October 15, 2003

Providence in George Eliot’s Middlemarch

What does George Eliot’s Middlemarch tell us about Providence? In order to answer this question, we need to discover what the novel’s characters believe about it.

Casaubon views Providence as an agent primarily concerned with his best interests. Although he believes Providence has blessed him by making Dorothea his wife (28, Norton Critical Edition), he never bothers to consider whether “Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooke in presenting her with Mr. Casaubon” (176). He is “the centre of his own world,” being “liable to think that others were providentially made for him” and only considering them “in the light of their fitness for” himself (54). Similarly, Fred, in the beginning of the novel at least, only views Providence in terms of how he believes it intends to benefit him: he thinks he will inherit Featherstone’s farm “without study or other inconvenience,” but “purely by the favor of providence in the shape of an old gentleman’s caprice” (213).

Like Casaubon and Fred, Bulstrode views Providence as an agent that is consumed with blessing him. He believes Providence sanctioned his decision to rob his first wife’s daughter out of her inheritance (382). When he thinks that Raffles only told Caleb Garth about his past sins, he claims that “Providence intended his rescue from worse consequence” (431). Moreover, he believes that Providence might save him by bringing death to Raffles (380), and when Raffles falls sick, he claims that he will be “in gratitude to Providdence” if the man dies (438).

Unlike the aforementioned characters, Dorothea does not believe in Providence. Although she begins the novel as an orthodox Christian, she goes on to reject this faith. As she tells Ladislaw towards the middle of the book, whereas she used to “pray so much,” now she “hardly ever” prays. Rejecting Christianity, Dorothea adopts her own religious views. Her new religion is based, not on passively sitting back and praying that God accomplishes good in the world, but on being an active agent in the world, on serving others, on becoming “part of the divine power against evil” (244).

Whether or not Providence really exists is not a subject that the novel takes up. We know what various characters think about the matter, but the narrator never gives us the “definitive” answer. However, if we put all our findings together, we can discover one important claim that the novel makes about Providence: the novel contends that Providence need not exist in order for morality to exist. The relationship of God and morality was important for many Victorian thinkers, as many worried that a diminishing belief in God would result in diminishing moral standards. Middlemarch confronts this concern and claims that, to the contrary, people can be moral even if they do not believe in Providence. As we saw, those who have the strongest belief in Providence tend to be the most selfish and immoral characters; instead of allowing their belief in Providence to spur them on to good deeds, such characters as Casaubon and Bulstrode (and, to a lesser extent, Fred) use their belief in Providence to justify ego-centrism. On the other hand, the character who does not believe in Providence, Dorothea, ends up being the novel’s most selfless and virtuous character.

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