Sink or Swim: Social Stagnation in Eliot’s Middlemarch

Funny how just when you think your brain might implode from sheer impotency, you finally think of something to write. I was writing a rant about how every topic I tried ended up dying off or stagnating, and I began to think about stagnation in general. Even the word as it rolls off your tongue does so slowly and unpleasantly, drawing itself out like the last algebraic equation in an exam when outside it is a hot, beautiful summer day. Stag-nay-shun. I thought about the term itself, a word which means something which has ceased to change, stuck instead in some dank, pungent plane where there is life but no growth, decay without death. And then something clicked: Hey! Stagnation could be a theme for Middlemarch, the book that has hands down given me the hardest time thus far on this blog. I don’t know if it’s the sheer size of the novel or the fact that I wasn’t that into it, or maybe because I just realized it’ll take me about 80 years at this rate to read and blog about 1,001 books, but this book has been a challenge. But stagnation: what better term to use to talk about a book chock-full of characters unable to reach their potential because of some internal inability to move forward, due either to societal expectations or a kind of self-inflicted immobility. So bear with me, because I’m going to force my brain out of this sluggish mire even if I give myself a hernia.

The thing about big cities is that there is never a lack of “newness.” Many things stay the same, but currents of novelty are constantly changing the city on some level, whether big or small, noticeable or otherwise, which is why small, isolated country towns are such extraordinary things. In 19th century England, in a medium-sized rural township, residents might never venture further than 20 miles away from home, and the isolation was just an accepted part of life. This allowed for close-knit social networks, long-standing familial ties, and a sense of independence from the bigger cities. But a frequent downside to smallness and isolation is stagnation. Like a small pond in a forgotten countryside as compared to a great lake with rivers emptying into it, sometimes the lack of movement, of new mingling with old that occurs so seamlessly in cities, leads to a sort of social miring, both on the collective and individual level. Many characters in George Eliot’s Middlemarch suffer from this social stagnation. The genius of Eliot’s telling of this story is that she manages to encompass characters from every level of society in a detailed and enlightening way. Obviously, there are main characters, but there is also a representation of minor characters that is much more in depth than most authors are capable of. However, I am not going to explain how all of these characters are in their own little bubble of swampy immobility, and will instead focus on two: Dorothea and her husband, Mr. Casaubon.

Dorothea Brooke begins the novel as a young idealist with a very definite vision of the world and her place in it. She has great plans for what she sees as her abilities to make life better for others, often eschewing personal luxuries because she finds them unfitting for someone dedicated to such ideals. She rejects her initial suitor, Sir James, a young and handsome man with a large estate, and instead marries Mr. Casaubon, to the horror of most of Middlemarch, because she sees in him the kind of venerable man who would teach her the best ways to think and believe and whom she could assist in all his endeavors. Unfortunately, the reality of married life is something that Dorothea, with her head in the clouds, never expected.

Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty: it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape… (249)

The wide-open vistas that the young, unmarried Dorothea foresaw as the most precious aspect of marriage very quickly contract around her. She finds that not only is her husband unwilling to share much of himself with her, but that he likewise expects her to be as meek and unobtrusive as possible. Her dreams of assisting him in his academic endeavors are meaningless, as Mr. Casaubon has no interest in Dorothea’s help. This leaves Dorothea in a state of inaction. Unable to go forward in what she sees as her wifely duties, she feels extraneous and without purpose, and yet she can not continue with her own ambitions as they do not fall within the realm of what is expected from a young wife. Dorothea is stuck in a kind of domestic limbo. Her husband is either unwilling or unable to make her feel useful and appreciated, while Dorothea is reluctant to engage in any activities which might, while they may make her feel accomplished, appear unseemly in a wife.

Mr. Casaubon, on the other hand, the ill-chosen companion to Dorothea’s life, is both victim and perpetrator of his own kind of stagnation, separate from that of his wife. We first see him through Dorothea’s eyes, as a kind of venerable intellectual, just the kind of man a young girl could look up to and shape her life around. The reader is not fooled however, thanks to the opinions of such characters as Mrs. Cadwallader and Cecilia. If the reader should have doubts about the reliability of these opinions (bravo!), once Mr. Casaubon himself has been heard from, it becomes quite plain just how deluded Dorothea is. “Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was…. Mr. Casaubon found that sprinkling was the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream would afford him…” (55). It is obvious from the start that Mr. Casaubon is not a man of excessive emotional attachment or passion, especially towards his young wife. Instead, we find that the only area in which Mr. Casaubon shows anything more than a perfunctory interest is in his work on what he terms the Key to All Mythologies, an enormous academic piece that endeavors to be an encyclopedia of sorts of every major pantheon in the history of the world. It is as daunting as it sounds.

Although there are many aspects of Mr. Casaubon that could be analyzed for signs of stagnation, it is his impotence in completing, or even making progress, on this work that most obviously shows how he has become so stuck that he no longer knows how to free himself. He spends hours in his library trying to catalog his notes, organizing and reorganizing in a futile attempt to mimic progress, yet he is completely landlocked by his own self-doubt and his apprehensions about what the outside world thinks of his work, though the reader is quite sure that no one is thinking about it at all.

Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying (254).

There are many examples of thwarted potential in Middlemarch, but it is Mr. Casaubon’s failure to not only complete his work, but also his inability to understand how completely Dorothea is willing to share his one passion with him, even to the extent of sacrificing her own ideals for his, that most reeks of stymied possibility.

There is no human who has not at some point or another in their life experienced a sense of stagnation, of half-floating in the doldrums of experience, neither sinking nor swimming. This is not to say that stagnation is a safe place to exist, as at some point one has to choose to extricate oneself or to go under. Dorothea is able to do the former, finally ignoring the “advice” of others, instead finding happiness in her independence as a widow and in her eventual marriage to Will Ladislaw. Poor Mr. Casaubon, however, is of the latter group. His stagnation, his sense of never moving forward is halted only by his death. And so with the end of this blog, I hope I am emulating Dorothea in having slogged through my own cerebral stagnation and Casaubon-like inability to write this entry. It is not my best but thank you for continuing with me, if you are still reading this. I promise that I am trying to do better, be more consistent, and ultimately break through my writing doldrums, hopefully to find something better (my own literary Ladislaw?) on the other side.




  1. Aghhhh… apologies necessary for taking your energies & thoughts & putting them so eloquently into words. I am always amazed at your ability to express yourself in the written word.

    Would you ever be interested in reviewing books? Better yet, writing them? This talent and passion of yours ……. is tremendous.

    Your ability to choose words & put them in such creative & expressive order is equivalent to the acclaimed artist choosing the right color or stroke…..

    1. Thank you! I wish I could take more credit for the design but it’s really just a theme on WordPress called Bueno. But thanks for the compliment!

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