Illuminated Theresa: A Discussion of 'Middlemarch' by George Eliot / by Tyler Wood

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch there are many moments of these “later born Theresa’s” (Eliot, Quality Paperback Book Club Edition, p. 7) that she mentions in different people of this provincial early 19th century town in middle England. These are not the famous martyrs of old stories and epic poetry, but the subtle characters that help to further along the society in its moral development – and our moral development. “Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo!” (p. 255) Eliot sets up a confusing array of men and women that may appear one thing on the outside, but when illuminated, their appearance is very much like the pier-glass, a “ fine series of concentric circle” (p. 255). Through the illuminated pier-glass we can see that some people are doing something grand, but it only looks like “scratches…going everywhere impartially” (p. 255) to those who don’t look deeper. Three characters are apparent to me as Eliot’s ‘Theresa’s, the obvious – Dorothea, the lesser noticed – Farebrother, and the seemingly overlooked – Caleb Garth.   When we put these characters’ pier-glass’ up to the candle and take a closer look we can see clearer the Saint Theresa’s of Middlemarch and even the lives that altered our lives that rest in unmarked tombs.

One very unnoticed resident of Middlemarch that I felt is an example of a Saint Theresa is Caleb Garth. Garth is a man of little money in the opening of this story. Caleb, however, is relentless in his giving to other’s and even all of his “painful experience had not sufficed to make Caleb Garth cautious about his own affairs, or distrustful of his fellow-man when they had not proved themselves untrustworthy” (p. 223). He proves this attitude when Fred, who comes from a family with more money than that of the Garth’s, asks Caleb to help him with his debts, and Caleb just returns with that assumption that Fred will “turn out well” (p. 223) and will “be wiser another time” (p. 224). Although many in town saw the ‘concentric circles’ even with Caleb’s attitude the ‘scratches’ are seen by his family connections (albeit small ones), the Vincys, not wanting to be in company with the Garth’s because they aren’t as well off. Mrs. Vincy even states that she has never been “at ease” with Mrs. Garth because she “had to work for her bread” (p. 223). 

Eliot shows the sacrifice Caleb makes in his life without complaint after Fred returns with only fifty pounds of the one hundred and sixty he leant him. Caleb gets upset, but inevitably gives in to the fact that it is just one of those things in business. Caleb is a hard worker and has never been good with “monetary results in the shape of profit and loss,” which leads to him getting chosen often to do work “because he did his work well, charged very little, and often declined to charge at all” (p. 242). This is a man who works for the good of others first. He sacrifices the earthly pleasure of monetary freedom to be who he is. When he does get the two properties to manage the first things he is excited about is sending his son to engineering school, and the fact that the loss of money caused by Fred is no longer an issue. After Fred doesn’t pay, even with Mary’s dilemma with Mr. Featherstone’s will, and Fred’s bad luck in business Caleb doesn’t owe Fred anything, but he still wants to help him. This may come from a guilty conscience for the will, which is resolved as Mary doing the right thing, or a concern for his well being for Mary’s sake, or even a mixture of both, he still gives Fred the job helping him when it is unnecessary. 

When Mr. Raffles is in town and undermining Bulstrode, Caleb overhears the dark narrative of Bulstrode’s past, but he still doesn’t want to know. “Almost any other man than Caleb Garth might have been tempted to linger on the spot for the sake of hearing all he could about a man whose acquaintance with Bulstrode seemed to imply passages in the banker’s life so unlike anything that was known of him in Middlemarch that they must have the nature of a secret to pique curiosity” (p. 501). This is Caleb’s chance to hold the candle up to Bulstrode’s pier glass but he is not the type of man to judge another man’s character, as it says in the Bible. He doesn’t maliciously step on a man’s dignity, “I hold it a crime to expose a man’s sin unless I am clear it must be done to save the innocent,” (p. 664) even when he does know a secret. When he quits he offers his apology and even thanks Bulstrode for the business and simply states, “I must give it up” (p. 662). 

 Caleb is a man who works off of his conscience and beliefs. He does nothing to injure anybody’s spirit or pride in Middlemarch. He is a man to look up to, he does nothing that shall put his kindness in history books, but most importantly this Theresa gives without concerning himself much with receiving, and that is Christian sacrifice. 

Ironically, it is odd to see a clergyman in this debate. This should be the obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be the case Eliot is making. Farebrother’s comparison is not sufficiently involved in this novel to show us he is concerned about this community and not just his job. Mr. Tyke is just a preacher of the doctrine that people didn’t really like, he is neither a bad person nor a good one in the story, but Farebrother is referred to, by Mr. Vincy as “good a little fellow as ever breathed, and the best preacher anywhere, and companionable too” (p. 151). Mr. Farebrother seems to have God on his side in his life, ironically, of gambling to get extra money, but he isn’t to get the chaplaincy position over Mr. Tyke, which is owing to Bulstrode’s view of Farebrother’s minor ‘scratches’, and his power to persuade others to choose Tyke, for that reason alone, and not for Tyke’s ability or sermons. Mr. Farebrother is more of a reformer in the church than Bulstrode or even his own mother. He, like Saint Theresa, goes off the path of what is ‘normal’ for the religious set to do. Saint Theresa was setting out on a pilgrimage with her brother when she was very young, and stopped by her uncles, she was also doing these things as a woman: Farebrother smokes a pipe and speaks openly about his ideas that are different than that of the past generations. Lydgate, not a really religious character, looks past these ‘scratches’ and notices, “Men of your profession don’t generally smoke” (p. 166). Mr. Lydgate takes an appreciation to Farebrother because they are both trying to reform the system they live in, and their shared love of insects. Farebrother is even open to Lydgate not voting for him saying, “you will not offend me, you know” (p. 170). His ability to understand other people’s positions and not judge them harshly because of it is one of his very openly Theresa-esque characteristics. His most influential trait, that I picked up on, is his concern for making people happy or comfortable at the expense of himself. This selfless act rears it’s wonderfully simple head in his ability to overlook his feelings for Miss Garth on occasion to actually help the situation the best that he could. 

Any man of weak character could use some of the information Mr. Farebrother had on his rival for Miss Garth’s heart, Fred Vincy, against him on the matter, but Farebrother is in fact a fair brother on this subject. Caleb Garth tells Mr. Farebrother of Mary’s dilemma with Mr. Featherstone’s will that he wanted burnt, which would have given Fred the land he was sort of expecting, but she didn’t burn it, leaving the land inheritance to someone else. Mr. Farebrother could have maliciously snuck this information into a conversation with Fred in hopes of making him think twice of Mary, but instead he offers up a good opinion of Fred and sorts out the situation for Caleb the best he can. Eliot uses these tests of character as ‘duties’ for the characters to grow from. “Duty presented itself in his study under the disguise of Fred Vincy” (p. 491), which leads us into his pinnacle sacrifice for our story, his giving up his love for Mary to Fred – in person. He can’t help but to make sure that he has no chance first by implying that he is interested in her, but he still goes through with asking the women he loves whether or not she will be there for someone else. This is not an easy task I can imagine. He has a “grave restrained emotion,” (p. 496) in his voice when saying it because he knows his duty to his word is to Fred.

 This is a sacrifice that the legions of Troy may have benefited from – the ability to detach for the good of others from love could have saved the lives of so many in our poetic history. The Christian sacrifice from a clergyman should be obvious, but Eliot uses other characters in this novel to question the true ‘goodness’ of the clergymen while also showing us a clergyman who does in fact adhere to the church’s basic teachings of sacrifice and charity to show us the unsung Theresa once again.

The obvious resemblance to Eliot’s prelude’s Theresa is Dorothea. But what is it that makes her the later-born “Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long-recognisable deed?” (p. 8) Dorothea has always been reaching to the limits with herself, but “these peculiarities of Dorothea’s character caused Mr. Brooke to be all the more blamed in neighboring families for not securing some middle-aged lady as guide and companion” (p. 12). Dorothea is destined for the life of change. 

She had hopes of marrying Casaubon for the life of intellectual grandeur. She wants to be better than the mold society wanted her to be, she is “captivated by the wide embrace of this conception. Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies’-school literature” (p. 26), in the shape of Casaubon. She made a mistake marrying Casaubon, but her hopes were evident, and her break from the mold is set up. She is also very concerned with the well-being of the tenants on her Uncle’s land and wants to build them new cottages, which later becomes a proposition for Caleb, who is also interested in the endeavor. She is a giver, like the two characters I have already highlighted. She, like so many others, is a reformer as well, but her reform isn’t the church or medical, she is a social reformer. She rode horses when she was young and by the time this novel ends is the, seemingly, social leader for the reformers of the town to go to for refuge. She helps Lydgate and the hospital because “her thought was going out over the lot of others, and her emotions were imprisoned” (p. 722). She offers up support for anyone getting wronged no matter what her position is, like the much needed support for Lydgate, she says, “‘you have never done anything vile. You would not do anything dishonourable.’ It was the first assurance of belief in him that had fallen on Lydgate’s ears” (p. 724). She is the reassurance that Lydgate needed to get back on his feet and do something with himself. Just her presence seems to be angelic. She is one character that seems to be illuminating her own pier-glass for all - but all still don’t see. Her ‘concentric circles’ integrated with the lives everywhere in Middlemarch invading their lives with passion and belief with stealth-like abilities. 

Dorothea, unlike Bulstrode who thinks this of himself, is only concerned with money when she could be doing something for someone else, like the gracious, altruistic life of Caleb. What she would “most rejoice at would be to have something good to do with my money: I should like it to make other people’s lives better to them. It makes me very uneasy – coming all to me who don’t want it” (p. 727). She is willing to give it to special works projects and people in need. Her money isn’t what she wants; it is happiness that she strives for in her legitimately passionate heart, beating with charity. 

If this isn’t enough to see Dorothea as the obvious Saint Theresa character for Eliot, then she does the most sacrilegious thing to do in provincial English society – marries for love and loses her money! She does this with no regret or concern what people would think, “Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better. Still, she never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw” (p. 792). Will isn’t the last man to be raised in spirit by Dorothea in this novel, even Sir James Chettam decides he would never “regard Dorothea’s second marriage as a mistake” (p. 794). She reforms this small town by her decisions and spirit. James, who was astonished by her choice of Casaubon over him for her first marriage, is now in agreement with this match of hers that makes her take a step down in position and four-thousand steps back in money. 

Once the light gets lit to some, others start to see its beauty. These three characters are like the chaos theory’s butterfly-effect of one small life in the grand scheme of things changing the whole scheme. “For the growing good of the world is partly dependant on unhistoric acts” (p. 795), and these characters are the epitome of unhistoric acts. They live in a small town in the middle of England and move about in a small circle affecting the lives latently around them. Caleb’s generosity is the deciding factor in Fred’s business life, which inevitable gets him out of the church so Mary will marry him. Again, Farebrother’s selflessness is the deciding factor in Fred knowing this information so that he can actually marry Miss Garth. And Dorothea is the deciding factor in the lives of everyone at the hospital, Lydgate, Ladislaw, and, along with the other two previously mentioned characters, the subtle social change that this town goes through in its constant growing in history. 

The later-born Saint Theresa, through the pier-glass, is the ‘foundress of nothing’ and destined to “rest in unvisited tombs” (p. 795) but impacts the world in Confucian piety and Christian spirit: the lives that we should bow to. Although these ‘unvisited tombs’ are covered in ‘scratches’, when the stories that rest underneath are illuminated we can see the beauty of the ‘concentric circle’ come to life in our very own eyes, and Eliot shows us that maybe then we can see where we come from.