What does it mean to be good? It is a question we ask ourselves as we read George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch. It is, indeed, an issue we’ve pondered since youth when faced with moral choices, like whether to stand up for someone being attacked by a large group (I usually stand up), or to fade into the crowd from fear and perhaps afterwards console the victims. The first seems to me the better choice, the second the more common. As adults, we understand that people have different amounts of strength.
Then there’s another type of goodness: giving money to the Red Cross, the homeless shelters, Planned Parenthood, and other good causes. In Middlemarch, we see how all the rich, both good and bad, give money to the poor.
All such moral issues are important in Middlemarch. At 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 or older, whether on a first or a fifth reading, we are fascinated by Dorothea Brooke, Eliot’s beautiful, intelligent, willful, impatient, independent, ardent, religious, good heroine. In fact, Dorothea may be the best character in literature, in terms of goodness, a virtue we don’t hear much about these days.
From the first chapter, we love Dorothea, because her goodness is never boring. She is delightful and original, resourceful and witty. Dorothea wants to draw plans for housing for the poor; she is not interested in fashion or other typical feminine pastimes.
“She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in guimpe and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.”
(Oh my goodness! I was very like this as a young woman. I didn’t care what I wore, and hated consumerism. And didn’t we all end up martyred by some very good causes in our youth? )
At 19, Dorothea’s passionate goodness leads her to make a bad choice. She falls in love with Casaubon, a middle-aged, very ugly man with three warts on his face, who, it turns out, is uselessly researching comparative mythology, doing work already done by the Germans, whom he refuses to read. But to Dorothea, he is the intellectual of the stuffy town, Middlemarch, and she wants to be his amanuensis. His pride and procrastination–he makes endless notes instead of writing–often shut her out of his enterprise. And he wants to be alone; Dorothea is left to herself. This leads to a very unhappy union.
What is goodness? NOT when Casaubon distrusts Dorothea, and specifies in a codicil in his will that Dorothea will be deprived of his money if she marries his cousin Will Ladislaw, the handsome, radical newspaper writer, who truly shares her interests.
What is goodness? It is when Dorothea goes to Lydgate’s rescue. The intelligent doctor, whose life has been ruined by his wife Rosamund’s extravagance, accepts a loan of $1,000 from Bulstrode, a banker. When it comes out that Bulstode has earned his money dishonestly, Lydgate is blamed for his association with Bulstrode and suspected of a part in the death of a blackmailer. Many hypocrites in the town invent the story about Lydgate. Dorothea does what she can to save his name and loans him the $1,000, so he can repay Bulstrode.
Dorothea is a radical. There are so many examples of her interest in improving the lives of the poor: housing, looking into buying land for them, etc.
Unquestionably, there is a kind of moral excellence we love to read about in literature. If you were raised on Louisa May Alcott, E. Nesbit, George MacDonald, Elizabeth Enright, J. D. Salinger, E. Nesbit, Eleanor Cameron, John Verney, Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Bronte, Herman Hesse, George Eliot, and many, many other great books, the characters taught you something about goodness. In the 21st century, we don’t always think about goodness: we are brainwashed into wasting our time and money at malls, evaluating information poorly because of the unreliability of the internet, and confuse gossipy “he said/she said” articles with news and political pandering as reality.
On the other hand, it was just like that in Middlemarch, sans the internet and TV.
And it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.