Determined Dodo: Determinism in George Eliot’s Middlemarch

September 23, 2021 by Essay Writer

As art mirrors life, so too does George Eliot’s Middlemarch attempt to replicate a realistic world, particularly in the interactions and relationships between all the characters in the novel. Whether the relationship between the characters and the events/social structure around them is by chance or fate, however, is an often-disputed aspect of the book. While the characters in her story often present realistic depictions of the causal nature of reality, particularly in the characters’ interactions and relationships (such as Dorothea only meeting Will as a result of marrying Casaubon, Bulstrode’s past catching up to him, and Rosamond’s reckless spending as a result of her upbringing), does the novel itself allow for the idea of free will to also exist? While the characters may experience the illusion of free will in Middlemarch, Eliot founds her literary universe on the principle of determinism, using it as an ever-present structure that shapes and guides the entirety of the story (and especially the characters within it). That being said, the form of determinism Eliot presents is not what one would commonly think of as being determinism She presents determinism as a loose structure, rather than a rigid, defined path, and it is through this unique form that she is allowed the freedom to both challenge and reaffirm her own perspective.

In Middlemarch, George Eliot presents a universe that follows the rule of determinism. However, the version of a determined universe she presents does not necessarily follow the traditional definition of determinism in literature. Eliot presents determinism as a structure, or macro-system, that guides and restrains characters’ actions, thoughts, and values, as opposed to the fixed, rigid, singular path of traditional literary determinism. This form Eliot uses allows her characters more freedom and grants Eliot the ability to challenge her own system. This is because, rather than an oppressive, unbending line of direct causality, where every major event or interaction is entirely fixed (which she does still present plenty of), Eliot presents determinism as a system of universal laws, rules, and social structures that act as frameworks and guides for society, yet still imposing limitations on the characters within it. As Moira Gatens says in her article “Freedom and Determinism in Middlemarch”, “although free will is an illusion, freedom is not.” (35) What Gatens means by this is that Eliot tends to share a similar viewpoint to Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher whose works Eliot translated. In this view, even if individuals can exert independence, agency, and autonomy, they are still doing that within the confines of a set system of laws and rules that do not change or break (though, they may bend). For both Spinoza and Eliot, this system was mainly composed of natural laws, determining what is and is not impossible, as well as social norms. Gatens further states that “Eliot’s account of the normative forces that constrain action in Middlemarch is often signaled by the metaphors of weaving or of a web.” (36) This web is one composed of natural laws, societal norms and pressures, but more than that, the web is representative of the interconnectedness between all people and events, with each mutually affecting the other. Now, one major claim Gatens also makes is that presenting determinism as a structure also allows Eliot to use the character of Dorothea to challenge it. However, this is not actually the case, as shown by Dorothea’s choices. While it may appear that Dorothea is exerting freedom beyond the point of the determined social order, especially in her choice of husbands, her financial decisions, and her unique values (relative to her fellow characters and the setting in which the story takes place), every option she is given is simply that, an option.

Every major decision or event in Dorothea’s life is merely a choice that has been made allowed to happen by the universal laws and even the societal influence she is supposedly going against. She does not forge her own path and live her life as a martyr in the noble pursuit of helping others, as was her will at the beginning of the novel. Instead, she simply chooses from the options presented to her. For example, when choosing her (first) husband, she only had two main options, James and Casaubon. While James would be any normal character’s choice, Dorothea is not a normal character, especially in what she desires to get out of marriage. However, it was still not outside the realm of possibility that she would pick Casaubon. It was not as if, by sheer will, she found her true love right away, or at least, someone who would give her what she was looking for in a marriage. Even in her marriage to Casaubon, Dorothea quickly became disillusioned, as Casaubon did not give her the mentorship and freedoms that she believed he would. So, while Dorothea may have had a plethora of options, both conforming to and resisting the societal pressures imposed on her and everyone else in Middlemarch, they are all within the confines of the reality established within the novel. The traditional literary implementation of “determinism” involves the author setting a fixed endpoint with specific events directly guiding the characters to that predetermined end, which is the literary equivalent of “causality”, a major component of determinism. Now, if this sounds simply like the nature of storytelling or setting up a plot, that’s because it is. The only thing that separates a determined story from a non-determined story is if the author has established a plot before sitting down and writing the story. This, I’d say, is the case for most stories. However, there are still stories that do not do this, such as many works from modernist and absurdist literature, or any story that doesn’t follow a traditional plot or is simply “art for art’s sake”. Subsequently, in traditional, determined stories, the plot relies heavily on causality – or cause-and-effect – and it is used by Eliot to its fullest extent in Middlemarch.

In almost every aspect of the novel, one can see the strings of interconnectedness that tie everything together. These ties compose a “web”, as Karen Gindele puts it in her article “The Web of Necessity”, that shows just how each character interacts with the world around them and how they are interacted with. Part of Gindele’s assertion is that there is no semblance of free will in George Eliot’s writing. She argues that Eliot’s characters all have a specific place and impact on the society around them and that their choices and actions are limited (despite what they may believe). She describes the struggle they go through to accept that, and part of that struggle involves the “characters’ recognition that they are interdependent social beings, in a network”. (256) This means that the entire fabric of the society Eliot has crafted – composed of cultural and social norms, internal pressures, and the options available to the characters – tends to have a push-and-pull effect on the characters that lead them down a path that has already been set for them, both by Eliot herself, and within the confines of their fictitious reality. Basically, what I’m saying is that in Middlemarch, everything happens for a reason. Eliot presents a realistic and dynamic world that focuses not on plot or flights of fancy, but on the characters’ development over the course of the novel, which is, of course, a product of causality. Character development is founded on choice, both by the characters themselves and, ultimately, the author before them. A character is presented with a moment of crisis, whether it be small, large, internal, external, or any other form of conflict, and it is their decision at that moment that alters their character in some permanent way. This, as I said, is what lies at the core of Middlemarch. This is best exemplified by George Levine, who said: “Determinism, then, manifests itself in George Eliot’s works, not only in her analysis of how her weak characters degenerate, but equally in her description of the growth to maturity of her heroes and heroines.” (Levine 279) However, let us test that by examining the life and decisions of Dorothea, the character who (arguably) resists the web’s influence the most, oftentimes making decisions that go against the grain.

Initially, Dorothea is an idealist, albeit also a naïve young woman, who holds her faith and principles above her own satisfaction and joy. Over the course of the novel, she is presented with options and choices that directly lead to her changing views and place in society. The first decision of this sort comes in the form of her first marriage to Casaubon. She made the conscious decision to marry him. Even though this decision seems mundane, just think of what might’ve happened if, say, Dorothea had married James instead. This story would’ve been entirely different because Dorothea would not have been in the same places at the same times that she was originally, which was a result of her marriage with Casaubon. She may not have met the Lydgates or Will Ladislaw, and she most certainly would not have ended the book as the character she did without the experiences and interactions that changed her to become the character she grew to be. Another main decision of hers was her decision to marry Will Ladislaw, which made her ostracized and spoken ill of in Middlemarch. Her financial decisions made her appear unfit to manage her own affairs. In speaking on all these small yet important choices Dorothea made, the narrator (Eliot) says: Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. (1193) Dorothea shows a drastic change from who she was at the start, in a way that was determined entirely by the events and opportunities that affected her along the way and forced her into becoming the character that Eliot desired her to be.

Now, although we’ve covered the ways and means through which Eliot presents determinism and causality in her novel, one big question still remains: “Why did George Eliot create a determined universe in Middlemarch?” There are many reasons for Eliot to have done this; she could have been trying to show some form of fate or destiny. It could’ve been merely the result of creating key plot points during the creation of the book. However, one of the main reasons Eliot does this is to present a realistic universe in Middlemarch. In her article, “Realism’s Operative Paradox: Character Autonomy vs. Authorial Construction in Middlemarch,” Maria Wang presents the idea of a paradoxical “double consciousness” of structure in the novel, with the characters having the appearance of autonomy, but not true, free will, and how this creates a realistic setting in the novel. She argues that this “double consciousness” is due to authorial construction being an inherently determining process, yet in that process, Eliot attempts to show free will. What this means is that the reason the story may have the “appearance” of free will, without actually having it is that “the double consciousness of reading captures the operative paradox of realist fiction—the representation of character autonomy within authorial construction—and the sometimes difficult balancing act that paradox requires.” (293) This “double consciousness” is the mindset a reader takes on when reading realist fiction. It is composed of an immersion into the book, viewing the world as a living, breathing world, yet recognizing that at its core, the story is merely a fiction that’s ending has already been determined by the author (whose presence is often presented as a divine force or guiding concept, like god, fate, or destiny). Wang concludes, however, that it is this dual-layering of thought processes that adds immense credibility to the realism of the world. Even when it appears as though the characters are exhibiting free will or going against societal norms, which they may appear to be doing, it is all only the result that those actions having been determined by a higher power or force (in the case of Middlemarch, this would be Eliot). Basically, even if the characters are doing actions that would exhibit free will if someone were to do them in our own reality, the fact of the matter is that these actions have been pre-determined and completely constructed by Eliot and are, therefore, only imitations of the free will we exhibit in real life.

Furthermore, stemming from Eliot’s desire to present a realistic world that mirrored a version of our own, albeit an exaggerated and dramatized one, Eliot is also making a statement about the effect people can have on those around them, and vice versa. In line with the idea of determinism as a web, composed of both social norms and physical laws, as well as the individuals that are subjected to these laws, every strand is connected to the others. Even if the major points and characters do not interact, the actions of each still have a domino effect that cause ripples felt throughout the whole web. In presenting this as her form of determinism, Eliot is trying to highlight that “any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbor. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (133-134). It is this “convergence” that Eliot believes is present in our own reality, and Middlemarch is simply the implementation of that belief to its fullest extent. Despite all of this, in his article, “Character and Destiny in George Eliot’s Fiction,” Ian Adam articulates his dissent from the general perspective of George Eliot’s characters as products of determinism. Instead, Adam argues that rather than simply freedom within a confined system, the characters exhibit autonomy from their individual circumstances (and particularly focuses on Will, and his being autonomous from the negative hereditary traits that may have been passed to him), therefore exerting their own free will. However, the error in this perspective comes down simply to a discrepancy in definition. He continues on in his article and argues that “The determinism most explicitly attacked in the works is not the determinism of physical science (as the letters would lead us to expect) but rather a psychological determinism: the utilitarian principle that all human behavior can ultimately be reduced to the pleasure principle.” (129) As shown earlier, though, that is not the form of determinism Eliot presents in Middlemarch. Eliot presents a system that encapsulates the “determinism of physical science”, as well as societal pressures and norms, yet still retaining respect and complexity for the characters, rather than this reduction Adam argues against. This, in turn, allows for freedom within a determined system on a microcosmic scale, yet still, an overarching system that is exerting its influence even though it is unseen.

Ultimately, it can and should be concluded that in her novel, Middlemarch, George Eliot creates a literary universe that is subject to the determining forces of fate and destiny. Being a novel, the text is subject to the unseen determinant of authorial construction, as well as the imposing social and interpersonal structure between all the characters and forces within the novel itself. Furthermore, it is my final conclusion that George Eliot implements determinism in Middlemarch, through the traditional sense of causality as well as in the form of a large-scale system of guiding laws, rules, and principles (primarily social), in order to make her world feel more realistic and translate her view of our own reality into her fictitious universe.

Works Cited

Adam, Ian. “Character and Destiny in George Eliot’s Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 20, no. 2, 1965, pp. 127–143. JSTOR, JSTOR, “causality, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, Accessed 1 December 2018. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871. PLANET EBOOK, ebooks/middlemarch.pdf. Accessed December 3, 2018. Gatens, Moira. “Freedom and Determinism in Middle March.” Sydney Studies in English, 2003, Gindele, Karen C. “The Web of Necessity: George Eliot’s Theory of Ideology.” Texas Studies in Literature & Language, vol. 42, no. 3, Fall 2000, p. 255. EBSCOhost, Levine, George. “Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George Eliot.” PMLA, vol. 77, no. 3, 1962, pp. 268–279. JSTOR, JSTOR, Newton, K. M. “George Eliot, Kant, and Free Will.” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 36 no. 2, 2012, pp. 441-456. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/phl.2012.0037 Wang, Maria Su. “Realism’s Operative Paradox: Character Autonomy vs. Authorial Construction in Middlemarch.” Narrative, vol. 23, no. 3, Oct. 2015, pp. 291–311. EBSCOhost,

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