‘Piercing the Obscurity’: How George Eliot and her Middlemarchers Search for Truth

By Alyssa Cook (MA ’19), Department of English, Kansas State University

Early in Dorothea Brooke’s marriage to the Reverend Edward Casaubon, she asks her dear Edward if he won’t now “make [his] knowledge useful to the world” (Eliot 191).  

And though we might expect Casaubon to be flattered by her encouragement to write his great Key to All Mythologies, the narrator laments that poor Dorothea is “as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers” (Eliot 191). She can’t hear his disturbed heartbeats over her own. She, like all the characters in Middlemarch(and perhaps like all of us), is helplessly trapped in her own subjectivity and perception. 

The question of whether or not we can actually know the truth – about people, let alone about the human experience – recurs consistently throughout Middlemarch. Characters misjudge each other, make unfounded assumptions, and then find themselves in conflict when their expectations of others are shattered. Rosamund cannot perceive Lydgate’s concern for their financial stability (610). Mr. Brooke cannot understand why his ill-treated tenants dislike him (366), and of course Casaubon and Dorothea totally misjudge each other. He expects a secretary and she a god who will impart some great truth upon her (27). 

These errors of perception are a great source of drama and humor in Middlemarch, but they also hint at a bigger question which Eliot explores:

How do we know the truth? 

The weight of this question upon Eliot and her characters becomes evident in the desires of characters like Lydgate to “pierce the obscurity” of consciousness (Eliot 157), and that so many characters fail to discern the truth reflects Eliot’s deep skepticism in the overarching metaphysical truth of Christianity and by extension, the capacity of humans to transcend sense perceptions and discern that truth (Joudrey 79). 

Eliot is not alone in her skepticism though. Skepticism towards knowable, objective truth and recognition of the constraints of human perception were burgeoning sentiments in the Victorian era. Its presence in Middlemarch only reveals the deep impression that the overarching philosophical movements of the Victorian era had on Eliot. And, even though philosophical movements are murky about their beginnings and endings, it’s worth taking a moment to situate Middlemarch more generally within the larger movements of the time.

Figure 1 Middlemarch (1871) was published during a period of growing positivism and materialism which reject romantic notions of metaphysics.

As we can see, the Victorian Era was a busy time for writers and philosophers. But the movements overlapping the time in which Eliot was writing emerge in several ways: 

  • The romantic movement (c.1790s-1840s) tapered off decades before Middlemarch’s publication in 1871 (though Middlemarch’s narrator notes that it is alive and well in the town in the early 1830s [180]) (Kemp et al.). During that tapering, Christianity, though still prevalent in England, was declining, and an 1851 census found that only forty percent of the population went to church, and Marx’s description of religion as “the opiate of the masses” reflected changing attitudes about Christianity (“Religion Through the Time in the UK”). This shift is reflected in the agnosticism of Farebrother and Lydgate and in the suspicion of Mr. Bulstrode’s spiritual motives (Eliot 581). As the spiritualism of the romantic era diminished, the concept of objective truth was in flux.
  • Positivism, or the rejection of the metaphysical, spread through figures like Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill (Feigl). Scientific materialism and naturalism flourished with the growth of the natural sciences (Jamieson Carswell Smart) (“Naturalism”). Marx’s economic materialism also emerged with the publication of Das Kapital (1867) (“Karl Marx Biography”). These movements were fueled by discoveries like Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859) and more widespread use of devices like microscopes to enhance study of the natural world (Jamieson Carswell Smart) (“Naturalism”) (Ford and Shannon). Eliot’s narrator even alludes to this innovation specifically, suggesting that if “Even with a microscope directed on a water drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse…” (Eliot 56). People, under this lens, are animals – no higher than any other material being in a strictly material world – and truth is discoverable but restricted to the material world and is hampered by the limited human capacity to accurately perceive it.
  • The literary movements of realism and naturalism followed the romantic era and emphasized commitment to detail and realistic portrayals in writing, as well as depth and study of characters and plot. This depth is shown in characters like Dorothea or Will, who owe their psychological depth to these movements, which were bolstered by the emerging study of human beings as creatures that could be analyzed and known in a materialist sense, like the rest of the natural world (Jamieson Carswell Smart) (Kemp et al.). Within these deeper psyches, though, external truth is even further out of reach. 

However, while positivism, scientific materialism, naturalism, and realism all had a noticeable impact on Eliot’s writing, Middlemarch is a careful exploration of the question of truth and the human experience, and the unfolding of the plot reflects Eliot’s own complex beliefs on such weighty philosophical issues. 

Even though Eliot was a supporter of Comtean positivism, suggesting in an essay that “only hope of extending man’s sources of knowledge and happiness is to be found in positive science,” she also backed the critiques of associates such as Frederic Harrison, acknowledging positivism’s “one-sidedness” and dogmatic nature, especially in its analysis of society, and we can see this moderate perspective reflected in Middlemarch’s characters themselves (Scott 64). 

Tertius Lydgate’s strict scientific materialist and positivist aspirations appear just as deluded as Dorothea’s romantic idealism, and the partnership that Comte forecasted between men of science and captains of industry fails in Lydgate and Bulstrode’s scandal with Raffles (Scott 68). What’s more, just as Eliot came to a middle ground – rejecting metaphysical Christian doctrines while embracing Christian sentiment (Joudrey 77) – characters like Farebrother, who practice science while serving as clergymen, fare the best in Middlemarch. These few characters “march” in the middle, so to speak, of the philosophical conflict between God and science, between objective truth and subjective perspective, effectively navigating Middlemarch society. 

Works Cited

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. deluxe ed., Penguin Books, 2015. 

Feigl, Herbert. “Positivism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/positivism. Accessed 18 April 2019. 

Ford, Brian J. and Robert R. Shannon. “Microscope.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, http://www.britannica.com/technology/microscope#ref275736. Accessed 18 April 2019. 

Jamieson Carswell Smart, John. “Materialism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/materialism-philosophy. Accessed 10 April 2019.

Joudrey, Thomas J. “The Defects of Perfectionism: Nietzsche, Eliot, and the Irrevocability of Wrong in Middlemarch.”Philological Quarterly, vol. 96, no. 1, 2017, pp. 77-104. 

n.a. “Karl Marx Biography.” Biography, 2014, http://www.biography.com/scholar/karl-marx. Accessed 17 April 2019. 

Kemp, Peter, et al. “English Literature.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019, http://www.britannica.com/art/English-literature. Accessed 10 April 2019. 

n.a. “Naturalism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/topic/naturalism-art. Accessed 10 April 2019. 

n.a. “Religion Through Time in the UK.” BBC, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/znjnb9q/revision/5. Accessed 19 April 2019. 

Scott, James F. “George Eliot, Positivism, and the Social Vision of ‘Middlemarch’.” Victorian Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, 1972, pp. 59-76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3826242. Accessed 5 April 2019. 

Works Consulted

Cranston, Maurice, and Thomas Edmund Jessop. “David Hume: Scottish Philosopher.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 April 2019. http://www.britannica.com/biography/David-Hume. Accessed 10 April 2019.  

Guyer, Paul and Rolf-Peter Horstmann. “Idealism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015, plato.stanford.edu/entries/idealism/. Accessed 10 April 2019. 

Hext, Kate. “Literary Form and Philosophical Thought in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Literature Compass, vol. 9, no. 11, 2012, pp. 695-707, doi:10.1111/lic2.12023. Accessed 5 April 2019. 

n.a. “John Stuart Mill Biography.” Biography, 2014, http://www.biography.com/scholar/john-stuart-mill. Accessed 17 April 2019. 

n.a. “Timeline: Victorian Era.” History World, 2012, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191738012.timeline.0001. Accessed 10 April 2019.  

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