Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited: Judgement

We have known from the beginning that Dr. Lydgate and Rosamond are essentially incompatible. He's a serious, ambitious doctor whose goal in life is the advancement of science. Rosamond is a pampered doll whose goal in life is the advancement of her social position. To maintain her in the style she expects, Lydgate falls into debt, and is nearly ruined. I expect that most of us find our sympathies on the side of Dr. Lydgate, but he bears his share of the responsibility for the marital difficulties he and Rosamond face. Like most of the men in Middlemarch, Lydgate has an autocratic streak that contributes to Rosamond's exasperating immaturity.

When a pregnant Rosamond wants to go out riding again with Lydgate's fashionable cousin, Lydgate tells her: "surely I am the person to judge for you. I think it is enough that I say you are not to go again" (629, emphasis added). His caution seems reasonable—and, as it turns out, warranted—but his tone is disturbingly paternalistic. It has, as Eliot remarks later, "a touch of despotic firmness." When Lydgate's medical practice has begun to fail, Rosamond suggests that he "should be more careful not to offend people." Lydgate snaps: "What I am to do in my practice, Rosy, it is for me to judge. It is enough for you to know that our income is likely to be a very narrow one..." (700, emphasis added).

Later, one one of several occasions when Rosamond does something significant behind Lydgate's back, he asks her: "Will this be enough to convince you of the harm you may do by secret meddling? Have you sense enough to recognize now your incompetence to judge and act for me—to interfere with your ignorance in affairs which it belongs to me to decide on?" (716, emphasis added).

Rosamond has been spoiled, yes, and her education has been superficial, but Lydgate persists in treating her as a kind of household ornament rather than a full partner in marriage. Conversation becomes nearly impossible between them: "His indisposition to tell her anything in which he was sure beforehand she would not be interested was growing into an unreflecting habit, and she was in ignorance of everything..." (812). Both of them act behind the other's back, and fail to confide in each other. Their initial incompatibility deepens into a nearly impassable gulf.

The contrast with Dorothea is interesting. At the beginning of the novel, she impulsively marries Casaubon. Instead of being initiated into the mysteries of scholarship, she gains an education in sympathy. Near the end of the novel, Dorothea wants to rush to the aid of Dr. Lydgate, who has fallen under a cloud of scandal. Her male advisors warn her against it. Her brother-in-law, Sir James, says: "Surely, a woman is bound to be cautious and listen to those who know the world better than she does" (791). Her sister Celia tells her: "I think it is a mercy now after all that you have got James to think for you." She adds: "And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better... Well, I mean about babies and those things" (792).

But Dorothea is right. She has matured in sympathy in a way that pampered Rosamond hasn't, in a way that even Celia doesn't understand. The novel is full of harmful talk that spreads as malicious gossip and potentially helpful talk that remains suppressed through polite caution. Dorothea has the courage and the sympathy to speak honestly, soul to soul, with another suffering human.

No comments:

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .