Monday, February 9, 2009

In which fantasy bumps up against reality and Dorothea says 'ouch.' (Books - Middlemarch by George Eliot)

The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same. And it would be astonishing to find how soon the change is felt if we had no kindred changes to compare with it. To share lodgings with a brilliant dinner-companion, or to see your favourite politician in the Ministry, may bring about changes quite as rapid: in these cases too we begin by knowing little and believing much, and we sometimes end by inverting the quantities.

Still, such comparisons might mislead, for no man was more incapable of flashy make-believe than Mr. Casaubon: he was as genuine a character as any ruminant animal, and he had not actively assisted in creating any illusions about himself. How was it that 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? I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest smaple of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight - that, in face, you are exploring an enclosed basin.

Ah, the expansiveness of George Eliot's narrative. Middlemarch is a study in the constant bumping together of internal states and external realities. The expression "the honeymoon is over" seems to have been written with Dorothea in mind. Even with a multi-week stay in Rome, on the far shore of betrothal she becomes disillusioned. I love Eliot's two metaphors - the vista replaced by a closed room, and a voyage at sea replaced by one in a basin. They are hilarious even while Dorothea's circumstances are not. Anyone who has been an outsider in a community and takes Dorothea as a kindred spirit, and who admired that she married a much older man purely for his mind (or actually her fantasy of his mind) still, in reading the pages of their courtship, must have been saying 'don't do it' and in reading these pages is now saying 'I told you so,' and yet simultaneously (or maybe an instant later) experiencing her lonliness and sadness. But what have we to go on prior to engaging in a relationship but fantasy? Prior to co-habitation (since I am forbidden to marry anyone I could love) I could only imagine what it would be like to be together always. But marriage is a state of mind, all the more powerful because it is bestowed by the institution of the state or religion. Here's that notion of top-down phenomenon again (see this post for an explanation). In our modern habit of living together prior to marriage it is still not the same. It is not the same because of the name, even if it is no different circumstantially. Dorothea, however, lived in a much earlier era. She could only rely on her fantasy which is now rudely bumping up against the reality of a prim, distant, husband who she imagined a great scholar. Now she is realizing that those rows of notebooks, that she would patiently transcribe for him would, in fact, never become a book. His body is the same. He mind the same. The books the same. Rome the same. Only Dorothea's knowledge is different. It is because Eliot spend so much time in the mind's of her central characters, developing our intimate acquaintance with their point-of-view and the context in which it points, that we are treated to the simultaneous vistas that this book affords us. It's as though we have two lenses and might, at any time, peer through either. One gives us that distant wisdom, lets us anticipate Dorothea's misapprenhension and smile knowingly at her naivetee, the other makes us disillusioned ourselves. I thought I should get this post out of the way prior to Valentine's Day.

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