The Quote That Defines the Men of Middlemarch—and What It Means

heart cardLet’s do a good ol’ introductory (seemingly unrelated) story!

When I write in a birthday/anniversary/random-love-ya card to someone I care very much about, I try to keep a 70/30 split on two things: (1) that person’s inherent qualities and (2) how they make my life better or what they mean to me.

I focus more on the former because I don’t want them to feel like their worth is entirely tied up in my experience of them.

How does this relate to Middlemarch?

Well, I’d been taking notes on some common themes I’d been seeing in the thoughts of the male characters. And then I stumbled on this quote, which was the thread that tied it all together:

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

In other words,

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture. They don’t think about love or making the women happy. 

There are interesting exceptions (Farebrother, Rosamond) which I’ll get into if I don’t have carpal tunnel by the end of the post.

But for the most part, if you listen to the men in this book, you’ll hear them thinking and talking themselves and how others can make them feel.

Now, I’m not looking to man-bash here. My interest is academic. I do, however, think the author might be searching to make a point through this book. We’ll talk about all of this.

Let’s talk first about examples of how men think this way.

Subject One: Edward Casaubon

I already ragged on this guy pretty hard, so I’ll avoid all the things from that post and just talk about more recent developments as I’ve read on.

Remember, our new thread that ties it all together is this:

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture. 

Now, here’s just some of the evidence that’s true of Casaubon, outside of the previously discussed proposal letter.

First, let’s take a look at this (highly truncated) quote from Chapter 29:

And when [Casaubon] had seen Dorothea he believed…she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary…Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed…A modest young lady…is sure to think her husband’s mind powerful.

In other words, Casaubon is thinking of Dorothea in her capacity as a free secretary.

The passage goes on to explain how Casaubon had expected much joy from his marriage but hadn’t found it; he, in fact, wound up missing the days when he could work in solitude. And consider this thought from Chapter 10:

Though he had won a lovely and noble-hearted girl he had not won delight—which he had also regarded as an object to be found by search.

…Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment.

What is he’s not considering is Dorothea’s delight or Dorothea’s enjoyment.

These quotes make it hard to find better examples of how Casaubon

  • Expected his wife to supply his needs
  • Was disappointed when he found no pleasure in her help, despite her competence
  • Wasn’t interested in what she felt or thought in the midst of all of it

Subject Two: Fred Vincy

Fred showers proposals on Mary Garth in Middlemarch, and we get some ideas of what he’s thinking about the object of his affection in Chapter 14. Remember that

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture.

And consider some of these quotes as he talks to Mary in Chapter 14:

I don’t see how a man is to be good for much unless he has some one woman to love him dearly.

Note that it’s not that he has a woman to love dearly; it’s that one loves him dearly.

Then, after Mary mentions something about women never thinking men they love as “bad,” Fred says, “It is hardly fair to say I am bad.” She responds: “I said nothing at all about you.” (Love that, by the way.) This time, it’s Mary showing us that Fred is thinking of himself.

Let’s next talk about how Fred has borrowed what I assume is a lot of money (being unfamiliar with the economies and currency of Romantic-era England, I can only guess from the characters’ reactions) from Mary’s dad. He can’t pay it back, and Mary’s family is in trouble because of it.

When he goes to Mary in Chapter 25, he explains the situation and self-flagellates for a while before getting to the core of it, saying

I am so miserable, Mary—if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me.

So, to summarize: when Mary doesn’t respond to him beating himself up with the pity he believes he deserves from her, he doesn’t think of how she and her family are affected but rather how sad he feels about it.

Mary responds by saying

Selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world.

Well said.

Subject Three: Will Ladislaw

Escandalo! Will is interested in newlywed Dorothea. I know, this is turning into a real soap opera.

He also mostly fits into the “men of Middlemarch focus on themselves at the expense of others” rule. So, in spite of how nice it would be to see Casaubon lose Dorothea to someone else, as a reader, it’s hard to be on the side of another self-centered person.

Chapter 21 is full of Will talking to Dorothea about himself, his future, and his interests. Dorothea encourages him and asks him polite questions. When she doesn’t answer quickly, he begins to obsess about her perception of him, “imagining from Dorothea’s silence that he had offended her.”

And in Chapter 22, he’s possessive of time alone with her so that she could “take more emphatic notice of him; he only wanted to be something more special in her remembrance that he could yet believe himself likely to be.”

Let’s talk about this since it’s a little more complicated than Casaubon’s and Fred’s version of the prevalent self-centeredness.

Remember what I said in the intro about wanting to write cards that focus less on what people mean in my life and more on their inherent worth, which exists outside of me?

While Will is thinking of Dorothea, it’s usually centered around what she thinks of him. In fact, he’s rather obsessed with it.

And now, think fast, cause here’s a rapid-fire toss of supporting quotes:

  • I have made you think ill of me.
  • Still, you don’t like me. I have made myself an unpleasant thought to you.
  • I wish I could ever do anything that would be what you call kind. 

It’s admittedly a step above what we see in other characters. And Will has occasional thoughts that are completely Dorothea-centered. For example, he thinks her voice is like a harp.

But for the most part, even things on the surface that seem Dorothea-centered are actually Will-centered. In Chapter 22, he daydreams of embracing her feet and confessing he would die for her. And it’s Will’s feelings for her that are giving her that worth in his mind—nothing inherent about her as a person.

Am I being nit-picky? Maybe when compared to some of these other cases. But he still fits into the main assessment:

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture.

Subject Four: Tertius Lydgate

Lydgate is not interested in marriage, but it doesn’t stop him from (1) thinking about what’s proper in a wife (juicy stuff in light of what I’m arguing here; we’ll get there in a sec) and (2) flirting endlessly with Rosamond Vincy.

Let’s tackle what he thinks is proper in a wife first. Quote time:

Lydgate felt sure that if ever he married, his wife would have that feminine radiance, that distinctive womanhood which must be classed with flowers and music, that sort of beauty which by its very nature was virtuous, being molded only for pure and delicate joys.

Firstly, ugh. Secondly, Note that there’s no concern over what a potential wife would feel toward him or the expectations she might, in turn, have of a husband.

I guess that’s asking a lot though. Which of us, in times of being single, stare off into space and think, “and one day I’ll have a significant other who will be fulfilled and happy with me!” instead of “one day I’ll be with someone who [fill in with all the traits I like]!”?

But there’s more with Lydgate.

As he spends more and more time over at the Vincys’ house, he fails to realize or care about the thing that Mrs. Bulstrode discusses with him in Chapter 31, which is this: other perfectly eligible suitors are backing off. After all, they think Rosamond is committed to Lydgate. He does nothing to dissuade them.

That he might be ruining her chances for love with someone who is imminently considering marriage, which the book has made clear several times that he is not. And he only proposes when he’s overcome with feeling—inspired by Rosamond’s flattering despair at his absence.

Conclusion: George Is a Woman, and She Has a Bone to Pick

The author of Middlemarch is one George Eliot, pennamed so presumably to escape the discrimination that would come with being a female author.

But it’s pretty obvious that this author is woman trying to make a point about the inequalities associated with marriage, especially after reading that quote I shared in the intro.

Again, that quote is

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

If those aren’t the words of a woman writing to express, through story, her displeasure with how unequal men and women of the 1800s were, I don’t know what are.

Surprise Secondary Conclusion: Probably Not, Though?

But I want to leave on a note of challenge to myself here. I’ve got a quote from Chapter 16 that says

Rosamond, in fact, was entirely occupied not exactly with Tertius Lydgate as he was in himself, but with his relation to her.

So, that quote, saying that Rosamond cared not so much about Lydgate-the-man but rather Lydgate-the-potential-husband. We have a woman exhibiting the characteristics I’ve assigned to the men of the book.

Then there’s this from the vicar, Farebrother, much later in the book:

You talk as if young women were tied up to be chosen, like poultry at market; as if I had only to ask and everybody would have me.

And now we have a man pointing out how no one ever treats women as if they have agency.

These quotes pretty much undo all I’ve proven with this post and my conclusion. I’m nothing if not a masochist.

Maybe this whole book was meant to be a contrast between the selfish and the unselfish, and it has less to do with gender than I’ve posited here.

Or maybe there’s not much rhyme or reason to it. Honestly, I’m struggling to find coherent threads throughout this book. I’m trying, though.

Anyway. Stay tuned for more half-baked posts on Middlemarch.

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