English, Department of



Royce Best

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 44 (2013)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


In the scene describing Casaubon 's pathetic mental state prior to his heart attack in Chapter XXIX of Middlemarch, the narrator makes an enigmatic reference: 'Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control'.' It seems odd to conclude this powerful passage, long read as a telling example of the hazards of over-study without meaningful application, with a reference to ancient Greek drama. Yet, perhaps not enough attention has been given to the indebtedness of Middlemarch to ancient Greece. In particular, I would like to suggest that this fuller passage describing Casaubon's depression is distinctly Platonic.

While Plato is most often remembered for his ideas, his mastery of the dialogue form is as much a literary marvel as a philosophical one. In his introduction to The Dialogues of Plato (1871), Benjamin Jowett plays up the Greek meaning of (poiesis) calling Plato 'the poet or maker of ideas'.' Eliot's realist project, epitomized perhaps by Adam Bede's narrator: 'So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dreading nothing, indeed, but falsity, which, in spite of my best efforts, there is reason to dread' ,3 was thought of by her as at least having the potential to reach for the Truth in a Platonic sense. In this paper, I would like to suggest that Eliot was much more interested in Platonic philosophy and literature than has previously been recognized, and that her reading, in particular of the Middle Dialogue the Phaedrus, both reveals new ways of reading Mr Casaubon and is reflective of Eliot's own state of intellectual depression in and around the years in which she was writing Middlemarch.

Eliot's Rev. Edward Casaubon is a portrait of the character type of the scholar. He has long been read as a 'Key' with which we might better understand the larger structure of the novel. Sally Shuttleworth in George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science (1984) contends that these characters '[hold], mistakenly, that meaning actually inheres in external form'.' Avrom Fleishman believes that Casaubon's quest for the Key to all Mythologies is doomed not because Eliot herself distrusts totalizing systems, but instead because Casaubon is unable to view his own religion as one of the mythologies he is studying. An examination of Eliot's language in the pages just before Casaubon's heart attack reveals that the metaphor she uses seems to come directly from Plato's Phaedrus, and in this light we might reexamine the entire novel.