I recently finished George Elliot’s Middlemarch, a “penetrating analysis of the life of an English provincial town during the time of social unrest prior to the Reform Bill of 1832.”
Spoiler alert: All the characters are fools.
Or, at least, that’s what I thought when I began.
A work of historical fiction written more than 50 years after it takes place, Middlemarch is narrated by an undefined voice whose wisdom of hindsight makes all impulsive missteps seem glaring errors.
It is no surprise when Fred, the young ne’er-do-well who’s old enough to be a man but as irresponsible as a boy, is unable to pay back a loan he felt sure he’d find a way to resolve. It is no surprise when the young heroine Dorthea finds dissatisfaction in her marriage to a much older man. It is no surprise when Lydgate, a young doctor making enemies of the establishment, finds himself deeply in debt after marrying a nice, but high maintenance girl. It is no surprise.
Reading the book is rather like watching a horror movie and yelling, “Don’t open the door!” to the hapless girl who’s bound to open the door. As the audience, we know the killer is back there, but the girl opens the door anyway. It is no surprise.
All the characters are fools. They always open the door.
At first this bothered me. Why couldn’t these characters stop themselves from doing and saying things they would obviously regret? Alas, all the characters are fools. I can’t abide fools.
But, I suppose, we are all fools.
I certainly can’t claim to have never spoken rashly or miscalculated my path. Hindsight is 20/20, and knowing exactly how someone else is experiencing a moment – through the gift of an omniscient narrator – is certainly helpful in knowing how to respond.
Perhaps I judge these characters too harshly – they were doing the best the could in the moment, while I analyzed from a safe distance away.
As the book went on, however, I began to notice something. Nearly every time a character made an important decision or had a critical interaction, Elliot described how it was in his/her nature to act that way.
Proud, humble, foolish, or wise, character choices came down to a question of intrinsic nature.
Such a way of thinking is anathema to a full embracing of free will – to the belief that we not only are free to make our own choices, but that we have the capacity to change those choices at will.
I found myself rooting for characters to change their nature – to act beyond the path they’d laid out for themselves.
One of the most distressing parts of the book comes when Bulstrode, who’d come into come into his fortune through misdeeds and deception, faces a critical moment: the man who’d been blackmailing him over his dark past arrives in need of medical attention.
Bullstrode, now a fine, upstanding, religious man who’d worked hard to put his past behind him, starts out resolute – a good man would provide the best care regardless of a distaste for the afflicted. He calls the doctor.
As the treatment goes on, however, and the blackmailer shows signs of improving – Bullstrode waivers. This man has the power to destroy him. As this debate rages on, I found myself yearning for Bullstrode to make the choice he knew was right, to side with the better angels of his nature.
But the man has the power to destroy him. Bullstrode waivers. Bullstrode kills. Full of justifications and explanations, Bullstrode murders his blackmailer. It is no surprise. It’s in his nature.
Of course, justice being essential to any good Victorian novel, the truth of Bullstrode’s past comes out anyway. Bullstrode is disgraced. Bullstrode is destroyed.
In perhaps the most moving part of the book, Mrs. Bullstrode is now faced with a decision: stand by her husband or abandon him? She is a good woman. Everyone thinks she should leave him.
Her honest ostentatious nature made the sharing of a merited dishonor as bitter as it could be to any mortal. But this [woman] had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a year of life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her – now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him.
She stands by him. It is no surprise. It is in her nature.
The book goes on. Stories resolve themselves. Characters maintain their natures. Even Fred, who finally grows up enough to be a sensible man, continues to lose money on horses. It’s in his nature.
The characters grow. Their lives improve. But their natures stay the same.
The best we can do, it seems, is to accept our natures and understand the natures of those around us. Only then can we fools find some wisdom.