Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
In Middlemarch, the 'dead hand' of Edward Casaubon, which seeks to take hold of his wife's future, is applied by two documents. The first is the codicil to his will which endeavours to prohibit Dorothea marrying Will Ladislaw by imposing the condition that to do so she must relinquish her inheritance. The second is the 'Synoptical Tabulation' in which he expresses the intention to have her continue his work on the 'Key to all Mythologies'. As early as 1873, it was observed by Henry James that the subsequent narrative is dominated by the repercussions of the codicil: 'Mr Casaubon's death befalls about the middle of the story, and from this point to the close our interest in Dorothea is restricted to the question, will she or will [she] not marry Will Ladislaw?'' The interest of the astute reader should engage with both aspects of Casaubon's 'dead hand' however. While Dorothea's relationship with Ladislaw may dominate the literal narrative, this essay proposes to show that the possibility of her continuing her first husband's research exists as a quiet undercurrent throughout the novel until it begins to reemerge in the Finale, at which point it is hinted that she finally determines to complete the 'Key to all Mythologies'.
Dorothea's potential for authorship finds a model in Saint Theresa, whom the Prelude establishes as at once a symbol and a point of contrast for the Middlemarch heroine. Saint Theresa wrote several books, but Eliot neglects these, preferring to focus on the Saint's founding of convents. There is just one revelatory moment, in a passage concerning Casaubon's scholarship, when the significance of Theresa's writing in relation to Dorothea is foregrounded. Of the latter it is speculated, 'If she had written a book she must have done it as Saint Theresa did, under the command of an authority that constrained her conscience' .2 The prologues of all Theresa's major works claim that she has been charged to write by a (male) spiritual director.' At a central moment in the novel, Dorothea receives a similar order. The crucial question of whether she lives up to the model provided by Saint Theresa thus tacitly asks whether she realizes her potential for authorship, whether she accepts Casaubon's command to complete the 'Key to all Mythologies'.
The suggestion that the issue of Dorothea's response to Casaubon's request remains open is discordant with a critical tradition which allows Rosemary Ashton in her biography of Eliot to assert that Dorothea 'refused' to finish the worthless work of her distrustful husband' .4 This seems to epitomize the general reading of this aspect of the novel. It is widely accepted that the search for a 'Key to all Mythologies' is a futile project which Casaubon's death releases Dorothea from having to continue.' But the death is not so much a release from an oppressive task as it is a release from the need to make an immediate decision whether to continue the 'Key'. It is described in terms which show the impossibility of Dorothea furnishing Casaubon with any answer now: 'But Dorothea never gave her answer' (453), 'But the silence in her husband's ear was never more to be broken' (453). Even the posture he has assumed when she finds him dead is one which he adopts when he is listening to her speak, as if he is waiting for an answer; 'she had seen him take that attitude when she was reading to him' (453).