Study Guide

Middlemarch Compassion and Forgiveness

By George Eliot

Compassion and Forgiveness

We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. (2.20.6)

Here, the narrator says that it takes something out of the ordinary to inspire compassion or sympathy in most people. But shouldn't we feel just as much sympathy for someone who's suffering from something more common, like unhappiness in marriage, in Dorothea's case?

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. 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. (2.20.6)

The narrator explains why it is that most people don't feel sympathy for common, everyday suffering: there's so much quiet, common angst going on around us, all the time, that really seeing and sympathizing with it all would be "like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat." We wouldn't be able to stand it for very long. Which is why, she says, that even the "quickest" (i.e., most compassionate) of us "walk about" with our ears and hearts "well wadded with stupidity." It's a defense mechanism.

There is hardly any contact more depressing to a young ardent creature than that of a mind in which years full of knowledge seem to have issued a blank absence of interest or sympathy. (2.20.14)

Dorothea, who is young, passionate, and full of compassion for her fellow humans, finds Casaubon's lack of sympathy to be completely depressing. In her view, people should get more sympathetic as they get older, not less. So Casaubon's "blank absence of interest or sympathy" really goes against what she thought she understood about the way sympathy works.

She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers; she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently. (2.20.25)

Dorothea is ordinarily the most sympathetic and compassionate character in this novel – she's one of the few characters who can "hear the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat" – but only most of the time. After her marriage to Casaubon, she still hasn't figured him out. He's got his own problems, his own "hidden conflicts" which, if she recognized them, she would "pity." But she's too wrapped up in her own problems to think about what his might be.

The other interesting thing about this passage is that the narrator changes to the first person. Instead of saying that Casaubon's "hidden conflicts" would "claim her pity," the narrator says that they would "claim our pity." Why does she do this? Well, the implication is that we all should pity Casaubon's "hidden conflicts." In fact, the implication is still wider than that – it suggests that we all should be aware that everyone has "hidden conflicts" that would "claim our pity" if we knew about them. So this is another one of those instances in which the narrator switches abruptly from the particular (Dorothea's relationship to Casaubon) to the universal (everyone's relationship with other people).

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves (2.21.45).

Here the narrator explains again why we don't feel sympathy and compassion as readily as we should: we're too wrapped up in ourselves. We assume that the "world" is there to nurse us (with an "udder" – isn't that a great image?) and us alone. Here's another spot where the narrator uses the first person plural: she says, "We are all of us born." It draws the reader in, and makes the claim that we (the reader), the author, the characters, and everyone are all in the same boat together.

But are we destined to remain in "moral stupidity" our whole lives? Maybe not. Just because we're "born" in "moral stupidity" doesn't mean we have to stay that way. Just as babies get weaned after a certain point and learn to feed themselves (and, hopefully, to see their parents as individuals, rather than as walking sources of food), maybe someday "we" will "all of us" learn how to think of other people in the "world" as having their own problems, rather than being so stuck on our own.

[…] it had been easier […] than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling – an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects – that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference. (2.21.45)

It's easier for Dorothea to be angry and resentful towards Casaubon than to "conceive" of the "idea" that he has an inner life that is just as important to him as hers is to her. His "centre of self" is "equivalent" to hers, though the ratio of "lights" to "shadows" (which could be happiness and sorrow?) might be different.

"I call that the fanaticism of sympathy." (2.22.51)

Dorothea tells Will Ladislaw that she can't appreciate all the fine art while they're in Rome because she can't get past the consciousness that so many people in the world aren't able to see it. Remember that at the time this novel takes place (the 1830s), you couldn't just go online and buy a print or a plaster copy of your favorite work of art – you had to see it in person or not at all. And Dorothea is always conscious of the plight of the poor. In Rome, she can't forget how many people across the world are too busy trying to scrape together enough money to buy their next meal to enjoy all the art in Rome. She feels that it would be selfish to enjoy what so many people aren't able to access. But Will Ladislaw calls that feeling a "fanaticism of sympathy." In other words, she's taking her sympathy way too far. Is that possible?

For my part I am very sorry for him. (3.29.3)

This is a rare moment when the narrator steps in and uses the first person singular ("I") to talk about herself as though she were a character in the book. We've seen a few other passages where she uses the first person plural ("we") to include the reader and all the characters in a general statement about what all humans must feel in a certain situation. But this passage cuts the reader off – the narrator is "very sorry for" Casaubon, but she doesn't say that "we" all are, or even that "we" should be. This could be part of the lesson Eliot is teaching us about sympathizing with others. She wants us to know that she, "for [her] part," does feel pity for Casaubon, in order to let us know that, if we were good people, we would too.

[…] as if she must quell every impulse in her except the yearnings of faithfulness and compassion. (6.58.52)

Yet another passage about Dorothea's relationship with Casaubon. Lydgate is recalling his impressions of her when she was helping to take care of her husband after his heart attack: she seemed as though she wanted to suppress her own desires and "impulse[s]" so that she would only act on the "yearnings of faithfulness and compassion." So, after Casaubon's heart attack, Dorothea was able to move beyond her earlier feelings of self-pity to feel sympathy for what her husband was feeling. Sympathy's a good thing, yes, but is it good for Dorothea to suppress "every impulse in her" except for sympathy and compassion?

There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men. (6.61.33)

The narrator is reflecting on how Mr. Bulstrode, who is so hung up on his religion and belief in Christian doctrine, could have committed such terrible crimes in his earlier life. Instead of explaining it away by saying, "Mr. Bulstrode is a hypocrite," Eliot thinks more deeply about a universal trend: she says that religious belief in "general doctrine" can only go so far. Our "morality" is dependent on "direct fellow-feeling" – in other words, on sympathy. According to the narrator, if we're not able to sympathize or to feel compassion for "individual fellow-men," then it doesn't matter what your religious beliefs are, you're not going to treat others well.

"What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult to each other?" (8.72.4)

This pretty much sums up the moral lesson of the novel. Dorothea is trying to persuade Lydgate to let her help him out of his financial, social, and marital troubles. Dorothea likes helping people, but Lydgate generally doesn't like being helped. Dorothea explains her impulse to help him, even though she doesn't know him all that well, by saying that it's some universal human impulse, something that "we" all "live for." This is another place where the first person plural ("we") seems to include the reader – "mak[ing] life less difficult to each other" is something that "we" all "live for." Or it's what we'd all live for if we were all Dorotheas, anyway.

"This young creature has a heart large enough for the Virgin Mary." (8.76.49)

Mr. Farebrother has only met Dorothea a few times when he says this. She has helped him out of his troubles by giving him a better job as a clergyman where he'll make more money, and now she has expressed to him her desire of making Lydgate's life easier, too. She wants to help the world! And so, like many other characters in the novel, Mr. Farebrother associates Dorothea with something divine or sacred (see Dorothea's "Character Analysis" for more on that).

Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own – hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect – could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea's forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck. (8.81.28)

This is a moment of spontaneous and almost unexpected sympathy. Dorothea's compassion and willingness to forgive Rosamond (she thinks that Rosamond is having an affair with Will Ladislaw) leads her to visit Rosamond. Rosamond is so touched by Dorothea's generosity and sincerity that the feeling takes her over. The "emotion stronger than her own" could be the force of Dorothea's compassion. Her reaction is so spontaneous that her movement is "involuntar[y]" – she kisses Dorothea on the forehead and then they cling to each other. Behold the awesome power of pure compassion and forgiveness in the world of Middlemarch!