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  • Lee Elliott

Deception Makes a Story - Self Deception Makes A Tragedy

Once again, I am reading Middlemarch - the fifth time? I've lost count. The prose is so beautiful that it takes my breath away, and I think, "Oh, if I could write like this!" Is there patience enough left in the human psyche to appreciate the way George Eliot writes about her world? The main character, Dorothea Brooke, intelligent, high-minded and dissatisfied with her lot in life, can be annoying to the modern reader. perhaps because we don't meet many people for whom "purity of heart is to will one thing." She is dissatisfied because life in her corner of 19th century England allows no scope for a life centered on spiritual aspiration. Her tragedy is that she mistakes dross for gold and marries a man inferior to her in every way. In her hunger for knowledge, she marries the pathetic Casaubon, mistaking him for a scholar of genius who will teach and mentor her. Eliot's description of Dorothea's gradual disillusionment is a masterpiece of psychological insight.


How does Eliot's greatness work? There's an episode early in the novel that sets up the theme of self-deception for the 800 plus page book. There is a casket of jewels inherited by Dorothea and her sister Celia from their mother, and Celia asks that they go through the pieces and divide them. Dorothea always dresses in the plainest manner and is scornful of jewels. In fact it is against her principals to wear any kind of personal adornment and she tells Celia to take everything for herself. You might think it some kind of rigid puritanism but Eliot makes it clear that there is something more profound going on with her heroine. Dorothea wants her entire life to be focused on higher things and everything of material value is trivial to her cast of mind. This is the source of her "purity of heart" - but at the end of the scene, she is taken with the beauty of an emerald ring and bracelet. Celia, who is pleased at this evidence of actual human weakness in her sister, asks Dorothea if she will wear the jewels "in company." "Perhaps-I cannot tell to what depths I will sink, " replies Dorothea rather haughtily. You have to read the scene yourself to appreciate its brilliance, but Eliot manages to reveal everything about Dorothea's character in just a few pages, which sets the stage for the entire novel.


There's plenty of self-deception in Middlemarch, Dr. Tertius Lydgate being the other prime example. If you've not read the book, what are you waiting for? It's not too long - it's the perfect length. In fact, it's one of the most perfect novels ever written and you'll be sad when you turn the last page.


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