Sunday, January 28, 2018

On Being Swallowed Whole (Middlemarch, book 2, chapters 13-17)

“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)
  • Regarding 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)



Sarah C said...

So I also think a big theme that emerged in this second book is that of reform, which is genuinely what I think I remember most about the book from the first time I read it (recall my commitment to the belief that trains will become significant? I really do think it's in regard to this issue of how movements for reform/advancement impact local societies such as this one). Lydgate thinks of himself as a reformer more than anything else, and we learn near the end of the book that Causobon's scholarship is really all for naught, both in terms of potential impact (when in fact, if you think about it, we all want our scholarship to bring about real change in the way people think about something, much like reformers) and the fact that he's getting all prickly about whether it'll ever actually get written (I feel more empathy with him on this than on any other point).

Amstr said...

The contrast between Mary Garth and Rosamond Vincy is striking--and I love that they're such good friends. I think Rosamond sees herself as very much like Lydgate, wanting to be away from the trappings she knows and moving into a much more exciting world. Both think the other worlds will make their lives better, though Lydgate has the desire for his soon-to-arrive greatness to make medicine (and the whole world) better, while Rosamond doesn't seem to have such lofty views.

The meeting for the vote on the chaplaincy sounds absolutely terrifying.

I think I'm almost caught up on the reading. Can some one remind me of the chapters for this past week and the chapters for this week?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

On reform: I wonder if people see Dorothea as a reformer as well? Certainly with less sense of purpose than Lydgate, but she wants to make an impact in the same way that he does.

Amstr, I hadn't thought about them being such good friends, but you're right! They're not at all alike, but they seem to really care for each other.

As for where we are and what's next: we've got the second half of book 2 for next week. And late this week, I'm going to post an interlude on Romanticism -- it comes into play in these latter chapters, as we rejoin our gentry abroad.

Carrie said...

I've been lurking in these discussions a) because I find it hard to pace my reading, so I'm now on chapter 40 and struggling to remember what happened in chapters 13–17, but also because b) I'm feeling intimidated by all the smart comments people keep posting. (Is that what being in an academic book club is like?!?)

I haven't actually being paying much attention to "themes" per se. I've mainly been enjoying the writing—dear God, the writing!—and marveling at Eliot's talent for capturing the complications of mundane social interactions. Maybe it's because I'm a medievalist and grew up on a steady diet of 19c novels, but the sheer gorgeousness of some of her Ciceronian sentences just slays me. You get these sentences that go on for 15 lines yet are beautifully assembled and *absoutely clear*. It means that when she chooses to put in a sentence of 4 words you really notice. I kind of wish we still had that flexibility in English prose, but I don't think we do.

Re: complications, they make me sad because so many of these characters have such high aspirations, but the book seems to be partly about how the world of Middlemarch ensnares people and dashes their hopes. (An unfair analogy: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but with fewer severed limbs.) And I'm really impressed by how Eliot narrates that. That whole chapter (was it?) about how Lydgate comes to Middlemarch wanting to devote himself to Science and not get caught up in petty local politics and yet is absolutely incapable of stopping it from happening—it's chapter 18, agh, sorry, hope everyone's read it by now—is just so insightful about how such social webs form and operate. Kind of reminds me of university politics, actually. In such small communities principle almost inevitably becomes personal and it's nearly impossible to avoid pissing someone off at one point or another whether or not you want to. (Query: Is that a small-community thing or just a fact of life? Eliot seems to suggest it's something particular to "provincial society" but I'm not so sure.)

Anyway, still reading. I really enjoyed the Romanticism stuff, not to mention Eliot's observations on my favorite city (Rome).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Carrie, I think you won the comments thread with this:

"like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but with fewer severed limbs."

I want to read that as a jacket blurb.

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