Determinism in Fiction
When speaking of determinism in fiction, I am not speaking of cosmological determinism – the theory that our lives are determined by the heavenly bodies – but of social determinism. Social determinism is a bit more difficult to explain than cosmological determinism, but, in short, it is an accumulation of all social restraints: societal rules and mores, our relationship to our parents, our friends, our lovers – particularly in marriage – our vocation, even our passions, when we are honest with ourselves, are determining factors in the way we act. Thus, social determinism in life is an acknowledgement that certain factors narrow our gambit of free will. After all, do the laws not shrink our free will? does marriage not shrink our free will? even if we are to break the rules of marriage or law, don’t we know what will result? and, if we are true to our passions, don’t we know which rules we will obey and which we will break far before obeying or breaking them? do our deeds not determine us as much as we determine our deeds?
To a realist writer, this is an awkward polemic. A true realist cannot simply skirt determinism, after all, they are creating real characters that act in real ways, and so they must embrace how determining factors affect their characters. But when this is embraced – when an author is true to his or her characters – determinism has a confining affect on a narrative, shrinking the gambit of freewill of the author. And so the polemic arises: how does a realist author create art in a determined world? How does one avoid become a slave to ones narrative? George Eliot takes this polemic very seriously because she wanted to be especially true to her characters. A close look at her work shows what a realist author can do to make art out of a determined world.
By stopping after Book One on my first reading of Middlemarch to write this essay, I can pay specific attention to this important part of Eliot’s artistic pursuit. In Middlemarch, like in Adam Bede, Eliot quickly establishes the determining characteristics of her characters’ lives. First we learn of Dorothea’s beauty, definitely a determining characteristic in her life, then about her desire to perfect herself through knowledge and repression of passion, then we learn that Celia is the more “sensible sister.” After this, we have dinner with both of Dorothea’s suitors, and through Eliot’s skillful maneuvering through everyone’s points of view, it becomes clear who will fall in love with who, who will be heartbroken, and who will be married. Dorothea, it has been established, yearns to toil away for a scholar, like Milton’s daughters did for Milton. Casaubon is Dodo’s Milton. But quickly after this, we learn what will be the problem in their relationship. We learn this when the Brooke family meets Casaubon’s cousin, Will. The burst of rich language in this passage makes us feel the way we did when Adam first met Dinah – their love is inevitable.
All of this is a quick acknowledgment by Eliot that she does not have free will in her narrative. She shows us the determining factors that will govern the characters’ actions for the rest of the novel in Book One, by the end of which we know that Dorothea, the main character, gets married, we see Fred’s passion for Mary Garth and entrapment to his uncle’s will, we see Rosamond and Lydgate’s feelings for each other, and Mary Garth’s hidden passion for Fred, we see the droll of Casaubon’s intellect, Will’s passion for life, Mr Featherstone’s naiveté, and Mrs Cadwallader’s meddling nature. With these determining facts at hand, I can already see the novel playing out in my head without Eliot’s further pinning, but the brilliance of Eliot’s pinning makes me want to read on.
Eliot’s artistic lesson for us in Middlemarch is that there is more to realism than being true to ones characters, and it is in the writing. While I can imagine the events of the novel after reading Book One, I could not write them, and I could not weave them together the way that Eliot will – and that is where the art lies in Realism – in taking the seemingly separate strands of the lives of real characters, and, while staying true to ones characters, weaving them together to create something different than all the individual threads, something beautiful. In the realistic fiction of Middlemarch, the art does not lie in how Dorothea’s life unfolds, or in how Rosamond’s life unfolds, but in what greater truth will be seen in the simultaneous unfolding of Dorothea and Rosamond’s lives, how they will support and enhance each other, how looking at them next to each other will enhance our understanding of both.
By the end of Book One it become clear that this is Eliot’s goal. In Book One, she masterfully sets up each story, just barely connecting them through almost epic lists of names of people who know other people, leaving us wondering not what will happen in each story (as I have said before, this is already clear) but how each story will benefit the other, how Eliot will weave an artful tapestry out of them and what that tapestry will look like.
Book Two comes at the perfect moment for us to realize this. The last scene of Book One only includes one half of the cast – the half involved in Fred and Rosamond’s story – but through her characterization of the characters involved, all the characters introduced thus far are drawn to our mind by their parallels – Will through Fred, Dodo through Rosamond, Celia through Marry, Mr Brooke through Featherstone, and both Casaubon and Chettam through Lydgate. She puts them all before us, making us think about them all simultaneously, realizing we don’t know how they connect yet. While their independent fates seem pretty much decided, the greater story has not come together yet. And in this, in the relationship between people, that the mysteries of realism and life exist beyond determinism’s grasp.
Eliot’s characters and stories are realistic, but there is an unreality between them, that she can twist as the artist, moving beyond realism as she stays true to it. Again, this is a comment on life and art. It says that a successful human can twist the unrealities of human interaction – change in the appropriate way for certain situation to enhance their personal narrative – and it says that a successful novelist can do the same. Eliot sets herself up to do so in this first book, twisting and turning within her chapters, paragraphs, and sentences to follow the characters and actions that most enhance her narrative. She does this by conjuring many character in a scene of a few. She does this with her P.O.V. shifts, moving from Jeff and Featherstone’s conversation to Mary and Rosamond’s at the exact right moment. While these conversations are realistic, they are artfully spliced. She does this in her layered chapters, like Chapter 6, which begins with Mr Casaubon, then quickly moves to Ms Cadwalladar talking to Mr Brooke, than Chettam, than to Mr Casaubon’s thoughts, then to Chettam’s thoughts. While these characters are all realistic, this is an artistic way to weave their realities together. And she does this in her sentences, which, while they are always telling truths of her characters, weave those truths together in some of the most serpentine sentences ever written, exposing reality in a truly artful way.
Eliot does not bend her narrative or characters to create art, how could she while being a realist novelist, true to determinism? Instead, she show us the “futility of foresight,” as Knoflmnmacher puts it. She show us that life is beautiful and engaging despite determinism, and that art can overcome the difficulties of determinism in the real world. Eliot makes this clear from Book One of Middlemarch, giving us the determining facts of her characters lives, but also giving us a taste of her artistic genius, showing us that she will be able to make art no matter how determined the world is.