Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Moral lessons from George Eliot's Middlemarch

What George Eliot aims to say, to teach, through Middlemarch can be broken down to several moral messages such as: 
- Think carefully and get to know the other person well before getting married. In marriage, there should be love, understanding and respect. Both Casaubon and Lydgate are wrong to regard women as inferior and expect them to be submissive and docile. 
- Human beings are all frail and flawed, and what should we live for if not to make life less difficult for each other. This is said, and practised, by Dorothea, especially when she prioritises her sense of justice, sees past her own anger, and assures Rosamond of Lydgate’s innocence and others’ belief in him. The selfish Rosamond, in return, helps clear the misunderstanding between her and Will. 
This lesson can also be seen in Mrs Bulstrode’s decision to stay with her husband when he’s abandoned by everybody, in Mr Garth’s readiness to help Fred, etc. 
- Love, sympathise, trust, forgive. Return love with love. Return hate with love. Give others the benefit of the doubt, and the chance to speak and explain themselves. Again, Dorothea is the embodiment of this spirit, who is willing to trust Lydgate when everyone else doubts him. 
- Don’t let prejudices and private feelings interfere with your judgements and actions. Lydgate sees Farebrother’s shortcomings and votes for someone else even though they’re friends. Mary criticises Fred for his foibles and refuses to marry him until he meets her conditions, even though she loves him. Farebrother represents Fred’s interests even though he loves Mary. Dorothea speaks to Rosamond on behalf of Lydgate and consoles her even though she thinks there’s something between her and Will. 
In contrast, people in the town destroy Lydgate’s career and lose a good doctor because they believe him to be guilty, and they believe so because they have always disliked him.
- We should be open—if there’s anything wrong, we have to talk about it. 
Mrs Bulstrode talks to Rosamond and Mr Bulstrode talk to Lydgate about the state of their relationship, otherwise it goes nowhere. Mary always talks frankly to Fred about his faults. Fred admits his error to the Garths. Farebrother, Fred and Mary talk openly about their relationships and feelings. Dorothea and Will keep misunderstanding each other when they make assumptions and don’t have a conversation, or talk in an indirect way instead of being straightforward. The marriages of Dorothea- Casaubon and Lydgate- Rosamond don’t work because they’re not open to each other; Casaubon torments himself and has suspicions about his wife simply because he pushes her away and keeps her at a distance; Rosamond resorts to passive-aggressive behaviour and ruins things behind her husband’s back simply because they don’t talk frankly to each other. Lydgate suffers alone because he keeps things to himself and doesn’t confide in anyone, even his friend Farebrother. 
- Take the responsibility for your own actions. If you wrong somebody, admit your fault and try to undo the wrong or pay for it. Examples are Fred and Mr Bulstrode. 
If you make a wrong decision, face the consequences, do your duties, make the best of the situation, learn from mistakes and improve yourself. Blame no one. Don’t run away. Both Dorothea and Lydgate make a mistake in choosing a spouse, but they do their duties. Farebrother chooses a wrong vocation, but he makes the best of the situation. Rosamond can never learn and become better or wiser because she always finds herself irreproachable and others disagreeable, always puts the blame on others. 
- Be independent. The models are the Garths. Fred has to learn to become independent. Dorothea renounces wealth. Lydgate insists on relying on nobody, and gets into trouble once he gets the loan from Bulstrode. 
- George Eliot apparently adheres to duty ethics. The moral people of the book are the Garths, who hold fast to their values and principles and do nothing that might give them a heavy conscience. 
- Sometimes it’s only through experience and disillusionment can one become wiser. We can see this in Dorothea and Lydgate, but also in Fred, who becomes stronger and wiser after being disillusioned by the collapse of his expectations. 
- Besides stressing the benefit of experience and disillusionment, George Eliot also sets out to make a point about the power of love. That obviously refers to Fred, whose love for Mary makes him strive to be a better man. 
- Spoiling your children gives you, at best, Fred Vincy, at worst, Rosamond. 
And so on. 
It's no wonder that many people see Middlemarch as the book of their lives. 
However, I can’t help finding it problematic that a novel can boil down to several moral lessons as seen above. Can we do the same for Anna Karenina and War and Peace? I don’t think so—they are didactic indeed, but they’re too complex for that. 
Perhaps I could have liked and appreciated Middlemarch a lot better if I had never read Tolstoy’s masterpieces.  

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