Middlemarch: Casaubon’s Proposal Letter Analysed

Listen all ya’ll, this is sabotage

Beastie Boys

because I believe I’m about to throw down some spoilers.

But honestly, if you dislike spoilers, you shouldn’t read Middlemarch because the author is throwing them down hard herself.

I’ve just begun reading George Eliot’s (AKA Mary Ann Evans’) Middlemarch again. It was about a decade ago that I consumed it on the recommendation of a delightful English teacher. My memory of the plot is pretty fuzzy, as I’m old AND I have goldfish-level info retention anyway.

So, What Are We Spoiling Today? What’s This Post About?

Quick catch up. Early in the book, teenage Dorothea has met two suitors. One is young and charming and one is self-important father time. She hates the lack of a humbuging, harumphing, anti-enjoyment grandfather figure in her life, so this is the suitor she chooses to marry. What could go wrong. <–Rhetorical.

But while it’s obvious from both the circumstance and the author that this is a disaster waiting to happen, what I find interesting is the very specific ways Casaubon has made it clear in his proposal letter that he’s an awful person. This match is going to be ugly, and he previews the ways how.

That’s what I’m going to talk about today, with quotes from the letter that illustrate exactly what’s wrong with this pompous Methusela:

  • that he has no feelings of actual love,
  • that his thoughts about Dorothea are simply about her potential as a helpmate,
  • and that he’s willing to stoop to manipulation in his attempt to convince her this marriage will save her in various ways.

Quick note on accessibility: I post screenshots of the book that visually impaired won’t be able to read, but I write out all the quotes I find important, and I created an MP3 of the whole letter you can listen to here

First, a Quick Recap of Dorthea’s Return Letter for Context

Quote from Middlemarch—picture of Dorothea's entire letter

That’s right. I’m so lazy I’m taking pictures of my Kindle.

Before we get to Casaubon’s letter, let’s jump ahead to Dorothea’s response.

While we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, what Dorothea says in her letter will put into perspective the rest of what I’ll say in this post.

Dorothea says in the first sentence, “I am very grateful to you for loving me” (emphasis mine).

She believes Casaubon’s letter to be a profession of love—and that that love will be the cornerstone of their marriage.

We were all teenagers once…

She’s going to find something out the hard way, and it’s something we can already see in Casaubon’s proposal letter. We’ll see he never mentions love. What’s more, we should, in fact, question his capacity to love.

With that, here are some points I want to bring up with Casaubon’s letter.

1. What’s Up With the Dense, Inscrutable Line at the Beginning?

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon's first paragraph of proposal letter

Please pardon the shadow of my wine glass.

Let’s begin with this doozy from Casaubon’s proposal letter.

This quote is the second sentence of this letter.

I mean, he’s opening with this.

Here’s the line I’m talking about:

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.

Okay.

I’m an English major whose main focus over the course of a lifetime of reading is 19th-century literature. Here is my reaction to reading this line.

Amanda's WTF face

Wat.

Now, I’m going to break the quote down for you as best as I can, but please know, this isn’t just the way people talked in the “olden days.” This is different: purposefully obtuse. His goal is to impress by being utterly opaque.

Check out the quote with interpretation in bold so you can see what he’s saying here.

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition

I’m quite sure you and I both recognize”

of some deeper correspondence than that of date

“that there’s been more serious talk lately”**

in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.

“about the fact that I’ve discovered I have needs while, coincidentally, meeting you!”

** it’s unclear to me quite what he means here. I think he’s talking about asking her uncle for permission to marry and he’s assuming uncle and Dorothea have discussed it. But he might be talking about feeling like he (Casaubon) and Dorothea have been having deeper communication lately.

So, that long-winded sentence, nearly impossible to dissect, can be summed up as “MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.”

Twitter quote from Kanye West"I'm not even going to lie to you. I love me so much right now"

But even if you don’t dissect it, what’s the point of having a sentence that stiff and dense in a proposal letter, right off the bat? To establish intellectual dominance? To intimidate? To get this relationship off on the proper platonic foot? To hide the fact that the sentence just says “MEEEEEEEEE”?

Up to your judgment, friends.

2. Note That He Sees Her as an Object Fit for Purpose

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon's first paragraph continued (D's fitness)

“You’re my holy grail mascara”

Okay. The quote under inspection this time is this:

I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need***…each succeeding opportunity for observation has…convinc[ed] me more emphatically of that fitness.

*** The need he’s talking about is the unspecified one found in the last section’s quote.

To be fair, the ellipses in my quote skip through some parts that mention his affection. DON’T YOU WORRY. I’ll get to that because it makes me angry and I like to write when I’m angry.

But first, the quote I shared—he’s talking about her fitness, not her loveable qualities. He seems almost to be obsessed with this unique fitness he hasn’t found anywhere else.

This is dehumanizing.

Quick aside: I’m not ashamed to say I watch a lot of beauty YouTube content. There’s a concept among this community of a “holy grail” product—the product, after a long hunt, that’s absolutely perfect for you and causes you to never need to buy anything again.

Say you’ve been looking for years for a mascara that doesn’t smudge, makes your lashes look floofy, lengthens them, and generally makes everyone you see gasp and say, “Wow, what false lashes are those?”

Then, finally, you stumble upon it! You couldn’t be happier. But are you in love with it? If you couldn’t put that mascara on your eyelashes, would you love it for what it is?

No. It’s an inanimate product. And it’s an inanimate product that you want to buy because it’s fit for your purpose.

Dorothea is an inanimate product to Casaubon. She’s his holy grail mascara.

3. His Mention of Affection Is Twisted

Now, let’s talk about some parts I ellipsed out of the quote in the previous section. After all, he does mention affection!

Her “fitness” is

…connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate.

First of all:

Penn Jillette saying shut the _____ up

Can I share this and still keep my PG blog rating?

Casaubon’s self-importance about his “work” (a giant undertaking that no one asked for—namely writing a sprawling scholarly religious text uniting mythologies) is showing up in a proposal letter. This is no surprise, as he finds a way to center this work in every conversation he has.

But do you hear what he’s actually saying? “Even my work, which by the way is way too special for me to pause even for a moment, couldn’t distract me from my affection for you.”

That’s what affection means to him. It’s how affection shows up in a marriage proposal. This backhanded “Not even my work can prevent me from being interested in you.” Very flattering.

He also says that the source of the affection is her fitness for his work:

That fitness which I had preconceived…evok[ed] more decisively those affections

Remember, Dorothea thanked him for the “love” he expressed in this letter. Does this sound like love?

4. More of the Same: She’s Attractive Because of Her Capacity to Support Him in His First Love—His Work

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon talks about his work and Dorothea's suitable mind

Marry me and I promise you a lifetime of righteous suffering.

Here, Casaubon restates what we’ve already heard:

Our conversations have, I think, made sufficiently clear to you the tenor of my life and purposes: a tenor unsuited, I am aware, to the commoner order of minds.

Translation: “What I do is super smart. Most people don’t have the IQ required to spend much time with me.”

But then, behold! A concession!

I have discerned in you…a rare combination of elements****…adpated to supply aid in graver labors.

****If you read the whole quote, you’ll learn those elements are, according to him, are (1) it’s rare that a woman is smart and (2) it’s rare to find someone he’s so convinced will be devoted to him and his work.

So, let me paraphrase Casaubon here:

“I have decided you have the traits necessary for graver labors, so please marry me.”

This is, in fact, much more a job offer than a marriage proposal.

He is trying to flatter her. This is what he considers the kinds of compliments that will win her over. Sadly, he’s not wrong.

5. Providence, Not Two Equals Uniting in Love. Providence.

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon views Dorothea as a gift of providenceWe’ve a number of quotes here indicating that Casaubon considers Dorothea his personal gift from God.

I trust you’re excited to hear these quotes so you can revel with me in hatred.

Here we go.

My introduction to you (which, let me say again, I trust not to be superficially coincident with foreshadowing needs but providentially related [emphasis mine] thereto as stages toward the completion of a life’s plan)…

And we have the equally romantic

To be accepted by you…I should regard as the highest of providential gifts.

Now, lest you think he considers this a gift from Dorothea, let’s see what Merriam Webster has to say about providence:

Merriam Webster definition of providence--divine guidance or care

Yep. To Casaubon, her acceptance of a proposal is a gift from God, not from Dorothea.

6. And the Worst of It: The Manipulation

Quote from Middlemarch—refuse me, and you might live a life of shameLook at this veiled threat near the end of Casaubon’s letter. Wow.

In return I can at least offer you an affection hitherto unwasted, and the faithful consecration of a life which, however short in the sequel, has no backward pages whereon, if you choose to turn them, you will find records such as might justly cause you either bitterness or shame.

Let’s break that down with some more dictionary definitions (and my analysis in bold, for spice):

In return I can at least offer you an affection hitherto unwasted

Collins Dictionary says “hitherto” means you’re indicating “that something was true up until the time you are talking”

So, my interpretation: “If you accept my proposal, do so in the knowledge that I like you. So far, anyway.”

and the faithful consecration of a life

Merriam Webster has “consecrating” as “dedicated to a sacred purpose.”

Here’s what Casaubon’s saying: “I’ll offer you a life that’s dedicated not to you but instead to a sacred purpose.”

which, however short in the sequel,

“I’m old and probably going to die soon.” (I think that’s what he means, anyway. He’s a hard dude to understand.)

has no backward pages whereon, if you choose to turn them, you will find records such as might justly cause you either bitterness or shame

My interpretation: “If you chose not to marry me, I can’t promise your choices won’t lead to bitterness or shame.” Ew.

It’s that last one that gets me. The promise of a holy life to a pious, naive teenager—and the threat of potential debauchery upon refusal.

Let’s Close By Remembering Dorothea’s Letter

Recall what Dorothea said in her response to this letter. She is grateful to him for loving her.

But what has he actually said here?

  • “This proposal is all about me and the benefits I’ve been thinking you’ll bestow on my life.”
  • “You are a helpmate fit to assist me with my true love—my work—and that’s the only source my of attraction to you.”
  • “God has given you as a gift to me—it’s providence.”
  • “And if you say no, I can’t be responsible for your shameful spiral into crime and prostitution.”

After analyzing quotes from this letter, how can you come to any conclusion but that this marriage, despite what Dorothea responds with, will be a loveless one?

And that’s it for me today. I promise you an equally uplifting post on Middlemarch next week.

One response to “Middlemarch: Casaubon’s Proposal Letter Analysed

  1. Pingback: The Quote That Defines the Men of Middlemarch—and What It Means | In Litero: An Evaluation of Literature

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