George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and Memory

From The Book Castle.
“With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavors and the tinglings of a merited shame.”

Every principal character in Middlemarch can be said to have two selves, one of the present and one of the past. The source of animus and disenchantment that these characters develop throughout the novel then, what George Eliot lays out in the Prelude as “self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life,” is partly the difference between these selves.

Whether it is Dorothea, whose disappointing marriage with Casaubon differs from her younger self’s intellectual ambitions to work under a John Milton, or Lydgate, whose past ambitions to revolutionize medical practice and scientific inquiry become lost in his dubious entanglements with Bulstrode, or Rosamond, whose financial instability pales in comparison to her previous desires for luxury and excess, the citizens of Middlemarch are highly conscious of how they have changed.

This change, rather than leaving the characters with a sense of greater maturity and meaningful self-awareness, only creates the need to change further, continuing the burden of always having to reach further upwards in life.

This theme of social mobility is prominent in Middlemarch. It implies that everyone in a way is pressured to transcend their respective “life of mistakes” and to instead inhabit their vision of an “epic life.” What the discussion of divided and conflicting selves demonstrates however, is that transcending the past is not so simple, and that it requires a kind of self-reflection where characters must fully engage and reconcile their regrets and personal failings in order to reach their future goals.

This self-reflection then implicitly deals with the issue of memory, the “still quivering part” of every person’s self, because it is through retrospection that a character’s various deceptions and self-deceptions are revealed. Further, self-knowledge and personal growth depend on collective memory, which Eliot argues used to exist in the “coherent social faith and order” of religion and history.

This self-reflection then implicitly deals with the issue of memory, the “still quivering part” of every person’s self, because it is through retrospection that a character’s various deceptions and self-deceptions are revealed.

However, these modes of social education are strikingly absent or ineffectual in the fictional town of Middlemarch. It is up to Eliot then to recreate a contemporary form of collective memory through the novel, a modern reimagining of the biblical method, which by weaving the many social relationships in Middlemarch gives readers a wealth of memories and introspective lessons upon which to construct their own lives.

This essay will adopt such a retrospective reading of Middlemarch, in part to characterize the role of memory in self-reflection and maturity, but also to plumb the essential questions asked in Eliot’s weighty novel: in the event of adversity or tragedy, how do we go on? When we look back on the past, with its myriad illusions and painful uncertainties, what values do we need in order to avoid repeating those same mistakes in the future?

Eliot provides the hard-won truth in the midst of Rosamond and Lydgate’s pitiful marriage that “pain must enter into its glorified life of memory before it can turn into compassion.” It is therefore humanistic values, the “incalculably diffusive” effects of empathy and concern for others, which allows characters, Dorothea in particular, to overcome the narcissism of memory and commit to a life of “unhistoric acts.”

It is crucial to first establish that this analysis is not a critique of the faculty of memory or a condemnation of having a past self per se as damaging. Rather, I argue that it is the relationship between characters and their past selves that, steeped in the stifling and repressive Victorian era, is one of gross alienation. That is, the individualistic drives of social mobility pervert the process of recollection into a profoundly painful one, and thus characters are taught to avoid the retrieval of memories that has become so fraught with conflict and contradiction. This happens to Dorothea when she recalls her honeymoon with Casaubon in Rome and experiences “moods of despondency” as well as Rosamond who when thinking about her miscarriage, an event she can only refer to as “the consequent blank,” feels isolated from her husband and suppresses “her utter ennui.”

These emotional repercussions, which feed a generalized dissatisfaction with their respective relationships, always stem from painful memories, and it is the return of those memories into the present that the characters must allow. It is therefore societal norms, which in these cases instruct women to prioritize their husband’s ambitions over their own, that act to disconnect characters from their memories.

These norms are almost always unsaid, existing in the collective subconscious of people’s minds, for no one tells Lydgate to pursue a high-status professional career or Fred Vincy a college-level education because they are men. However, this tacit expectation filters the way these men perceive the events of their life, both in the moment and retrospectively. They must constantly ask themselves if their past decisions sufficiently meet the standard of masculinity, and if there are lapses, does what they are achieving in the present make up for it? This question too, if asked of the women, especially when Dorothea doubts whether she is capable of being a good wife after Causabon’s death.

The method by which societal norms alienate memory then is by inducing regret, and the visceral fear of repeating past mistakes. It is not difficult to see the similarities between norms with history and religion as tools of socialization that assign guilt and judgments for wrong decisions. These sources of collective knowledge are so strong and pervasive because they focus on what is permanent and unchangeable about us, on what cannot be fixed but only repented.

The issue in Middlemarch is the impossibility of repentance in modern society. A large part of the novel details the fast and widely reaching force of gossip, which shames Dorothea for her husband’s codicil, or paints Fred as a hopeless leech even after he returns from college. In the wake of this consuming, unforgiving societal memory, the characters are not allowed to forget their past selves irrespective of whatever redeemable changes they are making in the present.

It is this irreconcilable nature of memory, that society drives us to repress the characters’ memories without giving guidance on how to engage with the past, and that the worst of their memories are forever being imposed on to their present self, that inhibits meaningful self-reflection.

These sources of collective knowledge are so strong and pervasive because they focus on what is permanent and unchangeable about us, on what cannot be fixed but only repented.

Admittedly, this condition is not always undeserved. The case in point is Bulstrode, whose crimes in both the past and the present haunt him, and whose toxic influence on Lydgate inspires a paragraph-long meditation by Eliot’s narrator on this dual relationship between memory and action. The narrator’s argument supports what has been developed here, that it is not the threat of “legal punishment or of beggary” that renders Bulstrode “helpless,” but the unstoppable resurfacing of “his blameworthy past” that will invite the “judgment of his neighbors and the mournful perception of his wife.” What is fascinating here is how the fear of God is replaced with “[t]he terror of being judged” by society, which “sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases.” It is also fitting that this insight comes as a condemnation of Bulstrode’s life, for he is the character that is most deserving of punishment for his past, and there he serves as the counterpoint that demonstrates why the other characters do not deserve to be alienated from their memories.

Eliot adds a caveat that memory is often “habitually recalled only in general phrases,” offering a second factor of alienation that relates to the distinction between learning knowledge and repeatedly practicing it through virtuous action to the point of it becoming automatic. This separates two forms of memory, voluntary memory that involves conscious retrieval of personal memories and habit memory that is stored in bodily mechanisms for practical actions.

Unlike the previous discussion of collective memory and norms, this conception of habit memory as a distraction from the past places responsibility on individuals. It says that people often rely mindlessly on comforting activities that can be repeated without consequence, although in the case of gambling there is quite a bit to lose, as an opiate against taking action to reform ones life. Note that this personal failing to invigorate oneself to the spontaneity of life could be interpreted as contradicting the paralytic self-consciousness that societal norms create. The important commonality then is the paralyzing effect that an alienated relationship with memory can have.

The issue becomes worse when characters in Middlemarch respond to one form of alienation with the other. For example, when Rosamond becomes dissatisfied with the ordinary state of her married life, instead of meaningfully discussing Lydgate’s financial decisions with him, she instead lashes out at him and spends her free time horse riding. When Fred goes into debt and fails to sell his horse, he has to resort to his habit of borrowing money. Even Casaubon, whose supposed intellectual capabilities and bookish lifestyle should provide ample opportunity for introspection, uses his obsessive work on the Key to All Mythologies as an escape from addressing the emotional disappointment of his wife.

What results then is a positive feedback loop, in which societal norms shame characters forcing them to turn inwards, which perpetuates their reliance on habits, which in turn holds them back from taking action against their present situations.

The defining roadblock to escaping this cycle, Eliot suggests, is narcissism. The individualistic incentives of industrial England, to pursue personal wealth and status for its sake, motivates characters to ignore memories that interfere with success and to fall into habit memory as a way to cope with failure. It is instructive then that the climactic conflict of the novel, or at least of Book VII, is when Lydgate becomes entangled in the “blameworthy past” of another person, Bulstrode. Lydgate is of course not aware of Bulstrode’s relationship with Will Ladislaw’s grandmother or of his intentions to kill Raffles. Nonetheless, Lydgate becomes another cover for Bulstrode’s past, which like a zombie has started a “second life.”

The solution to Lydgate’s unintended entanglements with Bulstrode is Dorothea’s “compassion.” Starting from the moment in which Dorothea bravely declares “Let us find out the truth and clear [Lygate]!” she becomes the first character to voluntarily involve herself in the histories of others. As a result, she realizes her fate as a contemporary Saint Theresa, someone who sacrifices to lift others from their circumstances.

Dorothea, who always seems to be a victim of gossip in Middlemarch, places justice for Lydgate and for his past to be cleared of guilt even if it means that her own past is smeared with false rumors. When the codicil, which could represent a memory of Casaubon and his envy, prevents Dorothea from marrying Will, Dorothea again sacrifices her material advantages and willingly becomes the subject of gossip. This decision is partly selfish, because she wants to marry Will for her own happiness, but the resulting marriage is distinct from the other relationships in Middlemarch because it is motivated by a genuine desire to know another person, which includes the unsavory details of their pasts.

This is crucial to understanding Middlemarch, a book in many ways about what constitutes a successful marriage. Unlike the marriage between Dorothea and Casaubon or between Lydgate and Rosamond, the relationship of Dorothea and Will is one of openness and empathy. That is, Will does not hide his past, his motivations, and his feelings from Dorothea, unlike the shadowy and emotionally conservative Casaubon. Dorothea herself is often described as sincere and emotionally transparent, and when she is with Will she does not have to suppress this. Eliot suggests that one quality of a successful marriage, and a path to overcoming the cycle of memory alienation, is an unconditional concern for others and their past selves.

This humanistic approach to relationships, in which people are not defined by their status or social identities, but by their everyday qualities, their intentions and actions, is evidence that Eliot was well beyond the individualistic times of the Victorian era. In this essay, I have argued that their exists a gap between the present and past selves of characters in Middlemarch, and that a self-centered approach to this problem invites the influence of societal norms or habit memory. It is in the company of non-judgmental others, in which the past is not isolated and ignored but embraced, that characters like Dorothea can construct a cohesive sense of self.