English, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 36 (2005) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (36)


The obvious monomaniac in Middlemarch is Casaubon, determined and devoted to writing his 'Key to All Mythologies'. This, his idee fixe, orders his world and certainly his relationship with his wife Dorothea, who seems an unwitting victim of his obsession and his coldness. But in Marina van Zuylen's Monomania, Dorothea becomes the focus of attention: in a chapter on Middlemarch, Miss Brooke's persistent 'urge to sublimate' her will to Casaubon's is read as monomania, with compelling results.

Van Zuylen's interdisciplinary study surveys incarnations of monomania beginning in nineteenth-century Europe; she constructs monomania as an obsession whose psychical function is to keep the mundane and quotidian at bay. Chapters examine monomania from clinical, creative, and literary perspectives, drawing examples from Pierre Janet's psychological case studies, the creative processes of Flaubert and Sophie Calle, and characters from works by Baudelaire, Thomas Mann, and Elias Canetti in addition to Middlemarch. In each case, she outlines the ambivalence of the obsession, focusing on what is gained for the monomaniac in addition to what is lost. Monomania, 'abstraction as an antidote to the vapidity of life' (p. 24), provides a way for those stuck in the ordinary to transcend it by diverting their desires or anxieties. The monomaniac trades a world she perceives as a prison for a psychical world that alleviates the pain of the horror vacui, even though to an outsider the swap may appear to be one prison for another. But this construction explains, for example, why the bored housewife enters into a consuming affair with a man who treats her horribly - drama, even violence, is a preferable alternative to the emptiness of the everyday. One of Janet's patients provides a typical complaint about her husband: 'He does not know how to make me suffer a little. You cannot love somebody who is unable to make you suffer' (p. 30).

This comment connects Janet's patient 'Simone' with Dorothea, who desires qualities in a potential husband that would give any reader trepidation: 'The really delightful marriage', Dorothea muses, 'must be that where your husband is a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it'. By applying the paradigm of the monomaniac to Middlemarch, van Zuylen achieves a reading of Dorothea that focuses on an often overlooked element of her personality - her desire to eradicate the physical, the bodily, and the mundane from her life. She views Dorothea's marriage to Casaubon as a means of escape from her extraordinary empathy, as 'an antidote to the vulnerability brought about by sympathy' (p.102). By invoking Wilhelm Worringer's essay Abstraction and Empathy, van Zuylen emphasises the extremes that Dorothea goes to in her acceptance of Casaubon's flaws, reading them as if they were the hair shirt that would grant her salvation and a form of 'ascetic escape'. Dorothea's repudiation of her desire is thus a 'defense mechanism against the unpredictability of life' (p. l03). Taken out of the context of the novel, Dorothea's tolerance of and even admiration for Casaubon's flaws (his hairy moles, his deep-set eyes, his pedantry) became remarkable in their fervour: 'The more she can give, endure', writes van Zuylen, 'the less she will have to weather her own selfhood' (p. l08).