“For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shaped after the average and fit to be packed by the gross is hardly ever told in their consciousness, for perhaps their adror in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, til one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly.” --ch. 15
Well, better late than never, right? The reading a chapter a night is going well, but distilling my reading into a coherent narrative and set of points to ponder and actually getting that post up has been problematic. In my defense, I can only plead that the first week of classes (see previous post) swallowed me whole.
And speaking of getting swallowed whole, that seems to be what is happening to Lydgate. In this first half of book two, Lydgate, who has come to Middlemarch so that he can do his work independent of the opinions of his more academically luminous medical brethren, finds himself entangled in a different set of orthodoxies: the matter of the election of a chaplain. Mr. Bulstrode, a local power broker, has hinted that he will underwrite Lydgate's plans for a hospital, organized according to Lydgate's reform principles. But Bulstrode also has a candidate that he favors for chaplain, and while he never comes right out and says so, Lydgate understands that this might be a quid pro quo. Bulstrode's power comes not just from money, but from the network of personal obligation that he has woven throughout the influential of Middlemarch society. And while Lydgate sees the trap ahead of him, we leave these few chapters with him still uncertain as to how to avoid it.
Another theme, one that we've encountered before, is personal ambition. Chapter 15 gives us a biographical sketch of Lydgate who has, until now, been "a cluster of signs for his neighbors' [and readers'!] false suppositions. We see the formation of a man who does not mean to be average, and who sees Middlemarch as an opportunity to prove himself, away from the constraints of academic medicine. The one time he deviated from his path to fall in love with an actress -- and possible murderess, as it turns out -- the lesson he took away was that deviating from his purpose would only bring him grief.
Along with sense of purpose, and thwarted purpose, we have deviated purpose. As much as Lydgate has sacrificed all to follow his calling, Mr. Farebrother (one of the two candidates for chaplain) seems to have sacrificed his true love -- for entymology, of all things -- to pursue a respectable career in the church in order to support his family. He seems relatively cheerful, but the meeting between Farebrother and Lydgate seems to be a way for the narrator to emphasize how difficult true independence can be.
And then, there's how "sense of purpose" intersects with all that love stuff. Fred Vincy, offended by Mr. Featherstone's casual cruelty towards Mary Garth, seems to open the door to a match between the two of them, but Mary insists that she's not interested in idle men. Will this prompt aimless Fred to develop some aims? Or will it just be too much trouble? On the other end of the spectrum, Farebrother proposes Mary Garth as a potential partner to Lydgate, but Lydgate, burned by love and consumed by his own work, disregards this. He had also flirted gently with the much more conventionally appealing Rosalind, who left a small party convinced that she and Lydgate had a future together, but for Lydgate, even Rosalind could not pull him away from his own goals.
What will happen to Lydgate's sense of purpose as Middlemarch devours him will not, one thinks, be good.
- On having one's sense of purpose get diverted to serve the purposes of others: “Not only young virgins of that town, but grey-bearded men also, were often in haste to conjecture how a new acquaintance might be wroght into their purposes, contented with a very vague knowledge as to the way in which life had been shaping him for that instrumentality. Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably.” (ch. 15)
independence: “Very few men can do that. Either you slip out of service
altogether, and become good for nothing, or you wear the harness and draw a
good deal where your yoke-fellows pull you.” (ch. 17)