Was George Eliot Wrong to Think Books Could Make People Better?

Pamela Erens on Middlemarch and the Moral Value of Fiction

A child of the 1960s and 70s, I’ve gravitated naturally to the progressive in politics, particularly once I became aware that being female had no small implications for my life. In college, trying to make sense of those implications—how to manage romances with men when I didn’t always feel or want to be stereotypically feminine? How to deal with the fear of violence that came from simply walking down the streets near my dorm at night?—I voraciously worked my way through classic feminist texts by Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Brownmiller, Kate Millett, Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone, and others.

On campus, student groups supported nuclear disarmament, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and the unionized Yale clerical and technical workers striking for better pay. College, in and out of the classroom, was an education in how power was misused against certain social groups and to oppose certain public goods.

Because I know what anyone knows who follows the news, and because I react viscerally to injustice, I’ve always wrestled with my natural inclination to sit in a room reading or writing about imaginary people. With my natural desire for quiet and calm, my natural unease around strangers, my natural dislike of working in groups. Shouldn’t I be out making things a little better for people who need it? I’m gratified when I receive the rare note from an appreciative reader, but it’s hard to argue that giving someone a few hours of literary pleasure measures up against improving his or her work conditions, hourly wage, or access to good health care.

Middlemarch contains some distinct views on work and what makes it worthy, an ethical force in the world. Caleb Garth, a surveyor, builder, and land agent, is held up as the ideal workingman. He is honest to the bone and deplores laziness and corner cutting. The character of Caleb was partially based on George Eliot’s father, Robert Evans, who was also a land agent (someone who supervises the farming tenants of a large landowner). Though Eliot’s relationship with her father was strained, she respected his work ethic and fair-minded pragmatism. Caleb Garth is perhaps a best-case version of Robert Evans. The Garths are poor because Caleb will never leave a job before every detail has been taken care of and because he refuses to charge more for what he does.

Through her portrait of Caleb, Eliot clearly tells us what she believes makes work worthy: dedication, honesty, and good workmanship, a focus on the task rather than the financial reward for it. Tertius Lydgate, the new doctor in town, is another such worker. The feckless Fred Vincy comes to be one too. Characters in Eliot’s other novels also embody this ideal, for instance Adam Bede, a rural carpenter, in the book bearing his name.

These characters are not necessarily among her most highly educated; their knowledge is rooted in the land and in a tradition of craft. They are pointedly contrasted with others, such as Mr. Plymdale in Middlemarch, a fabrics merchant who has become wealthy using cheap dyes that rot his silks, and the banker Nicholas Bulstrode, whose philanthropy is built on a foundation of dishonorable business practices.

I’d like to believe Eliot would say that dedication to the craft of writing can be as honorable as the dedication to farming or furniture making. But she would probably reply that it is not so simple.

Goodness has always been harder to write about than wickedness, and I find Eliot’s attempt to dramatize it as thrilling as a high-wire act.

When Middlemarch was published, Eliot wrote in her journal, “No former book of mine has been received with more enthusiasm—not even Adam Bede, and I have received many deeply affecting assurances of its influence for good on individual minds. Hardly anything could have happened to me which I could regard as a greater blessing.” Eliot had an agenda for her books; they were not merely distractions or intellectual stimulants. They were meant to make people better.

We can be suspicious, today, of this motive for writing. It is probably one of the reasons that during the modernist period of the early 20th century, Eliot came to seem fusty. The outstanding fiction of that period—Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, James Joyce’s Ulysses—prioritized the rendition of consciousness and the perfection of form over the impulse to distinguish good from bad, virtue from evil. The sophisticated reader did not need to be condescended to by being taught ethics.

Other literary movements supplanted (and overlapped with) modernism, and moralism crept back in; it was just a question of which moralism. The critical and commercial success of authors such as Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Dos Passos suggested that revealing the depravities of capitalism was the proper function of fiction. In the 1960s, writers like Leonard Michaels and Philip Roth offered an anti-morality in which the old rules about sex and obedience to authority were tossed away. In every period, some of the works written under the sway of then-current social and political trends hold up as art, some do not.

In 25 years it will be clearer what our own moralisms are. Some of the most enthusiastically received contemporary literature has been split between a painfully detailed attention to racial and sexual victimization (Colson Whitehead, Hanya Yanagihara) and a numb misanthropy (Ottessa Moshfegh, Michel Houellebecq). On the one hand we seem to be saying that investigating racial and sexual power is fiction’s highest moral purpose, on the other that there is a perverse heroism in not caring much about morality at all.

A certain view of Eliot’s work as didactic and overearnest has always been unfair. To the engaged reader, her compassion and humor make dreariness impossible. Goodness has always been harder to write about than wickedness, and I find Eliot’s attempt to dramatize it as thrilling as a high-wire act. So many other authors flee from this subject precisely because of the risk of sentimentalism, preachiness, and dishonesty. Eliot succeeds, and I am always shaking my head, asking: How does she do it?

Part of the answer is Eliot’s commitment to observed truth. In an essay (“The Natural History of German Life”) published shortly before her first attempts at fiction, she wrote that it was important for a novelist to show “not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act on the laborer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him.” She is not afraid of showing “the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness.”

Related to this is the fact that Eliot never loses herself inside her characters. This is remarkable, because she dives so completely into each psyche. But she always remembers to maintain a simultaneous view from the outside. The literary protagonists we find saccharine and unconvincing are those whom we are asked to see as they see themselves: good, gentle, and caring; or brave, protecting, rational, and strong. If an author presents anyone as those things and nothing else, we smell a rat. Eliot is interested in goodness that arises within the welter of selfishness, misperception, weakness, and fear that exists in every human being. She wants to know the conditions in which goodness can fight its way to the surface.

But what did she think this goodness consisted of?

In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot famously wrote: “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it,” invoking a child’s unhurried hours with flowers and birds and familiar spots in nature, adding, “What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?” For Eliot, goodness has its roots in the natural world and in the world of childhood. It’s in childhood that we love spontaneously and with our whole being, and if we are fortunate, that impulse toward love is rewarded and strengthened rather than crimped or punished. (It is no accident that the most contented couple in Middlemarch, Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, began as childhood playmates.) In nature we discover dramas beyond our own, and learn that the life outside us is as real as the life within. For Eliot, this recognition is the foundation of all morality.

Eliot’s love of her own childhood landscape suffuses so many of her works of fiction: Scenes of Clerical Life,Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch. One has the sense that love and this landscape are the same for her. She, who has the reputation of being among the most intellectual of novelists, is one of the most grounded. From the crucible of childhood and a tactile experience of the world comes the development of empathy, and from empathy the desire to soothe the pain of others, and from this to what Eliot considers an even higher form of goodness: the willingness to feel with another person, even when one does not have power to remove the pain.

The passages that bring me to the brink of tears each time I read Middlemarch are always the same. One occurs when Lydgate reveals to Dorothea Brooke and her much older husband, Edward Casaubon, that Casaubon has degenerative heart disease. After Lydgate departs, Dorothea, who has been deeply lonely in her short marriage, goes to her husband to comfort him, but he turns on her a “chill” glance; when she links her arm with his, he “kept his hands behind him and allowed her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm.” This, after months of enduring Casaubon’s coldness, finally drives her into a fury.

For the first time she fully blames her husband for their unhappiness. She spends the entire day in her room, struggling with her thoughts and feelings. Slowly, she works herself toward mastery of her rage. She waits until the late hour when Casaubon will be coming upstairs for bed, then walks out to greet him. She expects nothing, but wants to be better than her anger. Then:

When her husband stood opposite to her, she saw that his face was more haggard. He started slightly on seeing her, and she looked up at him beseechingly, without speaking.

“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 that might 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.

Dorothea has traveled from the desire to hurt to the recognition that the one who has hurt her is as injured as she is, if in a different way. The concluding image of two flawed and suffering beings moving along together toward whatever is next: this, after all that has happened between these two characters, always touches me at a profound level. The repressed and self-absorbed Casaubon will not really change. But Dorothea’s willingness to feel for and with him creates relief and comfort for both of them. It brings out of her husband what capacity for tenderness he does possess.

Lydgate, too, despite continually being bruised by his wife’s deceptions and social climbing, manages to see through her eyes and extend her his sympathy more often than his anger. He understands that he has his work, while she has only whatever status marriage and its trappings confer on her.

The kind of goodness Eliot writes about always involves specific acts of one-to-one recognition and effort. Dorothea, coming to Lydgate’s defense when he gets innocently embroiled in a local scandal and even his closest friends and colleagues hang back, chides them: “People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors.”

While this kind of goodness seems simple and local, it is not at all easy. As Dorothea implies, justice at a distance is cheaper. Her uncle, a magistrate, fights to save men convicted of stealing property from the death penalty. Yet he won’t spend money to keep tenants on his own properties in living conditions that might prevent them from being tempted to crime in the first place.

In contrast, when Caleb Garth happens upon the secret that Nicholas Bulstrode has withheld an inheritance from its rightful owner, he tells Bulstrode he can no longer work for him, even though his coming on as Bulstrode’s manager has only very recently given the Garths some financial stability. Caleb’s rejection of Bulstrode is neither angry nor jubilant, merely regretful. He believes the bad suffer more than the good do, so there’s no need to pile on. He tells the banker he will say nothing to others, since he doesn’t judge the other man and doesn’t know the whole story. It’s just that his unease makes it impossible to continue the employment.

*

Part of me has always felt I should be a Dorothea—a super-empath, always seeking out ways to help those who suffer—and wondered if I would ever find that less impossible. As time goes on, though, I see her less as an attainable model than as a beautiful ideal, Eliot’s attempt to persuasively embody goodness in human form. Bernard J. Paris, a literary scholar who wrote a 1965 book entitled Experiments in Life: George Eliot’s Quest for Values, followed this up nearly forty years later with another book, Rereading George Eliot, in which he renounced his previously glowing view of Eliot’s moral philosophy. Life experience and psychotherapy had since convinced him that while Dorothea, Lydgate, and other characters in Eliot’s fiction are implicitly lauded for their acts of egolessness, they are actually engaged in pointlessly self-destructive behavior. They become “enslaved by the wishes of others”—in the case of Dorothea and Lydgate, their spouses. Eliot “fails to discriminate between the legitimate needs of others and their unreasonable claims,” a failure that “is usually obscured by plot and rhetoric.” Paris finds the self-denial of these characters “compulsive.”

All good novels contain contradictions when it comes to values; they wouldn’t be interesting if they didn’t.

Paris definitely has a point—for example, Eliot avoids having to face the consequences of Dorothea’s disastrous devotion to Casaubon by having him die of heart disease. Paris hypothesizes that Eliot was so preoccupied with notions of duty and self-sacrifice in her fiction because of guilt over choices made at certain turning points in her life, for instance when she refused to embrace traditional religion despite her father’s protests, and when she decided to live openly with a married man.

This theory is unprovable but does make me interrogate my own readings of Dorothea and Lydgate. Maybe guilt over my own comfort and autonomy—my unwillingness to live my life only for others—has made me overidealize them. (I certainly know readers who find Dorothea intensely annoying rather than inspiring.) Paris sees Dorothea’s saintliness as a kind of self-aggrandizement, and not just at the start of the novel. He sees Lydgate’s surrendering to Rosamond’s shallow demands as evidence of a desperate and pathetic need to be needed.

All good novels contain contradictions when it comes to values; they wouldn’t be interesting if they didn’t. I nod vigorously at Paris’s insights, but I still see a magnificence in Dorothea’s and Lydgate’s characters. As I get older, Eliot’s worldview scores some palpable victories with me. Recently, two good friends failed to respond for many days to important (to me) emails. Normally this would have blindsided me with worry and anger. I would have started to tell myself that my friends didn’t value me. Like Dorothea in her boudoir counting the hurts received from her husband, I would have begun to think of ways to make my upset known, or to self-protectively withdraw my affections. This time, I simply figured there were reasons for the silence that had nothing to do with me. I believe more now in the basic decency of people. Even when someone behaves badly toward me, I am more able to let it go—not because I’ve become more saintly but because it seems more evident that I’m not the centering flame of every situation. What made me police my boundaries so rigidly in the past were my pride and my fear of being taken advantage of.

In this understanding—and self-forgiveness—I see Eliot’s attitudes at work: we want to behave well not to earn ethical gold stars but because it is more consonant with the way the world actually works. At times I have had more compassion for my fictional characters than for the real people in my life—have viewed them with more indulgence—but maybe the former, nurtured by Eliot’s example, paved the way for the latter.

*

Eliot did not think morality ended with the interpersonal. She was interested in the political activism and reform movements of her time and earlier. The novel she wrote right before MiddlemarchFelix Holt, the Radical—takes place in exactly the same era but deals more head-on with politicking and debates around the Reform Bill of 1832, which created fairer voting districts and extended the franchise.

In Felix Holt we see shady electioneering practices, such as buying votes with alcohol, and there is an election riot. Romola, the novel preceding Felix Holt, covers political unrest in late fifteenth-century Florence. Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s last novel, deals with the birth of Zionism. And the struggles of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, Dorothea in Middlemarch, and Gwendolen Harleth and Princess Halm-Eberstein in Daniel Deronda all testify to the need for legal and social changes that would release nineteenth-century women from dependence on fathers, brothers, and husbands.

But Eliot never believed in radical solutions to the status quo. She was suspicious of any change that too abruptly altered settled ways of being. She knew that tradition and stability nurture communities and felt that while changes might be welcome or needed, they were most successful when they came gradually. “The bent of my mind is conservative rather than destructive,” she wrote in an 1868 letter.

The passage brings me back to a conversation I had in college with friends who were involved in the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a group opposing the US government’s 1980s interventions there. Some of those friends argued that they would be justified in committing violence in the service of that opposition. Their analysis, as I listened, seemed so logical; I had trouble putting my finger on the flaw—and yet I shrank from their conclusion. I felt guilty that I shrank from it. Was I content to let wrongdoing go on and on? Did I just not care enough? In Middlemarch, Eliot articulates what I inchoately felt: “There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.”

If I’d remembered that line, I might have pleaded this case: that acts in the name of morality must always be constrained by reality testing and ethical qualms. That it is too easy to convince ourselves that we can decide for other people what kinds of pain and harm are acceptable. Yes, I might have added, outrageous injustices are occurring at every moment in every part of the world. But addressing each, or any, with violence is not the answer. If we had to see what violence wreaks on both the guilty and the innocent, if we could know each victim as someone’s brother, sister, mother, father, or dear friend, we would never agree to it. (For the record, I don’t believe that anyone in the room that day was ever involved in a violent act or plan.)

Perhaps because her progressive ideals ran up against her fears about radical change, Eliot never openly participated in any political movement, nor did she proselytize for any specific positions. According to one scholar, she “disliked embroiling herself in controversial issues, because she did not feel wise enough and because she disliked being forced to disagree with others.” That sums me up as well. I have tried—and hated—phoning voters and knocking on doors to try to get people to agree with something I believe. I cringe at school board meetings when speakers grow hot and combative. I feel very strongly about some matters (the right to abortion, the right of free speech, making it easier for citizens to vote).

But whenever I try to put my energies toward activism, I become more and more miserable until I eventually flee, ashamed, back to merely intellectual engagement (otherwise known as the endless reading of magazine think pieces). Social anxiety? Mild agoraphobia? Possibly. I still do this kind of low-level political work from time to time, and I also write checks—it just never seems like enough. Eliot could rationalize her nonparticipation with her belief that her novels were improvements for the soul. Can I?

Not really. And that’s a problem, because not only do I not see my novels as moral improvements, I don’t see fiction, period, as an inherently moral pursuit. I don’t think it’s immoral; nor do I believe it’s frivolous. For anyone who is serious about it, the writing of fiction takes enormous dedication and craft. It requires a battle for psychological honesty, precision, and perspective. Excessive self-love is toxic to it. In this sense, perhaps, writing is as honorable as Caleb Garth’s building and farming activities. But stories and novels themselves are way too ambiguous to be held up as morally improving or instructing. I don’t even like the idea of trying to improve other people. What would give me the right to do so? I’m no moral exemplar, and in any case I don’t think morality is so easily passed from one hand to another.

Eliot managed to create powerful stories of moral struggle and enlightenment, but they weren’t simple, and she was the exception proving the rule that moral instruction, for a novelist, is a dangerous goal. If there’s any moral agenda I can claim as a writer, it’s the more circumspect one Eliot articulated in a letter to her friend Charles Bray: “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.”

Eliot did see value in the aspect of art that merely reflected reality rather than sought to improve readers.

This I can acknowledge as an impetus: the desire to make others feel. In my case, that desire may be more selfish than Eliot’s: what I want my readers to feel is often something I have felt too alone with. The situations in my fiction are rarely autobiographical, but I have arranged them to trigger the experience of some sort of emotion that is. If I am encouraging readers to feel, it is so that I can be less lonely, not because it’s necessarily going to do something for them. And yet sometimes I do get a message from a reader suggesting that he or she has received something from me. Perhaps my willingness (compulsion?) to risk shame and vulnerability, to explore feelings and impulses in myself that I may fear or hate, gives reassurance to others that their own inner life is not unmentionable.Does fiction work somewhat like Adam Smith’s invisible hand—when we each write for our own selfish ends, something good for all of us results? This would fly very much in the face of George Eliot’s philosophy, but it’s probably closer to my experience.

Maybe I am still stuck on the lower rungs of Eliot’s hierarchy of moral activity, the rung of nature and the tactile. After my first child was born, my decision to leave my magazine job was driven by something akin to Eliot’s feelings about being grounded in the rhythms and materiality of early life. I didn’t live on or near a farm and there weren’t even a lot of trees and flowers around, but the job of taking care of an infant is thoroughly physical, and I wanted to experience that fully. I wanted to nurse, to change the diapers, to hold my child when it cried, to smell its smells and feel its skin against me. I wanted to bring the first spoon of solid food to its mouth, see the first tooth come in, guide the first steps. I didn’t want to do this a few hours of the day while I was rushing to get to work or after I got home, already tired out. I wanted to do it on the more leisurely, relaxed schedule that would help me tune in. To know my child, it seemed to me, I had to be there most of the time, and through this being there my love for my child would take shape.

I am not saying that what I did is right for anyone else or even that it was surely the best thing for my two children, just that it was right for me at the time. My decision to stay home, to “invest” in my kids, was part narcissism, part self-sacrifice (and part upper-middle-class privilege). It was done for them, and for me, and to enable my writing. Whatever the outcome, it was an attempt at something higher, outward facing, and future embracing.

*

As suggested in “The Natural History of German Life,” Eliot did see value in the aspect of art that merely reflected reality rather than sought to improve readers. If goodness and hope are not the particular truths a writer is interested in, she simply needs to show the ones that do capture her as faithfully as she can. And, I’d like to ask here, isn’t beauty also something to take into account? The beauty of language is a gift in and of itself, as a beautiful vase or piece of music is a gift and can solace us. A sentence that possesses music, clarity, and honest feeling can stop me, make me read again, cause me to shiver with delight. Maybe providing that experience to someone, somewhere, a handful of times is as much goodness as I can hope to accomplish.

At a gathering of writers working together to defeat Trump in the 2020 election, Siri Hustvedt, one of the organizers, talked about how literary writing is one-to-one speech, one voice speaking to one reader at a time. It is the opposite, she said, of our inescapable mass media and of the simplified, hammered-in-via-repetition language that demagogues use. Good writing is slow in its effects. Yet in a strange way its inefficiency, its one-to-oneness, offers hope for forming communities based on emotional honesty and critical thinking. Another paradox about literature is that each individual writer draws on and is shaped by the long history of books that came before. Individuality and community fuse in the work of fiction making and reading.

I remember those times, in my difficult midteens through midtwenties especially, when the sentences in novels held me in place, made it possible to move through the hours, channeled my anxieties, and reawakened the experience of hope, laughter, empathy, and joy. Is that such a small thing?

In the fall of 2001, when the World Trade Center fell, I happened to be in the middle of reading Anna Karenina. In the subsequent weeks, my terror and my preoccupation with the implications of the attack for my small children often made it impossible for me to read anything but the newspaper. But during other hours, Tolstoy’s novel was precisely what I needed. The narrator he employs in Anna Karenina, like the one Eliot employs in Middlemarch, is a sense-making machine. Moving from sentence to sentence I found an order and stability that was reassuring, even though I knew that when I raised my head from the novel I would be back in a frightening, unpredictable world. The order of Anna Karenina did not feel false or obsolete. It did not matter that the world in it was a bygone world. I wasn’t looking to the novel to promise me that everything would be all right at the start of the 21st century in the United States of America. I simply needed to be bodily reminded—for the rhythm of sentences is a bodily experience—that order of some kind, any kind, was possible.

When the surprise of Trump’s election arrived in November 2016, I was in the middle of Margot Livesey’s novel Mercury. Another sense-making machine. And during March, April, May, and June 2020, those frightening and disorienting early months of the pandemic, I worked my way through an online group reading, led by Yiyun Li, of War and Peace. In mid-June, after we finished the book, 650 of us joined a Zoom event to hear Li discuss it. The chat line scrolled rapidly with expressions of deep gratitude for the experience of the novel during this time.

At the end of Middlemarch, we learn that Dorothea is remarried and has a child. Despite her romantic dreams of moral heroism, she never performs any great acts of saintliness or philanthropy that the narrator finds worth telling us about; we hear that the good things she does “were not widely visible.” But she continues to affect those around her in a way that is “incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The gorgeous melody of these sentences never fails to stir me. The work I am best fitted to do may be this: to strive to fashion stories that might keep someone else, someone I don’t even know, pinned to well-being for a few hours, a few days. I hope my work has served in that way, or will. I know what it is like to be saved by sentences.

__________________________________

MIDDLEMARCH AND THE IMPERFECT LIFE

Excerpted from Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life: Bookmarked by Pamela Erens, available via Ig Publishing.

Pamela Erens
Pamela Erens
Pamela Erens is the author of three novels for adults, The Virgins, Eleven Hours, and The Understory; the middle grade novel Matasha; and Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life, a meditation on the classic work by George Eliot. She has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books.





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