Finding at-one-ment in Middlemarch

By Alison Goodlad
24 Jun 2007

It’s funny how focusing on what is ostensibly one kind of thing enables you to think more creatively about something apparently quite different – and then to discover that they are, if not the same, then at least unexpectedly and vitally related. This is especially true when life-experience crosses the boundaries of what we think of as ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’.

Not so long ago, for instance, I was reading Tim Gorringe’s short little book called, simply, 'Salvation' (Epworth Press, 2000). At the back he makes some suggestions for further reading and says that if you want to know more about the Christian theme of atonement – literally ‘at-one-ment’, how we may be transformatively united to God and to one another in spite of our differences and flaws – novels are a good place to start. Included in his list is ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot, because it “ends with ongoing redemption and explores the theme at many levels” (page 111).

Now ‘Middlemarch’ (Penguin Books, 1994) happens to be my favourite book, and Tim Gorringe’s remark prompted me to read it again – not that I needed much of an excuse. I was so enriched by the experience of revisiting it that I want to try and unpack what I discovered here, in an inevitably fragmentary way.

First, for the benefit of those who don’t know the novel (and perhaps even for those who do), I will give an overview of Eliot’s story and look at how it resonates with some important biblical ideas. I will then suggest, perhaps unexpectedly, that it also helps us to understand something about what sharing the Eucharist together can mean – how it can change us.

Now George Eliot was very concerned about finding a purpose in life. She had found this really hard to discover for herself, so it is not surprising that the quest comes out in her stories, not least this one.

The novel is set in the provincial town of Middlemarch in the first half of the 19th century. It revolves around two main characters, Tertius Lydgate and Dorothea Brooke, and how their stories interweave.

Lydgate is a newcomer to Middlemarch. He is a doctor and has a passion for research. He knows his purpose in life and that is to do good things for the town and great things for humanity. He is ardent and dedicated – a good man at heart, but with his flaws. He has no time for the niceties of provincial life, for instance, and his tactless behaviour makes him enemies among the old timers.

Lydgate marries Rosamond, a beautiful local girl, who he thinks will be a decorative and consoling addition to his life. Little does he know that under that graceful and demure exterior lies a self-centred, extravagant and steely will.

Dorothea comes from the landed gentry of Middlemarch, but she is uncomfortable with her privileged position. She also wants to do good, to have a purpose in life, but she can't find it. That is, until Casaubon, a cleric and scholar much older than her, comes on the scene. She projects all her fantasies onto him and thinks that at last she is going to be caught up in something bigger and greater if she is married to him.

As she contemplates marriage she ponders (p.29). “I should learn everything then,” she says to herself. “It would be my duty to study that I might help him the better in his great works. There would be nothing trivial about our lives. Everyday-things with us would mean the greatest things. It would be like marrying Pascal. I should learn to see the truth by the same light as great men have seen it by. And then I should know what to do, when I got older: I should see how it was possible to lead a grand life here – now – in England.”

Poor old Casaubon! He is engaged on a magnum opus, the ‘Key to All Mythologies’. It is his life's work, but in his heart of hearts he suspects that this Key is never going to be written. It is going to open no doors. Dorothea herself painfully comes to the recognition that this is the case. The honeymoon, which actually never really started, is over.

George Eliot writes: “How was it in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?'” (p.195)

Under the stress of all this, Casaubon falls ill and Lydgate attends him. So the two stories start to intermingle. Lydgate is unstinting in his professional support of both Casaubon and Dorothea and he wins their respect and gratitude. Casaubon eventually dies, leaving a will that disinherits Dorothea if she should marry Casaubon's cousin, Will Ladislaw, who he suspects of amorous intentions and of whom he is deeply jealous.

Many hundreds of pages later (for this is a long book!) we find Lydgate facing financial ruin. He is suspected of causing the deliberate death of a patient, something of which he is not guilty. Dorothea, of all his friends, is the only one who really believes in his innocence and is prepared to do something about it. She gives him the courage to go on, tells others of his innocence and lends him the money to get out of his immediate financial hole. Most importantly, however, she goes to visit Rosamond, to help her to believe in and support her husband Lydgate.

But things are never simple. When Dorothea visits Rosamond, she finds her in what she believes to be a compromising position with Will Ladislaw, that cousin of Casaubon. Now Dorothea's relation with Will had been, as far as she was concerned, one of friendship. But seeing the two together brings on the recognition that she does, in fact, love Will. She retreats in confusion and pain.

What is she to do next? Abandon the whole enterprise of helping Rosamond? No, at great cost to herself, she goes back to see Rosamond the next day. And something quite extraordinary happens. The essentially self-preoccupied, self-centred Rosamond is transformed for that moment by the sheer goodness of Dorothea. She tells Dorothea that Will's love is for Dorothea, not herself. The costly giving of Dorothea, her concern for her neighbour, brings what we can only call ‘redemption’, not only to Rosamond and Lydgate, but also to Dorothea herself.

When, as Christians, we talk of ‘atonement theories’, or should I say if we talk about atonement theories (for it is hardly very fashionable or easy to do so), we often find it very difficult to imagine how somebody else's goodness can truly become our own. A legal re-assignment hardly seems sufficient to really change and be changed as a person. Yet this is the focus of many conventional Christian theories about how Christ’s sacrifice redeems us – reshapes us toward the truly good that is God.

However, if we start to talk in terms of relationship, then things begin to look (and feel) very different. Suddenly you can begin to see what Paul is getting at when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” It is “one body” that is being forged in this moment of apparent death, loss and dissolution. (See Galatians 2.15-21)

George Eliot was convinced that we are responsible for each other as human beings, that we are inextricably linked with each other. As such, we can bring salvation or damnation to the other and there are stories of both in Middlemarch. Elsewhere in the Gospel, too, Jesus warns us that we receive the power to give or withhold blessing – and that what happens depends upon our relation to ‘the other’ who is, simultaneously, God and neighbour (John 20.22-23).

So this is our purpose, according to George Eliot: to bring hope and goodness to our world. Or to put it in Dorothea's words: “That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil – widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” (p. 392)

But George Eliot still recognises that this is, to put it mildly, hard. For a start, she knows that we “cannot bear too much reality”, as T.S. Eliot pointedly observed. For all that we are responsible for each other, if we really entered into each other's pain, we would be overwhelmed.

She puts it like this: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” (p.194)

In addition, our opportunities, the times in which we live, our context – all these make a huge difference. Lydgate, although he got over his immediate crisis, lived a diminished life, in which he merely made lots of money.

What about Dorothea? In her own estimation, she never did anything great, believing that, had she been a better and wiser person, there was some elusive thing she might have done. As it was, she got married (to Will) and had children. So did she miss her purpose in life?

This is what George Eliot says: “Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. 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.” (p. 838)

I first read those words when I was aged 16. I was enormously encouraged and moved by the book then. Have the intervening years shown it to be true or false? I think it is true. I have found that when you hit one of those times in life when you wonder about your purpose, something from Middlemarch can help put it in fresh perspective; strangely, you find yourself feeling fine again.

In a few words tacked on at the end of a well-known passage in Luke’s Gospel (7. 36 – 8.3) it says: “The twelve were with [Jesus], as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”

Forget for a moment the question about the nature of their affliction (language about spirits and demons is not our natural register any more, but they refer to a brokenness and loss of control which is powerfully real). Do you notice how some of the women were named but there were 'many others' who had no name? How would God’s gentle but purposeful plan have advanced if those unnamed people had not played their part?

But how on earth does all this relate to Eucharist? As I have suggested, George Eliot was convinced that we are part of a complex interweaving of relationships and responsibilities. She uses the metaphor of a web, and this can both be both positive and negative. For all the good we can do, we can also do harm to one another.

When we Christians come together to take bread and wine we are asking that we be bound together and responsible for each other in positive, godly, ways. But we are not only bound together as a congregation. Somehow, in a way that defies our understanding, but which we take on trust, we are bound together with Christ.

Eucharist both symbolises and enacts that transforming fellowship – and makes it something that, if it is authentic, flows out of us towards others, whoever they are. That is how God’s love works. This is our prayer, our purpose and our experience.

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© Alison Goodlad. The author is a member of St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Exeter, (www.exetercentralparish.net). She has worked in university administration and is currently engaged in theological studies. This article is adapted from an address given at St Stephen’s on 17 June 2007. Excerpts from ‘Middlemarch’ with kind acknowledgement to Penguin Books.

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