On the Impact of “Unhistoric Acts”

By Deborah Murray, Instructor, Department of English, Kansas State University

Henry Alexander Bowler’s painting, “The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry Bones Live?’” (originally exhibited in 1855) depicts a woman leaning on the gravestone of “John Faithful.” Along with the painting’s title, the dead man’s name asks viewers to consider the impact of scientific and philosophical debates on religious belief in eternal life. A blue butterfly on the skull in the foreground suggests the endurance of the human spirit, and a stone at the base of the chestnut tree (itself sometimes seen as a symbol of eternal life) is carved with Resurgam (“I shall rise again”); nevertheless, the overall impact of the painting seems to be one of doubt, rather than belief.

The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry Bones Live?’ exhibited 1855 Henry Alexander Bowler 1824-1903 Presented by H. Archer Bowler 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03592

In her youth, Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) held traditional religious beliefs, but her scholarship and translations led her to formulate a belief system based on meaningful connections between human beings. Rebecca Mead describes Eliot’s belief system in My Life in Middlemarch:  “To the extent that she had a faith, it was in what she called ‘meliorism’—the conviction that, through the small, beneficent actions and intentions of individuals, the world might gradually grow to be a better place” (221). 

In its study of provincial life, Middlemarch illustrates how both selfish and self-sacrificing characters can act in ways that have lingering effects on others. In subtle (yet climactic) moments in Chapter 81, Dorothea visits Rosamond in order to defend Lydgate’s character; during this conversation, Rosamond tells Dorothea of Will’s love for her (not Rosamond, as it had seemed to Dorothea). These “beneficent actions” lead to Rosamond becoming “less discontented” with Lydgate (800), Lydgate accepting his “narrowed lot” (800), Will discovering that his and Dorothea’s love is not so “hopeless,” after all (810), and Dorothea promising to “learn what everything costs” (812). In depicting the causes and effects of even small actions, Middlemarch guides readers in an enhanced understanding of others, thereby fulfilling one of Eliot’s main goals as a writer.

Of her goals as an artist, Eliot wrote, “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally. The only effect I long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” (qtd in Mead 56). Reading fiction offers many occasions for thinking of lives, deaths, how we commemorate others, and how we might be remembered ourselves. Reading strangers’ obituaries in a small town newspaper is comparable to reading about fictional characters and their impact on their community. Reading about these hidden lives illuminates how we might hope to be remembered. 

A recent obituary of a former professor from Kansas State University commemorates the impact of a life some might term “unhistoric”:

Candyce Russell, 73, passed away on Monday, April 8, 2019 at the Good Shepherd Hospice House.  . . . Dr. Russell . . . taught in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies for thirty-seven years. She co-founded the Marriage and Family Therapy Program and served as its Director from 1982-1994. . . . She was an award-winning teacher who used her gentle presence to create a space for learning that included the heart as well as the mind. In the words of one of her students:

“Often, we measure the contributions of a particular scholar in terms of publications and advancing the science. Less measurable is the contribution of an individual to the lives of those she works with. Dr. Russell has quietly and humbly touched the lives of hundreds of students and clinicians during her career, gently and competently lifting those around her.”

One life does matter, long after its conclusion. The last lines of George Eliot’s Middlemarch continue to resonate for readers in our quest to find meaning in serious loss—even, or especially—for those of us living “hidden lives.” These lines consider the impact of Dorothea’s life (and the lives of others like her):

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. (838)

Thank you, George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Cross, nee Evans). We are made better by your presence.

“Of those immortal dead who live again/in minds made better by their presence”
Eliot’s much visited gravestone.

Works Cited

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Penguin Classics, 1994.

Mead, Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. Random House, 2014.

Russell, Candyce. < http://www.ymlfuneralhome.com/obituary/6260>

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