Virtues, Vices, and Deadly Sin in Middlemarch


The ability to assess one’s emotions as well as acknowledging another’s emotions is closely intertwined with one’s goodness. Those who have gone through profound or prolonged emotional suffering in Middlemarch tend be those who have changed, matured, and grown as individuals. By experiencing emotional suffering, those in Middlemarch begin to understand themselves and later begin to understand the feelings of others. Once they begin to understand others, they are faced with moral decisions that will guide their behavior. Characters like Dorothea Brooke and Caleb Garth, who have both experienced more adversity relative to the other dwellers of Middlemarch, steer away from harsh actions that may harm others. They exhibit goodness by applying their emotional intelligence and acting on the right and moral thing to do. Defining goodness is important in understanding how it interacts with emotions in the citizens of Middlemarch. Analyzing the tough moral circumstances that characters find themselves in and their subsequent behaviors will reveal what it means to do good in Middlemarch. Examining the emotional development of the more mature characters and contrasting it against the less mature characters will help explain why some characters do more good than others. By understanding how the characters feel pain, face adversity, and develop into moral individuals, we can grasp Eliot’s interpretation of what it means to do good in a community like Middlemarch through the scope of sympathy.

Goodness manifests itself in many interactions throughout Middlemarch. Throughout the novel, goodness can be understood as acting virtuously and avoiding sinful behaviors. Examples include Caleb Garth’s patient and forgiving response to Fred’s defaulting on his loan. Farebrother puts aside his desire to become engaged to Mary Garth and warns Fred to not fall back into his questionable behavior. Dorothea comes to terms with her mistaken supposition that Rosamond and Will are in love and lets Rosamond know that she doesn’t mind. Mrs. Bulstrode stays by her husband’s side throughout the controversy that surrounds them. There is a common aspect shared amongst all of these interactions, and it involves putting aside ones ego or acting with selflessness. Even though the failed loan puts his family in a dire financial situation, Caleb Garth does not berate Fred. Dorothea puts aside her love for Will and wishes Rosamond happiness in her assumed relationship with Will. These characters manage to keep themselves from reacting impulsively, and instead act in a virtuous manner that seems to renounce sin. It is no coincidence that a focal point of Dorothea’s character is spiritual idealism. This virtuous character is extended to all those in the novel that Eliot wants to mark as upstanding individuals. Dorothea chooses not to indulge in envy in her love of Will. Garth does not succumb to avarice that would lead him to rage at Fred. Similarly, Farebrother puts aside his pride in advising Fred, as does Mrs. Bulstrode in her solidarity for her husband.

An important distinction to draw between those who actively practice spreading good and those who do not; oftentimes characters are presented with doing what is easy and doing what is right. Those characters who have experienced suffering or adversity tend to do right, while those who have not matured past a certain point do what is easy. Actively doing good in Middlemarch is a laborious task that should not be undervalued when the majority of the community does what is easy. Those who typically do right in the novel experienced suffering earlier in their lives that furthered their development of an advanced moral compass. Caleb Garth, living in borderline poverty, understands the value of money, and also understands that happiness cannot be derived from it. Witnessing and experiencing difficult life situations allows one to develop sympathy to others who go through the same thing. Dorothea’s strife in her strained marriage allows her to sympathize with Rosamond. Cara Weber explains:

…the narrator’s comment that ordinariness (of suffering) tends to preclude sympathy challenges the reader to reconsider her response to commonplace   scenes of suffering, suggesting that these responses have something to teach us about ourselves and our relationships to others” (p. 494-5).

By reflecting on her marriage, Dorothea is able to sympathize and somehwat understand the struggle Rosamond is experiencing. Rosamond, on the other hand, does not understand the difference between what is right and what is easy prior to her dialogue with Dorothea. Throughout her life, Rosamond has never experienced profound or prolonged adversity. Though her family is not remarkably rich, their manufacturing business gave them a reliable source of respectable income. Because she was always given what she wanted, there were no opportunities for her to endure pain or suffering. Without this adversity, Rosamond never managed to get a grip of what it meant to sympathize or empathize with another. She was stuck in the sense of emotional development. Her growth was stunted by her privileged upbringing. Taught to be an obedient housewife at Mrs. Lemon’s school, Rosamond never had occasion to challenge her emotional beliefs, was stifled by an easy upbringing, and consequently never really developed a strong sense of sympathy. Rosamond experiences her first real emotional upheaval when Dorothea pays her a visit,

It was a newer crisis in Rosamond’s experience than even Dorothea could imagine: she was under the first great shock that had shattered her dream-world in which she had been easily confident of herself and critical of others; and this strange unexpected manifestation of feeling in a woman whom she had approached with a shrinking aversion and dread, as one who must necessarily have a jealous hatred towards her, made her soul totter all the more with a sense that she had been walking in an unknown world which had just broken in upon her (p. 796).

This paragraph is noteworthy in multiple ways. First, we are explicitly told that Rosamond finally has her first shocking emotional experience that breaks her down. Previously, Rosamond operated on a very egocentric plane, where she was “confident of herself” and “critical of others”. Her interactions with the other always went one way: its that she must be right and the other must have done something wrong. There is a great deal of psychosomatic imagery here as well. Rosamond has been shocked, her world having just broken in upon her. The delicate and delusional dream in which she previously inhabited has been shattered, providing her with a rude awakening that other people’s feelings, do in fact, matter. The motif of the deadly sins is also present in an exchange with Dorothea once again. Dorothea is once again the agent that diffuses and disables the inclination to act on sin in another being. Rosamond’s position in proximity to Dorothea “necessarily” requires that Dorothea bear jealous hatred toward Rosamond, but once again, Dorothea’s virtuous nature not only saves herself, but another in the process. It can be argued that Rosamond was operating under a pretense of pride in herself, where all the woes in her marriage were Lydgate’s fault. Following this intervention, however, we can see Rosamond begin to develop sympathy towards her husband. Dorothea’s manifested sympathy can be observed in this phrase she offers Rosamond, “Trouble is so hard to bear, is it not?— How can we live and think that any one has trouble—piercing trouble—and we could help them, and never try?” (p. 796). Dorothea’s advanced emotional development compensates for Rosamond’s lack of development. Dorothea takes Rosamond’s burdens upon herself in an act of emotional solidarity. It began, as Harriet Adams describes, “with a victory of knowledge over self” (p. 88).

“All this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance” (p. 788).

Adams continues,

“In the hour of keenest personal agony she is able to—and does—push back the narrow circles of her own little sun and see by the larger light of others’ lives. In no abstract sense, she is fulfilling what she herself described to Will as the fundamental tenet of her faith: ‘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)”.

This is what Dorothea’s goodness in Middlemarch looks like in its purest form.

Goodness in Middlemarch is constituted by the aversion from deadly sin and behaving in a sympathetic manner towards the other. By being urged to live virtuously, the characters in Middlemarch develop a moral compass that guide them to act in beneficent ways. Not all in Middlemarch are saved by the virtuous grace of Dorothea, however. If aversion from deadly sin constitutes morality and goodness in Middlemarch, then there were many in Middlemarch who ended up lost. Many submitted to the temptation to do what is easy rather than right. Bulstrode, for example, fell prey to his vice of wrath and allowed Raffles to die. Bulstrode bore little sympathy for Raffles and purposely called for alcohol to let him die. The deadly sin of gluttony, in the manner of overindulging in gambling, influenced Fred and made him squander the money he owed to Caleb Garth. By deviating towards the deadly sins that Dorothea is the antithesis of, the occupants of Middlemarch end up doing harm to others who live there.

Developing an emotional and sympathetic capacity allows various members of the Middlemarch community to do good. Not only that, but adhering to the principles of a virtuous lifestyle as demonstrated by Dorothea Brooke enables benevolent folks in the town to conquer the temptation to do what is easy and self-serving. By serving as the example to follow and antithesis to deadly sins, Dorothea served as an enabler in spreading goodness throughout the town. Sympathizing with the tribulations of ones neighbor reveals that one can do what is selfish and easy, or one can do what is difficult, necessary, and right. In this way, Eliot lays out her beliefs that sympathy is the best instrument to direct morality. Religion is not even necessary, so long as the benevolent individuals moral compass casts away the dark and leads the way towards the light.

Works Cited

Adams, Harriet Farwell. “Dorothea and ‘Miss Brooke’ in Middlemarch.” Nineteenth-           Century Fiction, vol. 39, no. 1, 1984, pp. 69–90.

Irwin, T. H. “Sympathy and the Basis of Morality”, in “A Companion to George Eliot”          2013, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Purdy, Dwight H. “‘The One Poor Word’ in ‘Middlemarch.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 44, no. 4, 2004, pp. 805–821.

Weber, Cara. “‘The Continuity of Married Companionship’: Marriage, Sympathy, and the            Self in Middlemarch.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 66, no. 4, 2012, pp.     494–530.


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