have paid back the loan quietly, no harm would have been done, but the loan was more than a loan. It was an attempt to discourage Lydgate from publicly repeating anything he might hear about Bulstrode from the seriously ill, hallucinatory Raffles, an enemy of Bulstrode who was in Bulstrode’s home, recovering from a serious bout of alcohol poisoning. Lydgate agreed to treat Raffles without any knowledge of the antagonism between the two men. Lydgate gives Bulstrode some instructions and allows him to watch over Raffles. Bulstrode, in contradiction to Lydgate’s orders, deliberately allowed a servant to unknowingly overdose Raffles (438). To the Middlemarchers, it looked like Lydgate took a bribe to cover up a murder, causing serious damage to his reputation which, in turn, cost him patients and income (451, 457).

Yet why should we care about Lydgate? He is responsible for his own poor decisions, isn’t he? Absolutely, but many readers in modern times can sympathize with a character who is guilty of nothing more than wanting the best for his beautiful, new wife. Further, Lydgate’s lack of income is due, in large part, to his tendency to treat poor people who do not pay him, and to volunteer his time at a local hospital. He is also loyal, never giving up on his wife, and refusing to turn his back on Bulstrode, the man who indirectly impugned his reputation. Other than the occasional attitude of professional arrogance, he is a sympathetic character, and we want to see him succeed.

Success, in a limited sense, eventually comes to Lydgate, but not without a heavy toll, as illustrated in one of those “fireside scenes” James noted in his review. Upon learning of the alleged bribe from her father, Rosamond returned home with “a sense of justified repugnance toward her husband,” even though she did not really know if her husband had acted improperly (467). Lydgate acknowledged the scandal to her and thought to himself, “‘If she has any trust in me…she ought to speak now and say that she does not believe I have deserved disgrace'” (Id.). She says nothing and coolly waits for his explanation instead, bringing to Lydgate a “new rush of gall to that bitter mood” in which he found himself (Id.). There is a long, uncomfortable silence, during which Lydgate paces the room, eventually calming himself to the point where he can begin explaining his side of the story to his wife. As he begins to speak, she directs the conversation to the much less pressing matter of moving to London. In response, “Lydgate felt miserably jarred. Instead of that critical outpouring for which he had prepared himself with effort, here was the old round to be gone through again. He could not bear it” (468).

Ultimately, we learn in the finale that yes, Lydgate gradually became “a successful man” (512) after he paid off Bulstrode with a loan from Dorothea who, quite conveniently, was able to lend the money right before she gave up her wealth to marry Ladislaw (499, 500). The real costs to Lydgate were psychological and physical, as opposed to financial. He married a manipulative, status-seeking woman who cared little for her husband’s feelings, and was unhappy unless she outmaneuvered him to get her way. Her self-centered approach was aptly described by Eliot: “[S]he had been little used to imagining other people’s states of mind except as a material cut into shape by her own wishes” (479). Although Eliot rehabilitates Rosamond’s character a little by having her interact with the saint-like and generous Dorothea, the damage to Lydgate had been done. He died an early death at age 50 of diptheria, feeling like a failure, and always being thwarted by Rosamond, who subsequently married a wealthy, elderly physician and lived a happy life afterward.

It can be said that, with the exception of Lydgate, each character in Middlemarch lived out the rest of their life in a predictable manner, depending on their conduct in life:  Bulstrode left Middlemarch, his reputation justifiably in ruins; Dorothea found happiness by marrying Will; the evil Raffles dies, and Fred Vincy marries the woman of his dreams after finding his vocation in life.  And despite everyone’s financial difficulties, the novel ends with all of the debts repaid.

Lydgate is the outlier in all of this. He is the only one who lives a miserable life without deserving it, and Eliot’s decision to write his character in this manner is an excellent example of realism in literature. Lydgate’s life reflects the lives of many readers, and prevents Middlemarch from becoming a predictable, pastoral romance. Sometimes, good people do not get rewarded in life, and good guys do not always finish first. This brings me to a final question concerning Middlemarch: which is more unjust–the way Lydgate’s life played out compared with other, less complex characters; Eliot’s decision to devote a mere paragraph to Lydgate in the final chapter; or the fact that Eliot died only six years after her masterpiece was published as a novel.

Maybe I am angry after all.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

It’s 1955 in suburban Connecticut. Frank Wheeler, a World War II veteran, commutes to his office job at Knox Business Machines while his wife, April, raises their two children. Their friends, Shep and Milly Campbell, are also their neighbors in the ironically named Revolutionary Hill Estates, where nothing revolutionary takes place. April has the lead in a local theater group’s production, but the play fails, symbolizing the suburbs’ failure to provide a rich, fulfilling lifestyle for its residents. It is this emptiness that Frank rails against during dinner parties with the Campbells. A greater failure, however, for Frank is his fear of leaving the comfortable (albeit boring) suburban life where he can drink his way through business lunches and sleep with a woman from the office stenographer’s pool.  April has a few issues, too, brought about by a childhood marred by rejection and a suicidal parent.

The Wheelers’ other neighbors, the Givings, have a mentally ill adult son, John, who gets weekend passes from the local hospital to visit his parents.  As a favor to the Givings, the Wheelers invite them all to their house periodically. In John, the author has an effective literary device who voices aloud brutally accurate observations about the true nature of the Wheelers’ lives. Frank barely tolerates John while saving his Freudian observations for April, who becomes increasingly desperate, lonely, and isolated.

Revolutionary Road was Yates first (and many believe his best) work. He is a clever and gifted writer, using his own background as a World War II veteran, parent, and publicity writer for the Remington Rand corporation to form the basis for the Frank Wheeler character.  It is suburban malaise at its finest.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice (Photo credit: elycefeliz)

A little over 200 years ago, the literary work we currently know as Pride and Prejudice began as First Impressions, a novel that was rejected by at least one publisher.  But like a lot of great writers, Austen was persistent and rewrote the story.  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813–anonymously–even though it was Austen’s second book after Sense and Sensibility. To worsen matters, there have been some well-known members of the literary establishment (Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charlotte Bronte) who have had unflattering opinions of Pride and Prejudice.  Others have pointed out that Pride and Prejudice should not be taken seriously because it deals with matters that are “domestic” as opposed to weightier subjects, such as the American and French revolutions.  This last criticism misses one of the main attractions of Pride and Prejudice, i.e., as a comical and insightfull look into the economic and social plight of middle-class women in the late 1800s.  Austen succeeds brilliantly in giving us a sense of what she and her contemporaries had to do in order to secure their futures in a society that greatly restricted the roles of women. (more…)