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The Other Side of Silence: Lessons in Sympathy
In every chapter of Middlemarch, George Eliot urges her readers to live according to the lessons in moral sensibility that she gives them by way of commenting on the inner lives of her characters. In one of the most famous of these lessons, Eliot asks us to imagine what it would be to hear the roar on the other side of silence. Yet when, with the death of Casaubon, she allows us to listen to a character’s roar, Eliot challenges her readers to question the limits of the sympathy and moral sensibility that she has been fostering in them throughout the novel.
Casaubon is repeatedly described as a man “over five-and-forty” (Eliot, 37), scholarly, of good income, though not of excellent health. “I know nothing else against him,” Mr. Brooke claims (37). Yet no character other than Dorothea seems to feel compassion for this man. Surely, if Eliot asks us to sympathize at the time of his death with a man with whom we are already familiar and have yet to feel compassion for, she would cause a change in that man’s nature in order that her readers might find a new aspect of him to pity. Eliot does not, however, allow the shadow of death to change Casaubon’s character. It instead provokes in Casaubon’s small-minded habits a concentration of pride and suspicion - the most base and immoral aspects of his character. “In such an hour [as that when we face imminent death], the mind does not change its lifelong bias,” Eliot comments, “but carries it onward in imagination to the other side of death…” (398). Concerning the nature of his illness – and of his life’s scholarly work - Casaubon is so protective of his bias, his pride, that he shrinks not only from pity, but from the mere idea of being pitied, “as if the suspicion of being pitied for anything…was embittering” (391). The “most characteristic result” of this proud attitude and the main cause for his disgust at pity is the realization, upon facing death, that his intellectual labors have yielded no more product than “a passionate resistance to the confession that he [has] achieved nothing” (391). Casaubon shrinks from pity because he does not wish to acknowledge that his life’s work is anything to be pitied.
When encountering this passage on Casaubon’s reluctance to accept any form of compassion, readers are inclined to question why Eliot would ask them to extend their sympathies to a man who does not wish to receive them. Anticipating this pushback, Eliot continues from the depiction of Casaubon’s recoiling to declare that “every proud mind knows something of this experience” (391). Through this declaration - and through her previous generalization of biases at the point of death - she calls her readers to acknowledge that even though Casaubon is an extreme case of a habitually proud mind, he is not alone. We, too, are like, can become like, Casaubon. His personal experience is not in the least singular, but instead applicable to all as we eventually face our deaths. For that reason, we should not turn away from Casaubon as he faces his demise, but instead learn to empathize with him.
However, this small amount of understanding Casaubon’s inwardly-driven pride is not enough for Eliot to consider her readers sufficiently morally sensible. She pushes her readers to further their capability to feel sympathy for a man who drives himself into short-sighted, harmful action. Regardless of his wife’s devotion, it enters in Casaubon’s mind “the certainty that [Dorothea] judged him” (392). He suspects not only that she harshly judges him, but that she no longer admires him and instead favors his cousin, Ladislaw. Casaubon has entertained these suspicions for so long – and without sharing them – that he has created in himself the habit of being suspicious and of suspiciously interpreting the actions of his wife. “Poor Mr. Casaubon!” Eliot begins (392), describing the spiral of suspicion and low self-value that Casaubon spins into. Readers are pulled into the whirlwind with Eliot’s choice to increasingly utilize forms of “suspicion” and “suspect” as the passage on Casaubon mistrust of his wife carries on.
Like the clamor of a nearby tornado, Eliot’s readers begin to fully hear the din within Casaubon. And yet, with her cry of “Poor Mr. Casaubon!” Eliot forces her readers to look on this downward spiral with compassion, and compels them once again to empathize with Casaubon, claiming he is “like the rest us” in wanting to keep these low thoughts within him.
Eliot, however, brings her readers on an intimate journey through this close psychological analysis of Casaubon in his last days in order that readers may find in Casaubon’s downward spiral not necessarily a complete likeness to themselves, but a caution to their own approach to death. We can peer into the possibilities with Eliot and Casaubon as he finds himself “looking into the eyes of death,” and as he passes “through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace…When the commonplace ‘We all must die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die – and soon,’ then death grapples us…” (398). While it is technically only Casaubon who is regarding the eyes of death, Eliot allows us to see death with Casaubon, by substituting “we” for “he” very early on in the passage. And then, at the critical moment of the cognizance of death, she shifts from “we” to “I.” Here, you – the individual reader – have the chance to face death with Casaubon, in addition to facing your own. Your personal journey with Casaubon may caution you against carrying to your death “passionate longing” that cling “low and mist-like in very shady places” (398), but once you have faced death with a proud and suspicious man, can you withhold your sympathies for him? Can you hide your inability to feel sympathy for Casaubon in the ability of the general crowd to do so? Eliot wants to ensure that every one of her readers gains this ability – and applies it.
The moment to do so comes when Casaubon writes a codicil to his will. The codicil reveals the content of Casaubon’s silence. It is his method of sharing and acting upon his thoughts, his wounded pride, his suspicion, without anyone in his life yet knowing them; it is the manifestation of Casaubon’s immoral biases and intentions. Eliot admits that “the human soul moves in many channels,” and that “Mr. Casaubon, we know, [has] a sense of rectitude and honorable pride” (394); but the channel into which Casaubon’s soul moves when writing the codicil degrades him and lowers him in the eyes of Eliot’s readers, for he uses his “sense of rectitude and honorable pride” to “find other reasons for his conduct than those of [the] jealousy and vindictiveness” that his wounded pride and spiraling suspicions engendered (394). That is, instead of confessing that he was jealous of his wife’s openness with his cousin, Casaubon forbids her from the possession of his property should she marry Ladislaw after his (Casaubon’s) death, and hinders “to the utmost the fulfillment” of immoral designs of which he accuses Ladislaw (394). Even though this is only Casaubon’s way of framing his “jealousy and vindictiveness,” the claims laid out in the codicil must carry some weight of truth for Casaubon, else he would not write them.
When Casaubon puts pen to paper and creates the codicil, Eliot hands her readers a concrete result of the lowest of his thoughts. It is much easier to feel compassion for a man we know to be struggling when we are not aware of the baseness of his struggle. Eliot asked us before to sympathize with Casaubon in his most immoral and desperate moments, but knowledge of the codicil is the point at which the readers’ and Eliot’s moral sensibilities are truly tested. This is the point at which the limit of our sympathies is reached. In allowing us to read the codicil in Casaubon’s own words and not in Eliot’s summary of them, we are faced directly with the roar within Casaubon’s conscience – a roar that is injurious to his wife’s reputation. Can we bear that roar? Does Eliot intend for us to be able to bear the roar? It seems that even Eliot is trying to answer these questions with us. When she writes, “Mr. Casaubon, we know, [has] a sense…” she is not telling her readers that he has a sense of rectitude, but is attempting to determine with us how to interpret, how to feel, about the way in which he disguises his roar in his rectitude. Perhaps the aim in Eliot posing these questions to us is not to settle upon a single answer, but to make her readers truly think about what it means to feel sympathy for another person.
Eliot must want at least an ounce of sympathy to be left for Casaubon after she reveals the codicil to her readers, for she places the passage of “looking into the eyes of death” after that of the codicil. This is her final strategy for expanding hers and her readers compassionate selves. After building up belief in Casaubon and in his worthiness of our sympathy, after breaking our sympathies by allowing us to watch Casaubon hurt his wife’s reputation through his vices, Eliot puts us in the shoes of a dying man, a creature broken by his own thundering. Yet that passage ends with a mention of his “passionate longings” that cling “low and mist-like in very shady places.” We – the readers and Eliot - are left with an integrated form of sympathy and repulsion.
According to Eliot, the roar on the other side of silence – the heartbeat of the squirrel, the sound of the grass growing – is too much for our frail bodies and weak moral consciences. “We should die of that roar,” she writes (182). Yet when faced with the utterly ignoble roar of Casaubon, Eliot and her readers still find a way to feel sympathy for the man behind the roar. The limit of our sympathies may have been reached, but Eliot has encouraged her readers to grow their moral sensibilities so much that we allow Casaubon to nestle into the inner edge of that limit.