Monday, April 9, 2012

Middlemarch Moments

I'm teaching a course on nineteenth-century British literature, and the major challenge of the semester in terms of sheer volume is George Eliot's novel, Middlemarch. Although most of the students are usually glad when it's over, I have to confess, I enjoy the novel--although I'm not sure I did when I was 19, of course.

I find that, as I get older, I see more and more of the kind of events and human qualities that Eliot describes in the novel and I find that, more and more often, experiences of my own take on a new resonance in light of the moral meditations the novel offers.

One of my favorite characters in the novel in this respect is Caleb Garth. Caleb is a good husband and father and a solid man of business, although this doesn't mean he has always been a successful businessman. At one point in his life, Caleb made some bad deals, ran up some debts, trusted the wrong people.

But he took responsibility for his failures, and slowly and steadily did his best. He wasn't always a good businessman, but he was always honest.

Consequently, one of my favorite scenes in the novel involves Caleb's exchange with a far less savory character, Bulstrode. Bulstrode is a very successful businessman, and a man of God. He has not always been honest, however, and he has used his religious fervor to excuse his moral failings.

He hides the truth about himself and faults others for their shortcomings.

Not surprisingly, the past begins to catch up with Bulstrode in the form of a shady figure from his past named Raffles. Raffles arrives on the scene in Middlemarch with a drinking problem and an eye for blackmail.

At one point, a sick and scarcely sober Raffles bumps into Caleb Garth and tells him all about Bulstrode's past. Caleb Garth has recently begun working for Bulstrode, managing an extensive property he recently purchased.

It's an excellent contract for Garth: he needs the money and, more importantly, he knows he can do a good job.

After listening to Raffles, however, Garth stops by to speak to Bulstrode and tells him he's sorry, but he won't be able to work for him after all.
He spoke with a firmness which was very gentle, and yet he could see that Bulstrode seemed to cower under that gentleness, his face looking dried and his eyes swerving away from the glance which rested on him. Caleb felt a deep pity for him, but he could have used no pretexts to account for his resolve, even if they would have been of any use. (740)
Shunning false pretexts and phony excuses, Garth simply tells Bulstroke, "I can't be happy in working with you, or profiting by you. It hurts my mind" (740).

Bulstrode is hurt and upset, of course. He knows why Caleb won't work for him anymore and he fears the loss of his business on two fronts: he knows Garth is an honest man and he fears Garth will continue to be an honest man.

Bulstrode doesn't want Caleb telling people the truth about him; he's afraid if people know about his past, they'll condemn him. He tries to persuade Garth to pity him, to see him as a victim of his own mistakes.

But Caleb Garth realizes that, in some cases, you have to protect yourself from people whose conscience may not be as strong as your own, from people who may have had good intentions and who may not have meant to do wrong, but who have done wrong nevertheless.

As Garth explains,
"I am sorry. I don't judge you and say, 'He is wicked, and I am righteous.' God forbid. I don't know everything. A man may do wrong, and his will may rise clear out of it, though he can't get his life clear. That's a bad punishment. If it is so with you--well, I'm very sorry for you. But I have that feeling inside me that I can't go on working with you." (741)
I like this moment in Eliot's text because it is a moment I myself recently experienced. And like Caleb Garth, I found myself feeling that, "As to speaking, I hold it a crime to expose a man's sin unless I'm clear it must be done to save the innocent" (742).

There's no point in privately slandering others. As Garth points out, perhaps they are trying to get their life clear and simply can't. If so, we should feel sorry for them. If not, we should get away from them.

Caleb Garth does both. Giving someone a second chance when they have come clean publicly and made amends and are trying to get their will and their life clear is one thing; giving someone another chance when they simply want to erase the past and privately excuse themselves--in your eyes and in their own--is another.

It's a complicity of conscience that we all face at some point, I think. It's very hard, wanting to believe the best about someone but realizing that you simply can't risk being dragged into the kind of errors they've made in the past.

Eliot is very wise in her reflections on moral influence. It isn't simply bad behavior that can shape our moral character. Those who tolerate bad or immoral or unethical behavior put us in danger as well. It isn't about exposing their wrongdoing, unless it's necessary to protect the innocent, it's about limiting our own exposure to them.

It's about not pretending to condone something we know we could never condone. This is harder than it might seem--doing what's right often is.

It's about not pretending we don't know when, in fact, we do. What we do with that knowledge is up to us, but we simply can't behave as if we don't know it because the minute we do, we've begun to travel along what Eliot's narrator will identify as a "perilous margin":
We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement.(832)
Our achievements should never be shabby, our consent should never be dull and if our misdeeds are to be insipid, then we're better off making the effort to be better than that after all.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."