Heroism and Organicism in the Case of Lydgate

by William Deresiewicz
Heroism and Organicism in the Case of Lydgate
William Deresiewicz
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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SEL. 38 (1998)
ISSS 0039-3655

Heroism and Organicism in the Case of Lydgate


Middlemarch is generally regarded as an antiheroic novel. Dorothea's failure to perform "some long-recognizable deed," and even more, that of Lydgate, are seen as implicit arguments against the possibility of heroism in any grand sense and for a heroism of small measures, even of resignation.' But to read the novel thus is to ignore the many great figures whose names appear in its pages-not only St. Theresa, but Thomas Aquinas,

John Milton, Andreas Vesalius, and so forth. Or if George Eliot

is understood to believe that heroism was no longer possible in

the world of 1830,we have Xavier Bichat, the duke of Welling-

ton, and Lord Byron. Of course, the novel clearly does assert the

impossibility of heroism for a woman like Dorothea, but it just

as clearly does not extend that claim to men. Dorothea's tragedy

is one of opportunity denied; Lydgate's is one of opportunity

lost. Why it gets lost, however, has yet to be adequately

addressed. Critics divide responsibility between Lydgate himself

and the town of Middlemarch, the town regarded as culpable for

its resistance to change, the man for his egotism as well as for

his failure to apply his considerable analytic powers to his own

situation.* This general orientation is unarguable, but a number

of important questions remain: What accounts for Lydgate's

egotism and heedlessness? Wherein lies the strength of the

community's conservatism? Above all, in what way do these indi-

vidual and communal culpabilities intermesh?

William Deresiewicz is assistant professor of English at Yale University. He is writing a book on the novel of community from Austen to modernism.

The more interesting of recent approaches have it that Lydgate fails simply because he allows himself to become entan- gled with the concerns of the town, particularly through his marriage to R~samond.~

He is guilty, so the argument goes, of violating the vocational ideal-the ideology, later articulated by Max Weber, that would have the seeker after professional distinction undertake an ascetic withdrawal from "life" and so avoid what the novel calls "the small solicitations of circum- stance" (p. 841). There are several problems with this view, however. First, Lydgate's profession makes engagement with the affairs of the town unavoidable, whether or not he marries one of its daughters. Furthermore, while the concept of vocation in this secular, Weberian sense is adequate for some of the book's lesser figures, Lydgate aspires to something much higher, noth- ing less than a place among the "heroes of science" (p. 195). More broadly, an ideal of disengagement from "lifen-from the affections and needs of one's neighbors-could not have been further from George Eliot's way of thinking. Indeed, one of the last works she completed before beginning Middlemarch, the verse drama "Armgart," constitutes a lengthy chastisement of its titular artist-hero for just such an attitude. Finally, the narrator explicitly states that the impediments and complexities of every- day life are a thing that great figures have always had to deal with: "Each of those Shining Ones had to walk on the earth among neighbors who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments than of anything which was to give him a title to everlasting fame: each of them had his little local personal history sprinkled with small temptations and sordid cares, which made the retarding friction of his course toward final compan- ionship with the immortals" (pp. 175-6). Heroism requires, not that one avoid "small temptations and sordid cares," but that one deal with them properly-as one might say, heroically. The ques- tion is, what does that mean? In discussing the answer I believe Lydgate's story proposes, albeit in negative, I will be drawing on some of the more neglected aspects of the intellectual back- ground that lies behind George Eliot's presentation of her ambi- tious young doctor, for it is there that a number of important clues may be found.

The heroism that Lydgate desires so passionately assumes a form associated with a pair of figures whose influence on George Eliot has remained oddly unexplored. Part of medicine's appeal for him is that "it wanted reforms-that is, that it provides an arena in which he might contribute to "the general advance" by resist- ing "irrational" practices as well as by elucidating fundamental principles of nature (p. 174). Lydgate understands heroism not simply as the doing of great deeds, but as the shaping of histori- cal change in the direction of enlightenment. His conception thus echoes those of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two of the thinkers George Eliot most venerated, yet two whom her critics generally ign~re.~

In Carlyle's terms, the "Hero" is he who calls back his nation to a knowledge of "Nature's Lawsv-the "Divine Idea" that lies beneath and manifests as the material world-by enunciating them in words of poetic prophecy or demonstrating them in his active mastery of people and things5 The "Thoughts" he thus sends into the world-or in Emerson's modification, the "pictorial or representative" example he sets- become the pattern after which all human endeavor is m~deled.~ Carlyle and Emerson's Great Men, like the "heroes of science" among whom Lydgate dreams of placing himself, fight for social advance by enunciating universal principles of nature. For George Eliot, as for her forebears, the hero is understood as an idealized image of the reforming intellectual.

If Lydgate's story reflects George Eliot's debt to Carlyle and Emerson, however, it also constitutes a critique of their concep- tions-the kind of critique to which the novel always subjects philosophical ideas by immersing them in time and the every- day world. Carlyle and Emerson offer us completed images; George Eliot offers a narrative process. The Carlylean Hero dwells in isolated communion with the "Divine Idea"; the dissem- ination of the products of his genius involves no more intimate a relationship with the social life of ordinary mortals than that of poet and audience or leader and people. In making her would-be hero a medical man, George Eliot manages a partic- ularly cunning confutation of this image. Lydgate's work both requires him to engage social reality at its most mundane level and preserves for him a Carlylean realm of pure thought. While the task he sets himself in moving to Middlemarch is, in human terms, far more complicated than that of the poet or leader, the temptation remains to treat it as if it were not, as if the commu- nity were merely to be a domain of research and his only strug- gles to be with the secrets of nature. Beguiled by his dreams of the "heroes of science," Lydgate succumbs to this temptation. Though he is able to imagine his laboratory studies in extensive and loving detail, his imagined relationship to the social dimen- sion of his practice is nonexistent. What is more, this failure to recognize a relationship between his heroic aspirations and the context in which they must be played out constitutes a failure to establish a full relationship not just with others, but with himself. If heroism seems so much easier for the Carlylean figure, that is in part because we see him in his heroic dimen- sion alone. It is because he imagines himself in those terms that Lydgate takes no cognizance of those famous "spots of common- ness" that are so significant a part of his character (p. 179):the vanity and sexual desire that respond to Rosamond, the social pride and sense of entitlement that lead him to live beyond his means, the heedless self-interest that allows him to make common cause with Bulstrode.' The heroic image is truncated in time, as well, for the hero is known only in the moment of his greatest deeds. Whatever else may have happened to him, in particular what may have happened to him as a result of those deeds, drops out of the image. The point may be clearer to an aspiring hero's wife, however, than to the aspirant himself. After Lydgate regales Rosamond with the triumphs of Vesalius, she asks simply, "And what happened to him afterwards?" (p. 497). The short answer is, "He died rather miserably," to which she replies, with impeccable timing, "Do you know, Tertius, I often wish you had not been a medical man." Rosamond demands the story that lies behind the image; here it is she, unusually, who has the fuller vision. Her husband seems not to grasp that "dying rather miserably" might really happen to him,that even as a "hero" he would have to live a life, have a body, die a death, not merely exist as a name, an image, a single idea or act.

As frightening as Rosamond's question is, however, what happens to a hero "afterwards" is a relatively minor problem compared to that which Lydgate actually faces: becoming a hero in the first place. One of the greatest impediments to doing so, George Eliot suggests, is the consciousness that others have done so already. We see in Lydgate, not how heroic figures excogitate Carlylean "Thoughts" or embody Emersonian "picto- rial" images, but the means by which those residua of greatness act upon others. Because his conception of heroism is founded on an array of models-Edward Jenner, Bichat, Vesalius-that inspire and, inevitably, intimidate him, he places himself under enormous pressure to succeed. The narrator registers this pres- sure in discussing Lydgate's scientific passion. Comparing it to the love sung by the troubadours, she remarks that "In the story of this passion, too, the development varies; sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting" (p. 173).No middle ground here, no "marriage" that isn't glorious. Either one achieves "companionship with the immortals," or one comes to be "shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross" (p. 174). In other words, the heroic ideal makes no room for lesser degrees of achievement. Such a conception and such an attendant anxiety are logical consequences of Carlyle and Emerson's paradigm. To hear them expatiate on the row of busts arrayed in their pantheon, the difference between the hero and the rest of humanity is manifest and unbridgeable. But before there can be heroes, George Eliot implies, there must be people who become heroes. Carlyle and Emerson's notions of innate genius notwithstanding, these future or potential or aspiring heroes must initially stand with the rest of humanity, and must do so, like the rest, inspired and burdened by the consciousness of those whose heroism is already a~hieved.~

While criticizing Carlyle and Emerson's ideal of the hero- reformer, Lydgate's story also aims at the reforming ideals of an intellectual movement more widely acknowledged as central to George Eliot's thinking, Positivism. The most relevant example of the kind of attitude for which I believe she was attempting to furnish a corrective is contained in the famous letter she received from Frederic Harrison, a friend, lawyer, and leading English Positivist. George Eliot had consulted Harrison about the rather arcane testamentary issues involved in Felix Holt, and after graciously rendering his services, Harrison took the liberty of inflicting that common torment of famous authors: he gave her an idea for a book. Harrison's suggestion involved an "ideal tale" that would illustrate the glories of Positive society in its achieved state. The novel was to be set in a manufacturing village, "say of Normandy or French Canada," and the hero, representative of "the spiritual power," was to be, not the cur6 of course, but "the local physician . . . a man of the new world with complete scientific and moral cultivation who should grad- ually acquire a free spontaneous and entirely moral ascendancy over both capitalist and laborer-who should found and super- intend schools free in every sense," and so on and so forth.g In accordance with the Comtean vision, our completely cultivated doctor was to find one of his chief supports in "the conscience of the powerful capitalist or capitalists." George Eliot declined the suggestion politely, but it seems to me that her ultimate response was not very polite at all. I am not proposing that so important an aesthetic choice as Lydgate's career was dictated by nothing more than a malicious impulse, but I do see the figure and fate of Lydgate, particularly in his association with Bulstrode (that capitalist with a conscience), as a deliberate hit at the Positivists' smug naivete about the inevitable course of reform and the inherent rectitude of its agents-in particular, at their casual correlation of "scientific and moral cultivation."1°

George Eliot is commenting not only on the pragmatics of social change, however, but also on its justice. Nearly everyone who writes on Middlemarch, even those who find Lydgate most to blame for his failure, assumes that at a higher level the right is exclusively his-that in standing for enlightenment and reform, he stands for what is unquestionably good. As commonsensical as this position may seem, though, it ignores one of George Eliot's most clearly articulated beliefs. In "The Antigoneand its Moral," an early essay, she expounds the conflict-central to Sophocles' tragedy and inherent, she says, in all social states-between the principles of eternal justice and those of social well-being." The drama offers us, on the one hand, Antigone's allegiance to the "unwritten law of the Gods," on the other, Creon's insistence on obedience to the established laws of the state. So far, so true to the original, but then George Eliot goes on to retell the conflict in terms specific to her own age. Antigone becomes, what she never was in Sophocles, a figure of the social reformer. The higher law she beholds and dies for is, implicitly, the universal law with which the modern reformer-out of "strength of. . . intellect, or moral sense, or affection" (p. 366)-seeks to bring soci- ety into ever-closer accord. Thus far the position is Carlylean-heroic individual, universal law, enlightened social change-but the "moral" of the essay's title involves an unex- pected ethical complication: "Reformers, martyrs, revolutionists are never fighting against evil only; they are also placing them- selves in opposition to good" (p. 365). What is good is simply the status quo itself-good, at least in part, because it sustains ordi- nary people in their basic relations and needs: "[PIreach against false doctrines, you disturb feeble minds and send them adrift on a sea of doubt; make a new road, and you annihilate vested inter- ests; cultivate a new region of the earth, and you exterminate a race of men" (p. 366). George Eliot's first five novels reflect this position in their abundant sympathy toward humble people and traditional ways of life. It is a point of view that should not be forgotten when considering the sixth, notwithstanding its empha- sis on social progress and the extraordinary individual.'*

Indeed, what we might call the "Antigone principle" comes into play at the very start of Lydgate's active work in Middlemarch. He first attacks accepted methods by deciding not to sell medica- tions (normally the only source of income for the surgeon- apothecary, as opposed to the higher order of physician), renouncing the practice of running up bills with bogus prescrip- tions and instead charging his patients per consultation.13 As expected, this does not sit well either with his fellow surgeons or

with the local physicians-"vested interests" such as George Eliot had spoken of-but it also does not sit well with potential patients. "Preach against false doctrines, you disturb feeble minds": the people of Middlemarch fear and distrust innovation and can not readily be made to substitute a rational standard of evaluation for judgments based on feelings "situated perhaps in the pit of the stomach or in the pineal gland" (p. 482). While the narrator ridicules such backwardness, the novel also provides, through the case of Mr. and Mrs. Mawmsey, a detailed picture of the psychic gratifications offered by the existing system, fraudu- lent though it may be. Mrs. Mawmsey, "a woman accustomed to be made much of as a fertile mother," is allowed to feel cared for by having a large number of drugs prescribed. She also benefits from a placebo effect, or as she says, "'I should like [Mr. Lydgate] to tell me how I could bear up at Fair time, if I didn't take strengthening medicine for a month beforehand."' Mr. Mawm- sey, who "regard[s] a longer bill than usual as a dignity worth mentioning," also gets to "enjoy the pleasure of forming an acute judgment as to [the] immediate effects" of the various draughts, mixtures, and boluses he is given the privilege of purchasing. As a shopkeeper, he also likes knowing that "something measur- able had been delivered" for his every "half-crown and eigh- teenpence." (The very texture of the language here constitutes a rebuttal of scientific thinking.) The Mawmseys patronize the redoubtable Mr. Gambit, a humble quack who has "not indeed great resources of education" but from whom Mrs. Mawmsey has

had "a great deal of sittingn-free of charge, of course-"includ-

ing very full accounts of his own habits of body and other affairs"

(pp. 484-6). Gambit exemplifies the idea that medical practice

performs social as well as physiological functions, and it is the

former that Lydgate disturbs when attacking what he believes to

be a purely scientific problem. This is the Antigone principle at

work: in the conflict between what ought to be and what is, both

sides are right and both sides are wrong. The Carlylean Hero or

Positivist reformer may embody and seek to dispense the bene-

fits of a higher stage of human development, but ordinary people,

even those with "feeble minds," have a legitimate claim to being

left as they are.

Quite apart from the townspeople's attitudes, then, the very structure of the community creates resistance to the putative hero. Here lies the crux of the conflict as the social thought George Eliot embraced would have led her to understand it. In Auguste Comte's conception, human society, like the physical world, is governed by invariant, universal laws. l4 Central to the elaboration of Comtean ideas undertaken by Herbert Spencer and George Henry Lewes was the notion of organicism-the functional interorganization and interdependence of parts within a whole, be they organs within a body or individuals within a society.15 It is crucial to emphasize here that for Spencer and Lewes "organic" is a term of fact, not of value. A society is organic not insofar as it is traditional, intimate, and rooted-the sense of the term later popularized by Ferdinand Tonnies-but insofar as it is highly organized-the sense later employed by Emile Durkheim. Organicism is understood as a characteristic of every society, and social life in general is understood as becoming more organic, not less so, as it moves from tradi- tional rural communities to urban industrial society. But though societies change, as George Eliot wrote in her early essay on "The Natural History of German Life," their high degree of organization decrees that they do so only very slowly, and thus that it is virtually impossible to impose change from without.16 In Middlemarch she created a detailed picture of organic social structure and its powers of resistance."

The simplest fact about the structure of Middlemarch as it relates to Lydgate is that while the town is a fairly large place, its diffuse organization requires that it be reformed only one small piece at a time. Lydgate participates in the large-scale effort of the new hospital, but for the most part he must build up his practice skeptic by skeptic, cure by cure. The episode of the Mawmseys, frustrating as it already is, becomes all the more so given that the novel implies the existence of dozens of Mawm- seys all over town. Unlike the communities in Adam Bede and Silas Marner, both small enough to gather in their entirety at balls or public celebrations, Middlemarch must be represented by what might be called an "etc. effect."l8 Mr. Mawmsey, we are meant to understand, is merely a kind of sample, one iteration in a pattern that extends around him in two dimensions. As such, his meaning is rather strengthened than otherwise by the fact that Mr. Brooke runs in to this same Mr. Mawmsey, who offers the same smug resistance to reform, when he goes around canvass- ing for votes. This implicit homogeneity of structure is actually organic in a negative sense, evidence of the community's rela- tively low degree of organization; a more highly structured social entity might be more easily directed. But the etc. effect also embodies George Eliot's scientific outlook in a more general respect. To say that the novel treats Mr. Mawmsey as a sample is to say that it treats him as a case, an object of scientific study interesting for its typicality rather than its uniqueness, the very

reverse of traditional novelistic metaphysics. But if there is more than one Mr. Mawmsey, then there is also more than one Lydgate, if not in Middlemarch then elsewhere. This antiheroic implication is one the narrator makes explicit in the many gener- alizing asides with which she frames her story. Indeed, the very rhetoric with which she expounds Lydgate's heroic ambitions carries this opposite, ironizing, implication. Lydgate is at an age, we are told, "at which many men are not quite common" (p. 171) and at "a starting point which makes many a man's career a fine subject for betting" (p. 178). Insofar as the narrator poses as a scientist of human nature, Lydgate becomes a case for her much as his patients and tissue-samples are cases for him.lg As we will see below, however, this is not the only mode in which she deals with him.

To return to the structure of the community and its resistance to change, the homogeneity of attitudes implied by the etc. effect coexists with heterogeneities at other levels. The commu- nity of Middlemarch constitutes what is for fiction a highly elab- orate instance of the division of labor. The narrator even articulates, somewhat ironically, a division of labor within the medical profession-the tall, bluff Dr. Sprague v. the round, subtle Dr. Minchin; the various social grades of surgeon, from Toller, attendant to the wealthy, through Wrench and down to Gambit. Here we begin to catch sight of the community's organic interdependence, as well as the resistance which that interdependence necessarily offers to change. Lydgate, who can enter Middlemarch at all only by buying an existing practice, disrupts the community by seeking to change the structure of functions within its medical profession. Sprague and Minchin, Toller and Wrench: George Eliot is also postulating the frequent identity of interdependence and conflict, suggesting that the former depends in part on the stabilization of conflict at a low and essentially insignificant level-conflict without controver~y.~~ The presence of Sprague provides Minchin with a graspable (and marketable) identity; their differences, which really mean nothing in terms of medical efficacy, even as it was understood then, appear meaningful in contrast with each other. At the same time, their general similarities validate each other: one of something is an anomaly; two is the way things are. Such pseudo- conflict thus works to stigmatize the kind of real difference represented by Lydgate, who simply doesn't fit, and doesn't intend to fit, within the existing paradigm.

Between its homogeneity of attitudes and heterogeneity of occupations, Middlemarch arranges itself in a heterogeneous array of homogeneous social groups: in other words, by class. This aspect of structure becomes increasingly important as the novel progresses. Whereas the etc. effect had earlier allowed Mawmsey and a few other individuals to stand for the commu- nity as a whole, in the later chapters, when Lydgate's behavior becomes a matter of public scandal-that is, when the novel becomes most conscious of the existence of the community as such-Middlemarch is seen to structure itself as a series of small groups stratified according to status: the tradesmen at the Tankard, the ladies at Mrs. Hackbutt's tea, the men in Hawley's circle. Here, however, the etc. effect no longer operates in quite the same way. The group at the Tankard may be essentially iden- tical to that at other pot houses, but it is different, and what is more important, it knows that it is different, from groups at other social levels. Such a consciousness of difference has a decisive effect on the formation of opinion within the group. Dill the barber and Limp the shoemaker and all the other denizens of Mrs. Dollop's domain each already differs from everybody else by virtue of their occupation; they come to the Tankard to find and maintain a conscious homogeneity, a solidarity. It is a soli- darity that begins in class but is maintained through the estab- lishment of consensus. Rather than offering a free play of divergent voices, the scenes that take place within these groups work to suppress the play of voices, generally doing so through the dominance of a single social leader. Agreement is rewarded, dissent ridiculed.*l The task of a Lydgate becomes even more difficult than the one-by-one conquest of the Mr. Mawmseys. Let him win over one person, he will almost certainly lose him again once he goes to test his new opinion for acceptability by the rest of his social group. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of thing that occurs not long after Lydgate's arrival, when the Benefit Club that gathers at the Tankard votes, by a margin of two, against shifting its custom from Gambit to the new man.

The community's organic interdependence creates consensus at a higher level, as well, in the form of what appears to read- ers as a unitary collective consciousness. It is not immediately clear, however, how such a consciousness arises. Critics have spoken of the circulation of gossip as constituting a normative communal voice,22 but while gossip does serve to indicate a relative uniformity of interest and attitude, it remains diffuse, a set of like minds rather than one single mind. There are moments, however, at which a single voice does step forward, in the context of a public gathering, to utter what seem to be collective sentiments. Hawley's accusatory speech at the Town Hall meeting is one such moment; candidate Brooke's ridicule by his own "Punch-voiced" echo is another.23 While Hawley too clearly speaks as his own highly partisan self to be taken as artic- ulating a general will, Bulstrode's banishment from the gather- ing does carry a wider significance, as does "neighbor" Brooke's disgraced retreat from the hustings. Indeed the latter episode, with its disembodied voice that seems to come both from nowhere and everywhere, neatly encapsulates what seems to me the essential nature of the collective consciousness manifested by Middlemarch. The weight of communal opinion develops out of the activity of dozens of discrete social units, but at no point can that opinion be attributed to any particular person or persons. The first thing that every reader recognizes about the community of Middlemarch is that it rejects reform. But how does it reject reform? Who rejects reform? No one-and everyone. Specific instances of specific rejections combine in an unconcerted, unselfconscious, and ultimately unknowable way to produce a collective opinion that is articulated by no voice and a collective decision that is made at no point.24 A particu- larly lucid explanation of the organic nature of such a phenom- enon is offered by a thinker of our own day, Douglas Hofstadter. Discussing the creation of intelligence out of the interorgani- zation of individual nerve cells, Hofstadter likens the brain to an anthill: the ants themselves are only minimally intelligent, capable of a small repertoire of essentially instinctive behaviors, but the hill as a whole, through the organization of these compo- nent parts, develops a much higher collective intelligence, as evidenced by its ability to respond to outside stimuli in what appear to the observer as complex and creative waysz5 Middle- march is just such a system: Mawmsey, Hawley, and the rest engage in behavior that is, if not quite purely instinctive, then certainly completely determined by circumstance and habit, and thus the community as whole, through the organization of these component parts, succeeds in throwing off the threat that reform poses to its homeostasis. On the one hand, a low-level individual consciousness, on the other, a collective intelligence visible to outside observers alone, be they novel-readers or social philosophers.

As Lydgate's struggle with the community approaches its crisis, the existence of this kind of unconscious collective thought becomes decisive. The story of Raffles's death-the story that finally damns Lydgate decisively-is put together, from fragments possessed by several different people, through an accretion of unconnected, apparently random circumstances.

One man goes out of his shop to talk to a second, others pass by, a conversation starts-the puzzle begins to assume a shape. But the language of the scene suggests that these circumstances are not really random at all. Hopkins goes out to talk to Bambridge after the latter has emerged from the Green Dragon simply because "any human figure standing at ease under the archway in the early afternoon was as certain to attract compan- ionship as a pigeon which has found something worth pecking at" (p. 769). Humans, pigeons-predictable creatures both. The pair soon swells to a cluster with listeners "deposited from the passers-by"-"deposited" from the stream of passers-by, the metaphor implies, like pebbles on a bank. A seemingly chance accretion of events, but actually governed by the same kinds of natural laws that rule the behavior of pigeons and pebbles. More specifically, the individual events that comprise the scene before the Green Dragon embody the occupational habits of the characters involved. Hopkins the draper wanders out to Bambridge because, "his customers [being] chiefly women," he pines for male company. Bambridge, a horse dealer, is idling in front of the Green Dragon for analogous reasons: inns are his characteristic habitat, idling his characteristic behavior. It is also as a horse-dealer that Bambridge attracts the attention of Hawley, a crucial actor in the scene, for the lawyer has been look- ing for a new mount. Hawley's enmity toward Bulstrode-an inevitable consequence of the two men's political and social positions-in turn encourages Bambridge to repeat the tale he has heard from Raffles. But how has Bambridge come to know the story in the first place? Again, professional habit: as a man of dubious affairs, Bambridge has an ear for the secrets of every dicer and drinker between Middlemarch and Brassing; in fact, he more or less boasts about having plied Raffles with grog until he talked. Finally, Hopkins also possesses a crucial piece of information. He is the one who knows that Raffles has died at Stone Court because he is the one who furnished the funeral. In other words, he comes out to talk to Bambridge because he's a draper, and he knows about Raffles's death because he's a draper. Hopkins is linked to Bambridge, Bambridge to Raffles, Raffles to Hopkins. Hawley acts to join the circle together and connect it to Bulstrode's place in Middlemarch as a whole. On careful examination, then, George Eliot's seamless construc- tion can be seen to give the revelation of Raffles's death the char- acter not of coincidence, but of inevitability, the unconscious effect of social habits and instincts working together in organic intercoordination.

I have traced these links in detail because they constitute a clearer and more contained instance of the very process that produces Lydgate's downfall. I noted above how his commitment to the heroic ideal leads him to allow the major part of his character to evade ethical governance. Now we can see that those "spots of commonness" are no less manifestations of social- ized instinct and socially inculcated habit than are the occupa- tional impulses and behaviors of the Hopkinses and Bambridges and Hawleys. What brings about his downfall, however, is not these faults alone, as if some mysterious system of divine retri- bution were at work, but the way they tie him into the organic structure of the community as a whole, its total structure of habitual, "antlike" behavior. This, finally, is the nature of the unconscious conspiracy between man and town. By following the socialized impulses that attract him to Rosamond-much the same as Hopkins follows his impulses in going out to talk to Bambridge-Lydgate implicates himself in her habitual profli- gacy and instinctive aversion to sacrifice. He must then turn to Bulstrode for financial assistance, thus linking himself irre- versibly to the banker's own uncognitized behaviors and the kinds of social connections-associates like Raffles, enemies like Hawley-to which they give rise. Lydgate to Rosamond, Rosamond to Bulstrode, Bulstrode to Hawley and Raffles, Hawley and Raffles back to Lydgate. Everyone is simply doing what habit and circumstance dictate. Lydgate's "spots of commonness" go out from him into the total web of communal relationships, and through that same web they come back to destroy him.

Everyone is simply doing what habit and circumstance dictate-in all this, Lydgate fails to do the one thing that could have lifted him out of the community's mechanical intercoor- dination of unconscious behaviors: he does not make choices. Everyone recognizes the importance of sympathy to George Eliot's system of values, but the importance of conscious thought and choice is far less frequently discussed. The making of choices is central to the moral scheme as well as to the plot of Middlemarch, and the refusal to make choices is central to Lydgate's failure. The novel's vicious characters are not only, sometimes not even, the ones possessed of the lowest moral stan- dards, but the ones who refuse to choose: Casaubon to risk his egotism by finishing and publishing the Key, Featherstone to finalize the disposition of his estate, Bulstrode to face the prob- lem of Raffles, Brooke to decide on any course of action what- soever. The most admirable characters, by contrast, are those who not only make choices, but do so against the inertia of social position and socially determined desire-who think their way toward unexpected and unconventional decisions. Fred Vincy achieves stature and happiness by choosing to descend socially in order to take up a vocation that suits him. Dorothea declines a match with the conventionally ideal Sir James, then later gives up the position and fortune of an aristocrat to marry Will. Will renounces his cousin's financial support, Farebrother the hand of the woman he loves. Indeed, it is the possibility of exercising choice that restores the freedom and dignity threatened by scientific determinism. As I noted above, George Eliot's narra- tor frequently treats her characters as mere social-psychological cases. Far more often, however, she handles them in precisely the opposite way, tracing and analyzing the minute workings of their will. Whatever she might say, for example, about the micro- bial character of a thoroughly conventional figure like Mrs. Cadwallader, she in no way treats the few conscious, difficult choices I just enumerated as anything but the result of a genuine moral freedom. Here, too, George Eliot counterpoises to contemporary philosophical ideas the significations of the novel form itself. For all that she gave the novel a new sociographic turn, she preserved its grounding in the metaphysics of indi- vidual uniqueness and freed~m.~%ydgate, however, consis- tently fails to make use of this freedom. He refuses to choose between Tyke and Farebrother, letting his vote ride on a sudden impulse of pique. He doesn't even choose to marry Rosamond, again leaving the event to circumstance and impulse-a sudden tear, a sudden rush of tenderness. Faced with the need to retrench his finances, he dithers for months rather than displeas- ing his wife. Finally, he seals his damning association with Bulstrode out of a feeling that he has no choice ("What could he do?" [p. 7831) but to help him out of the Town Hall meeting. Lydgate does indeed face a great challenge in arraying himself against the "petty medium of Middlemarch," but he becomes its victim only because he surrenders to it (p. 21'7).

Yet, while one might speak of Fred or Farebrother as possess- ing moral courage, I am not suggesting that George Eliot is redefining the concept of heroism altogether. The Carlylean dimensions of great achievement and great historical leadership remain. Fred does not become a hero and never could have. Rather, to the Carlylean understanding George Eliot is adding a moral dimension, that which takes into account "the small temptations and sordid cares" inevitable in any "little local personal history" (p. 176). It is part of the novel's tragic irony that its two leading figures possess all the elements necessary for heroism, only divided between them. Lydgate has the potential and the opportunity but lacks the moral courage; Dorothea has the potential and the courage but lacks the opportunity. It is for this reason that their failures cannot be taken as a blanket state- ment of heroism's impossibility. In this respect, as in so many others, Middlemarch seeks not to discourage, but to instruct.


'George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. W. J. Harvey (London: Penguin, 1965; rprt. 1985), p. 26. All citations to Middlemarch in this essay will be to this edition and will henceforth be included parenthetically in the text. Cf. George Levine, "Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George Eliot," PMLA 77, 3 (June 1962): 268-79; Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology A Study in Marxist Literarj Theorj (London: Verso, 1975), pp. 111-21; Richard Poirier, "Middlemarch, Chapter 85, Three Commentaries," NCF35,3 (December 1980): 448-53; Jeanie Thomas, Reading Middlemarch: Reclaiming the Middle Distance (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), pp. 58-61; and David Carroll, George Eliot and the Conjlict oflnterpretations: A Reading ofthe Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), p. 265.

'For critics who stress the culpability of the town virtually to the exclusion of that of Lydgate, cf. Eagleton; Poirier; Arnold Kettle, An Introduction to the English it'ovel, 2 vols. (London: Hutchinson's Univ. Library, 1951), 1:185; and Quentin Anderson, "George Eliot in Middlemarch," in Patrick Swinden, ed., George Eliot: "Middlemarch ":A Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1972), pp. 166-89. The position is also implicit in D. A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents: Prob- lems ofClosure in the 7i-aditional Novel (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 115-9. For those who stress Lydgate's egotism, cf. Levine: U. C. Knoepflmacher, Religious Humanism and the Victorian hTovel: George Eliot, Walter Pat~r, and Samuel Butler (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), p. 101; and Carol S. Gould, "Plato, George Eliot, and Moral Narcissism," P&L 14, 1 (April 1990): 24-39. A particularly strong statement of the position may be found in Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe ofa Bepnning (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 153: "The social drama is merely that of [Lydgate's] psychological constitution writ large . . . It is, in the final instance, Lydgate's intrinsic moral flaws . . . and not the circumstances of his interaction with Middlemarch, that create his downfall." For those who discuss his failure to apply scientific thinking to his own situa- tion, cf. Gillian Beer, Darutin's Plots: Evolutionar~ Narrative in Darutin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Centurj Fiction (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), pp. 165-6; and John I.. Tucker, "George Eliot's Reflexive Text: Three Tonalities in the Narrative Voice of Middlemarch," SEL 31, 4 (Autumn 1991): 773-91. The idea also arises in Carroll, p. 267, and Alan Mintz, George Eliot and the Novel of Vocation (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 93-4. In general, discussions of Lydgate tend to be far less sophis- ticated than do those of Dorothea; indeed, there is relatively little considera- tion of him at all in recent criticism. Many chapter-length discussions of the novel give him a paragraph or less (e.g., Patricia McKee, Heroic Commitment in Richardson, George Eliot, and James [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 19861; Jennifer Uglow, George Eliot [London: Virago/Pantheon Pioneers, 19871; and Kristin Brady, GeorgeEliot [Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and London: Macmillan, 19921). What comment there is tends to reiterate the two points mentioned here, adding to them the observation that Lydgate harbors patri-

archal assumptions about marriage.

"f. Mintz, pp. 112-5, and Franco hloretti, The Way of the World: The "Bildungsroman" in European Culture (London: l'erso, 1987), pp. 216-21. '"Life'" appears in Moretti as a shorthand for personal social relations.

"or George Eliot's expression of Thomas Carlyle's importance to every "superior and active mind of this generation," see George Eliot, Selected Essajs, Poems, and Other Writings, ed. A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 344. For the impact of her encounter with Ralph Waldo Emerson, see Gordon Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (1968; rprt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1985), p. 65. Studies of George Eliot's intellectual background either omit these two altogether or mention Carlyle only in passing. Cf. Knoepflmacher; Shuttleworth; Basil Willey, h7ineteenthCentury Studies: Coleridge to Matthew Arnold (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1949); Bernard J. Paris, Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1965); Suzanne Graver, George Eliot and Community: A Study in Social Theory and Fictional Form (Berkeley: Lfniv, of California Press, 1984); and Bernard Semmel, George Eliot and the Politics of h7ational Inheritance (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994).

"or "Divine Idea," see Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (London: Oxford Lfniv. Press, 1904), p. 10.5. For "Nature's Laws," see Carlyle, Past and Present (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1909), p. 147.

6For "Thoughts," see Carlyle, Heroes, p. 1. For "pictorial or representative," see Emerson, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 5 vols.-, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson, Joseph Slater et al. (Cambridge MA: Harvard Cniv. Press, 1971), 4:6.

5I am suggesting that "spots of commonness" refers to aspects of 1-ydgate's character that go beyond the conventional attitudes with which the narrator identifies them: "his feeling and judgment about furniture, or women" or his relatively high birth (p. 179). Jill I,. Matus, in discussing Dorothea's "common yearnings of womanhood" (p. 25) as the sexual drives that exist in tension with, and are repressed in favor of, her spiritual ideals, notes that a similar split exists within Lydgate ("Saint Theresa, Hysteria, and Middlemarch," JHSex 1, 2 [Octo- ber 19901: 215-40, 226 n). The similarity between the two phrases strength- ens Matus's observation; what is "common" are all those impulses-the sexual ones Matus emphasizes as well as the others I enumerate above-that the potential hero shares with other people. In Lydgate's case, moreover, the intermingling of the two sets of desires is even clearer than in Dorothea's; the irony of his overlooking it even sharper. A passage often cited as evidence of the genuineness of his altruistic motives is clearly a sly suggestion of the reverse: "[Hle was an emotional creature, with a flesh-and-blood sense of fellowship which withstood all the abstractions of special study. He cared not only for 'cases,' but forJohn and Elizabeth, especially Elizabeth" (p. 174).

XLydgate is not the only figure in the novel to be shadowed by such paragons. Casaubon has Thomas Aquinas and John Milton, Will has Lord Byron. Most interestingly, the narrator herself has Henry Fielding.

"eorge Eliot, Letters, ed. Gordon Haight, 9 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale Cniv. Press, 1954-78), 4:286-8. 'OBoth Semmell and James F. Scott, "George Eliot, Positivism, and the Social Vision of Middlemarch," L'S 16, 1 (September 1972): 59-76, discuss the

letter as a possible model for the novel but fail to note the contrast between proposal and supposed realization. For George Eliot's relationship with the English Positivists and their influence on her-a matter of ongoing debate- see Semmel; Scott; Martha Vogeler, "George Eliot and the Positivists," NCF35, 3 (December 1980): 406-31; and T. R. Wright, "George Eliot and Positivism: A Reassessment," MLR 76, 2 (April 1981): 257-72.

"George Eliot, Essays, pp. 363-6.

"Semmell, pp. 767, is one of the few critics to mention the essay in connection with the novels, drawing with respect to Romola roughly the same conclusion I do here. Among the few writers on Middlemarch who argue that George Eliot extends som; measure of sympathy to the community are Knoepflmacher, Laughter and Despair: Readings in the Novels of the Victorian Era (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1971),p. 195; and Thomas, p. 76.

13For an account of the historical context of Lydgate's activity, see Lillian

R. Furst, "Struggling for Medical Reform in Middlemarch," NCF48, 3 (December 1993): 341-61.

14Graver offers the most thorough account of the centrality to George Eliot's fiction of the sociological ideas of Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and George Henry Lewes. Other valuable discussions include Paris, pp. 25-89; Shuttleworth, pp. 1-23; Levine; and Semmel. A useful summary of Comte's ideas is provided by Willey, pp. 187-203. Also valuable is Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivi~m (London: Trubner and Co., 1866).

'"Graver, pp. 150-88, offers a valuable discussion of these ideas, as does Shuttleworth, pp. 1-23.

'"eorge Eliot, Essays, p. 127.

''Part of my purpose in offering the ensuing analysis is to provide a fresh

approach to the community in Middlemarch, discussions of which are gener- ally inadequate. Some critics simply read the town as a synecdoche for English society as a whole, as does J. Hillis Miller, "Optic and Semiotic in Middle-march," in The Worlds of Victorian Action, ed. Jerome H. Buckley (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975),pp. 125-45; and Moretti. Others employ "commu- nity" as a term for the social medium in general (community v. individual, community v. transcendence), a use so common as to make specific citation arbitran;. Of more extensive discussions, Graver, following Ferdinand Tonnies's sense of "organic," focuses on questions of value rather than of fact, discussing affective qualities such as sympathy and fellowship but eschewing questions of structure. Other critics employ the fact-value distinction too loosely, recog- nizing that George Eliot valued something called "community" and then searching, sometimes rather far afield, for whatever might fit it. Thus, for Karen Chase, "It might even be said that in Middlentarch the self becomes the community that cannot be realized in social terms" ("Middlemarch" [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 19911, p. 57).Of those who do deal with the community as fact, valuable discussions are offered by Anderson; Shut- tleworth, pp. 146-7; and D. A. Miller, pp. 110-29. Even these critics, however, understand the community as nothing more concrete or structurally specific than a web of voices-respectively opinion, gossip, or narration. Among the ways my approach differs from theirs is in recognizing a distinction between :Lliddl~marchthe novel and Middlemarch the town. It is only the latter, which does not include the rural parishes of Dorothea's milieu. that constitutes Lydgate's community. (Further discussion of this division may be found in J.

M. S. Tompkins, "A Plea for Ancient Lights," in "iVliddlemarch": Critical Approaches to the Novel, ed. Barbara Hardy [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 19671, pp. 172-83).

am adapting a term of D. A. Miller's, p. 43, who uses E. H. Gombrich's "etc. principle" to refer to the implicit continuation of a social situation in time, as in the ending of a marriage plot.

lgFor discussions of the narrator's use of scientific language, cf. Beer, pp. 149-80, and Tucker, pp. 782-7.

'OIn this she is offering an implicit response to Spencer, who believed that increasing social interdependence would lead to the elimination of conflict, and was graveled to find that it did not (see Shuttleworth, pp. 149-50, and Graver, pp. 163-4). Shuttleworth also notes that the novel associates conflict with increasing interdependence, but understands this conflict as destructive rather than stabilizing.

21Carroll, p. 261, points out the difference between Bulstrode's "summary conviction" in the Tankard and elsewhere and the "forensic debate" that takes place in the Rainbow in Silas Marner. The difference makes sense according to my analysis. Since the Rainbow is the only gathering place for the men of the small community of Raveloe, the social need is for differentiation rather than homogenization.

22As noted above, the issue is discussed by Anderson, Shuttleworth, and D.

A. Miller. Cf. Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 195.

23A third possible example is Borthrop Trumbull's performance at the auction. Particularly in the passage where he puffs the Larchers' miscellany of middle-class knickknacks (p. 653), Trumbull's speech sounds like nothing so much as Leopold Bloom's interior monologue. An ostensibly random assortment of consumer goods is seen through a language-rife with status consciousness, social anxiety, and sublimated desire-that endows them with ideological meaning. Trumbull opens his mouth and out comes advertising copy, or what will become advertising copy. But what is advertising copy if not the middle-class unconscious talking to itself?

24That the "social medium" produces a "general mind" or "general consciousness" blended from the feelings of all is discussed by Lewes in The Study of Psychology (as quoted in Paris, p. 58). By this "general consciousness," however, Lewes means such cultural phenomena as tradition, precept, and law. George Eliot is delineating something far more subtle.

25Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Vintage, 1980), pp. 314-5.

2% this I am disagreeing with those who see a belief in social determin- ism as the novel's all-encompassing philosophical premise (Kettle and Levine are among the most extreme on this point). While I agree that George Eliot believed that choice must take place within a framework of larger constraints, I find that most critics overstress the latter at the expense of the former (e.g., Knoepflmacher, Relipous Humanism, p. 11 1; shuttleworth, p. 116; D. A. ~iller,

p. 119).

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