6 min read


What to say about this book? It is long, and for a while it truly felt long. I would say for the first 1/3 of the book, I was only mildly engaged and wondering where this was going. By the half-way point I was hooked into the story and waiting to see where things went, and about 3/4 in I was completely invested and not only wanted to know but was cheering a specific outcome. This was my first taste of George Eliot. Her style was a mix of narrative combined with insight into the psychology of the characters, sometimes ironically in-person and sometimes omnisciently telling us underlying motives the characters themselves were ignorant of.

The portrayal of religion is generally negative throughout the book, and the hypocrisy of most is apparent. The most outwardly religious of characters is the ultimate villain of the story, the weakest willed, and the most truly unrepentant. Edward Casaubin’s life’s work is a meaningless exploration into some arcane topic which, to add salt to the wound, appears to be mistaken anyway. However, her negativity serves a subversive end of portraying a world where God’s providence is at work and the heroine of the story (and our lives) is the quiet and devoted servant of the Lord, who’s view of herself is low and deferential to others and shows genuine concern for their welfare. Her humility is not weakness, however. She has a complete sense of herself and of justice and cares not about what others think of her as long as she is not bringing undue pain. Additionally, through circumstance and human action, sin is exposed and justice is served on numerous occasions. While Bulstrode’s self-serving prayers may go up in smoke, this is not a portrayal of a godless world of secular humanism. Through the course of events, it very much feels like the Sovereign is at work, though not we’re always clear on the details.

There is a cynicism throughout the book that can best be described as “Hevel” in the Ecclesiastes sense of the world. Efforts are frustrated at every turn, the perception of the populace is rarely consistent with the reality of the situation, and it’s rarely that magnanimity trumps selfish concern. However, there is hope (and in this sense the book, despite its faults, is true) to be be found in a life lived for the love of neighbor out of love for God. It is through this rather than through the machinations of history where meaning is found and lives are truly impacted. Reform on a grand scale is needed and beneficial, though often short-lived. But the impact of mercy and service to the good of others can have repercussions into eternity.

Eliot has a keen sense into the way we often deceive ourselves in an attempt to live self-justified while engaged in things that are best called unjustifiable. The inner psychologist opens a door to our own hearts and if heard reflectively can have a sanctifying affect towards genuineness and congruity between our actions, our beliefs, and our true motives. Knowledge of the real possibility of self-deception is a sin qua non of identifying and avoiding it.

During much of the book, marriage feels like a prison more than anything. Most of the characters are unhappy in theirs in one way or another, or have just learned to get along with each other without the love. The exception may be Sir James and Celia, who seem to have a healthy relationship. Perhaps it’s the one-sided marriages that she comes down most harshly on. For a while, I thought it was more of a feminist portrayal - the men all selfish and ill-advised, the women the one’s who had a true sense of things but were under the oppression of their husbands. That remained to some extent, but the exposing of Rosamond’s vapidity and the portrayal of Lydgate and Sir James seems to arrest that feeling towards the end of the book. At the end, Will and Dorothea do live a happy life, as do (albeit in a more of a compromised manner) the Lydgates.

The other theme to consider is suffering - in particular that of Dorothea’s. It is through the fire of her first trial of marriage, and her faithfulness to the end, that developed the character in her and gave her the perspective from which she could so clearly see how it is she must act towards Mrs. Lydgate at the climax of the story. Certainly, she was the most respectable from the beginning, but the deep wisdom of her later thoughts and actions are portrayed as someone who has been through the crucible.

Overall, it’s a captivating story with several lines that are weaved together nicely. Having walked the journey (and felt the inner turmoil) with the characters and particularly with Dorothea, the last paragraph left me near tears with the emotion welling up within. While the author bemoans the changing social conditions which result in the stifling of flowering feminine heroism, I see here an insight into the truly sublime nature of the upside-down way the world works.

“Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Now, I’m certain that Mary Ann Evans would not appreciate her work being read in such an overtly evangelical and orthodox light. But let’s face it, we do deceive ourselves and there are hypocrites in the church. However, sins are exposed and justice is done, and the fruit issuing from a soul who serves the God of heaven brings the greatest impact to the world. Maybe Dorothea’s religion was not orthodox, that I can’t say. Otherwise, I would say Eliot cannot escape her Christian past and still leans on that faith to provide any kind of grounding for her morality.