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Monday, February 27, 2012

Casaubon's Fight for Significance

In the case of the marriage of Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon, neither entered matrimony with the correct idea.  Whereas Dorothea was misguided in her approach, Casaubon too was misguided in his decision to marry.  He marries out of obligation to custom and because he feels old and lonely.  He expected his wife to be a secretary to manage his writings, a role Dorothea embraces in her desire to please and be taught by her husband.  Nevertheless, Casaubon's entire life is consumed by the massive "Key to all Mythologies."  In fact, the work is of greater significance to him than his wife because it represents his opportunity to produce the great work he has labored for.  He considers himself unsuccessful because he not only struggles to gain acceptance of his ideas but also fails to win praise in his shorter treatises which his colleagues do not take seriously.  Dorothea alone believes in him, even when he does not believe in himself, but he thinks her encouragement a mockery of his failure.

In this way, Eliot makes Casaubon a figure of sympathy, even stating "I am very sorry for him."  He remains the same ungenerous and paranoid man he has been since his introduction but with the addition of "melancholy embitterment."  He is embittered by his futile attempts to gain traction in academia.  Years of hard work have produced nothing by which his name will be remembered.  Despite the tough exterior, Casaubon is truly sensitive to ridicule from critics.  All he wants is to be accepted as a serious scholar.  His rejection by his colleagues causes him to feel inadequate and insubstantial:

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted (Ch. 29).

Casaubon has visions of greatness that have never been realized.

However, in drawing the reader's sympathy, a sympathy that Casaubon would be too proud to acknowledge but would desperately want to embrace, Eliot does not try to hide his flaws.  Casaubon lacks the passion needed to research and write a work of the magnitude he desires.  He cares more deeply  about making a reputation for himself while proving people wrong than the subject he is studying.  He has an "egoistic scrupulosity" that fails to provide the motivation to complete the work.   He self-centered perspective causes him to suspect even his wife of not believing in him, despite her help.  Still, the reader pities this man whose insecurities are partly to blame for his lack of success.


  1. Hey Marcus,

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  2. Hi Marcus, I've been reading your blog awhile and I really like your in-depth analysis. Do you think that George Eliot was somewhat drawn to the Romantic era? She liked to set her books in the 1830's I believe, which is curious in someone known as a major Victorian realist.

    1. As far as Middlemarch is concerned, I think Eliot was drawn to the period due to the many changes that had a lasting impact on society. Those changes had their start in the Romantic era.



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