Books

Whether Weather Matters: Shedding Light on the Weather Imagery of Middlemarch

Warning! Spoilers below for Middlemarch by George Eliot

Intro

My English major friends and those who love literature would probably enjoy this post. It is based on an essay I wrote for a 19th Century Lit class. If you haven’t read Middlemarch, beware because there are spoilers! Honestly this is easier to read by far if you have read Middlemarch. I won’t describe the plot too much but it has four main interwoven stories, none of which I particularly enjoyed. I tend to write essays about the books I don’t enjoy in order to give them a second chance, but Middlemarch wasn’t really my style.

FYI, I used MLA format below. Forgive me for my limited sources, apparently neither me nor my professor could find anyone who had written in-depth about weather in Middlemarch before, so I guess I am the first.

Summary

Dorothea marries Casaubon, a pompous scholar much older than her. She wants to share in his work, but he treats her like a secretary more than a companion or fellow scholar. When Dorothea becomes good friends with Ladislaw, a younger man, Casaubon gets super jealous. So jealous that he tries to get Dorothea to obey his commands even past his own death and wants to command her not to marry Ladislaw. She is reluctant to promise to obey him after his death, but when she decides she will make that promise, Casaubon luckily dies before she can tell him. He is such a jerk that he writes in his will that if Dorothea marries Ladislaw she will not get a penny. Ladislaw and Dorothea initially are distant after that, but eventually are married.

A second story is about a doctor named Lydgate who is poor and marries a girl named Rosamund, who he thought was the perfect wife. Only she’s not. She is shallow and spends more money they can afford, and has not interest in his work. He would have been better off with a woman like Dorothea.

Lydgate seeks a loan from a man named Bulstrode, who is being blackmailed by John Raffles. Bulstrode has a shady past and when Raffles falls sick, Bulstrode deliberately disobeys Dr. Lydgate’s suggestions in order to get Raffles to die. Lydgate is blamed and Dorothea stands up for him.

Also this guy named Fred Vincy is lazy and irresponsible. Caleb Garth cosigns Fred’s debt, but Fred gambles and gets into trouble. He believes that an old man named Featherstone will leave him money in his will, but Featherstone gives all his money to his illegitimate son Joshua Rigg instead. So Fred has to go back to school actually work. Poor Fred. Mary Garth, Caleb’s daughter, is Fred childhood sweetheart and they eventually marry. Fred matures somewhat when he becomes Caleb’s apprentice.

Lots of other stuff happened but I don’t see it as important enough to be included in this summary. You get the idea.

Analysis

In literature, film, and art the use of weather imagery evokes varied emotions and is suffused with meaning. In Middlemarch by George Eliot, this tradition is carried on. Of weather descriptions, A. H. Palmer has said that “some of these descriptions are good, some are bad, but most of them are indifferent” (50). Arguably, in Middlemarch, none of the seemingly off-hand remarks about weather can be classified as indifferent. Each mention has its shades of meaning that come to light through careful thought and analysis. Additionally, it is clear that “much of the novel’s immersive power arises from its descriptions of weather and atmospheric phenomena” (Hildebrand 999). Middlemarch utilizes the weather to illuminate the message Eliot intends to convey through foreshadowing and to provide insight into the perspectives, needs, and motives of characters.

Weather is depicted as beneficial, at least in the town of Middlemarch. It is seen as such whether it is stormy or sunny. This is shown when Dorothea desperately wants to make herself useful to Casaubon as his wife. “She longed for work which would be directly beneficent like the sunshine and the rain,” Eliot explains, admitting through this that she sees both the sun and the rain as positive influences (295). The fact that both are seen positively sheds light on passages throughout Middlemarch.

For example, on two occasions, the rain drives Dorothea and Ladislaw together. Despite the fact that Dorothea was still Casaubon’s wife the first time, this event is seen as fortuitous rather than immoral or untimely. On the first occasion, Ladislaw intended to catch sight of Dorothea in the garden and use the occurrence as a means to converse with her. “But the stratagem was defeated by the weather,” Ladislaw laments as “clouds gathered with treacherous quickness, the rain came down, and Will was obliged to take shelter in the house” (Eliot 226). When taking shelter in the house causes him to meet with Dorothea after all, Ladislaw rightly credits the weather: “the rain drove me in” he claims, and “I am indebted to the rain,” he admits (Eliot 226). The second time rain drives them to remain inside together, it is said that “Will never enjoyed the prospect of a storm so much,” “while the thunder gave a tremendous crack and roll above them, and the rain began to pour down” (Eliot 498, 499). The weather also mirrors the character’s feelings with the “violent thunderstorm that rages during Dorothea and Will’s cathartic love scene at the novel’s end” (Hildebrand 1000). In both the first and second rain scene, the environmental factors are construed in “affective terms, as a medium that plays an instrumental role in establishing sympathetic connections between the novel’s characters, particularly those from disparate plots and social positions” (Hildebrand 1001). The weather not only helps to connect characters that otherwise would be separated by social station, it also drives the plot forward. Furthermore, Eliot gives the relationship her stamp of approval by regarding rain as “beneficent” and then using it as a device to bring Dorothea and Ladislaw together (295).

Weather also serves to clarify the perspective of the characters. When Fred, for instance, considered how Caleb Garth had selflessly written his name as a cosigner, as well as how Fred’s life was progressing since then, the result was that “a change had come over Fred’s sky” (Eliot 148). Fred’s need for Featherstone’s money had become greater with the worry of his debt hanging over him, his unwillingness to become a clergyman, and his love for Mary Garth. In Eliot’s diction, changes in the weather are directly linked to changes in Fred’s perspective. Another example is in Rosamond’s life. “That was a bright bit of morning,” the narrator explained, speaking of when Rosamund’s debts were paid, “but soon the sky became black over poor Rosamond” (Eliot 465). This foreshadows Lydgate’s fall, when his reputation is destroyed by his association with Bullstrode. It also reveals that changes in Rosamund’s life will soon lead to changes in her mental state, causing her to see the world around her from a darker perspective.

Weather in Middlemarch always serves a purpose, and one of these purposes is to provide insight into a scene. An example of a scene that does this is directly before Featherstone’s wills were read. The various members of the family and anyone who expected to be recognized with gifts of money or land were clustered together outside. On that day “a chill wind was blowing” (Eliot 201). The chill makes sense in context because death is chilling and corpses are cold. More relevant, however, is the behavior of the sunlight. “Swiftly moving clouds only now and then allowed a gleam to light up any object, whether ugly or beautiful, that happened to stand within its golden shower” (Eliot 201). Pairing the image of gold with the weather immediately reminds readers of the transactional nature of the funeral. It must be remembered as well that Featherstone was a man with a dark humor, whose favor would light upon certain members of the family at one time only to settle on other family members at the slightest change of whim. His whims had nothing to do with whether the favored family member was deserving or worthy, which mirrors the part “whether ugly or beautiful” (Eliot 201). The weather behaves as he does: the clouds obstruct the sunlight like his foul moods obstruct family members from getting what they think they deserve from him, and the sunlight behaves like his willingness to favor one family member over another. The shifting sunlight foreshadows the reading of the wills, in which Featherstone offer his inheritance to certain family members in the first will, only to take it all away again and give it to Joshua Rigg with the second will. 

Another scene in which weather plays an important role in discerning Eliot’s message is the one in which Dorothea is first arriving at her new home in Lowick. Before her arrival, Lowick is described as “melancholy even under the brightest morning” and when she first gets there, there is “a stillness without sunshine around the house” (Eliot 47). The house itself is said to be in a state of “autumnal decline” due to the dulling aspect of the weather (Eliot 47). When Dorothea enters Casaubon’s home and into his daily life, this melancholic quality of weather around Lowick shifts suddenly. Readers are told that “the sun had lately pierced the grey, and the avenue of limes cast shadows” (Eliot 48). That the sunlight managed to break through the pattern of depressing weather around Lowick was a new occurrence, coinciding with Dorothea’s presence. Even her presence does not fully eliminate the melancholic aspect; the vestiges of shadows still remain in hidden places. That is because Casaubon’s influence has a hold on Lowick that is longer-standing than hers and endures without being changed by her light.

Weather imagery in Middlemarch also has the capacity to shed light on the inner intricacies of the character’s personalities. Casaubon is described as having a smile like “pale wintry sunshine” (Eliot 17). This comment reveals that Casaubon’s personality is weak. Casaubon himself is pale because of his unhealthy obsession with his studies, which cause him to spend long periods of time indoors. As the story progresses, Casaubon’s coldness, or “wintry” behavior, becomes increasingly apparent, especially toward Dorothea (Eliot 17). He is inconsiderate of her and tries to tie her to a promise without telling her the details. Winter is also associated with barrenness, which may foreshadow the childlessness of Dorothea and Casaubon’s marriage. Nonetheless, there is something inside Casaubon that brightens slightly at the sight of Dorothea, since his smile is still connected with sunshine. Eliot demonstrates that there is still the light of goodness even in unappealing characters.

Casaubon is associated with gloomy weather and the absence of sunshine. This is demonstrated by his response to Dorothea when she indicates that riding horses is unfit for her despite her talent at it. He affirms her abstemious behavior by saying “we must keep the germinating seed away from the light” (Eliot 15). While it is true that light can inhibit seeds from germinating, applying that to Dorothea’s thoughts is foreboding. Eventually, he treats Dorothea like the seed. The sunshine of youth is taken from her when Casaubon marries her and her life darkens when she begins to reside in the rooms of Lowick and away from her childhood home. Casaubon has an apathetic attitude toward sunshine, which harbors similarities to his mild affection to Dorothea. His apathy is shown through his studies. “In bitter manuscript remarks on other men’s notions about the solar deities, he had become indifferent to the sunlight,” Eliot remarks (126). If Dorothea’s faithfulness is her light, Casaubon’s faithfulness is but a dim prospect, sterilized by his obsessive focus on solar deities, which have caused him to neglect his study of God. His project leads him to analyze religions to the point where his faith comes from convention rather than sincerity. Casaubon’s jealously is also said to be “a blight bred in the cloudy, damp despondency of uneasy egoism” (Eliot 134). Elsewhere, he is described as looking “dimmer and more faded” than usual, which suggests that even when he is associated with sunshine, it is only a weak light (Eliot 133). Another time, when Casaubon is being compared with Ladislaw, Casaubon is called “rayless” (Eliot 133).

Conversely, both Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Casaubon are almost always associated with sunshine. For Dorothea, “the mere chance of seeing Will was like a lunette opened in the wall of her prison, giving her a glimpse of the sunny air” (Eliot 225). When Lydgate meets Dorothea’s eyes, “the radiance seemed to light up all his future with mild sunshine” (Eliot 219). Her personality and kindness shine a light into his life. Likewise, “the first impression on seeing Will was one of sunny brightness” (Eliot 133). When Ladislaw and Dorothea were together near the end of the novel, “they sat quite still for many minutes which flowed by them like a small gurgling brook with the kisses of the sun upon it” (Eliot 219-220). By using imagery of bright and strong sunlight for both of them, Eliot suggests that they are compatible, and this makes their marriage at the end of Middlemarch fitting. This is in contrast to her relationship with Casaubon, in which one character associated with cloudiness and darkness was matched to a character who embodies sunshine and light.

Eliot’s use of weather in Middlemarch, while a seemingly unimportant backdrop to the drama of the town and the struggles of the characters, adds layers of meaning to the novel. Her musings on the weather provide insight into characters and scenes, and offer foreshadowing for later events. On the question of whether weather matters in Middlemarch, the answer is decidedly in the affirmative.

Works Cited

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 2nd ed., edited by Bert G. Hornback, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Hildebrand, Jayne. “Middlemarch’s Medium: Description, Sympathy, and Realism’s Ambient Worlds.” ELH, vol. 85, no. 4, 2018, pp. 999-1023, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/710966. Accessed 4 April 2020.

Palmer, A. H. “The Weather in Literature.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 6, no. 4, 1921, pp. 50-51, www.jstor.org/stable/26261942. Accessed 30 March 2020.

If you like my content, subscribe to my newsletter!

Books

What 19th Century Novels Have to Say About the Written Word

Although Henry James may have had a point when he called the 19th century novel “a loose and baggy monster,” he was not completely accurate. 19th century novels are large but not monstrous, descriptive and free-flowing, but not exactly baggy. Interestingly, the authors of 19th century novels meet this challenge with their own claims of why reading and writing are intensely formative and valuable experiences. Even though they are not exclusively referring to 19th century novels in these claims, they certainly include those novels in their appraisal of the worth of reading and writing. Out of the 19th century novels I read recently, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Middlemarch by George Eliot best reveal the way that 19th century novelists treated the written word.

The first quote is from Northanger Abbey. Austen reveals the behavior of many 19th century novelists to be contributing to public sentiment against the novel. She emphasizes the irony of this fact and separates herself from the pack of other novelists by saying “I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novelwriters” (Austen 58). This habit, she points out, is for novelists to “[join] with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works,” by which she means novels (Austen 58). It is as if writers are ashamed of being novelists, because even on the rare occasion that their heroines pick up a novel, they are “sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust” (Austen 58).

Jane Austen’s quote demonstrates that the prevailing attitude of the time, even among novelists themselves, was that the novel was in the realm of feelings and opinions, and thus not as important as nonfiction. She clearly rejects this with her statement and shows that there is another way to see novels, as works of great value to anyone in developing their imagination and making their reality as exciting as a storybook. Catherine Morland, the novel’s heroine, joyfully takes up the habit of novel-reading, and although her fantasizing leads her into trouble, Austen does not suggest that the novel itself was the problem. Instead, Catherine’s method of understanding the purpose of the novels was flawed, because she failed to distinguish fantasy from reality and to get at the heart of what the novels she was reading were about.

Charles Dickens was clearly not one of those novelists that are embarrassed by the novel. Through exaggeration and taking up the opposing side’s argument against novels, he reveals the folly of his opponents. In Hard Times, Gradgrind’s horror at those who are using the library mostly comes from the fact that “these readers persisted in wondering” (Dickens 42). He goes on to explain that “They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths of common men and women” (Dickens 42). It is clear that what makes reading so unattractive to Gradgrind is that it promotes empathy, causing readers to think of their purpose in the world, which has nothing to do with the realm of fact, but which has value nonetheless. They wanted to read about people just like themselves because novels gave them the sense that their own lives were worthwhile. It is obvious that the quote is referring to novels because Gradgrind would not have the same sense of horror if the readers were reading nonfiction, a practice he encouraged in his own children. Similarly to Austen’s work, readers used novels to understand their own lives.

The third quote is from Mary Barton and is about Mr. Carson’s transformation from a vengeful father to a forgiving neighbor. It is said that Mr. Carson “fell to the narrative now afresh, with all the interest of a little child. He began at the beginning, and read on almost greedily, understanding for the first time the full meaning of the story” (Gaskell 320). Gaskell makes it apparent that it is not just the book that is important, it is also the attitude the reader takes toward writing. This is similar to Austen’s revelation that Catherine’s attitude toward novels must be corrected. Mr. Carson is not able to understand the story until it has some bearing on his life. Then, reading illuminates his life and helps him decide what action he should take next. Just like in Dickens’ quote, empathy becomes the result of reading. This is a strong argument for the importance of reading and stories to the everyday person as well as the 19th century novelist.

The final quote is from Middlemarch and is about how writing preserves the “whispering-gallery” of the past for readers of the present and future (Eliot 256). Writing and reading provides insight into the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and interests of people in the past in a way that learning from a lecture or from just plain gossip cannot. Even if the writing “[lies] face down-most for ages on a forsaken beach, or [rests] quietly under the drums and tramplings of many conquests, it may end by letting us into the secret of usurpations and other scandals gossiped about long empires ago” (Eliot 256). Eliot’s novel itself has two layers of revelation. It reveals the opinions of the time she was writing about, as well as her own opinions as a 19th century writer. The combination gives readers insight into two time periods. In this way, the novel can be a preserver of history.

As is shown by these quotes, 19th century novels are more than just “loose and baggy monster[s].” They have value, even if that is affected by how they are read. Furthermore, these novels promote empathy, foster imagination and depth of person, and preserve history for future generations. In the end, the 19th century novelists show that by reading and writing their novels, readers will benefit in more ways than they could imagine.

Works Cited (MLA Style)

  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 2nd ed., edited by Claire Grogan, Broadview Press Ltd., 2002.
  • Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 3rd ed., edited by Fred Kaplan and Sylvère Monod, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 2nd ed., edited by Bert G. Hornback, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton, edited by Thomas Recchio, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

If you like my content, subscribe to my newsletter!