Casaubon comes late to marriage and having decided upon it, dives headlong into the expected stream of feeling, only to smack his head on the shallowness of his own emotions. George Eliot deftly evokes his disappointed realization that he lacks the wherewithal to feel passion or delight.

‘Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was … He did not confess to himself, still less could he have breathed to another, his surprise that though he had won a lovely and noble-hearted girl he had not won delight, – which he had also regarded as an object to be found by search … there was nothing external by which he could account for a certain blankness of sensibility which came over him just when his expectant gladness should have been most lively.’

Much later in the book, Casaubon’s author tries to understand, or simply explain, this incapacity of feeling, and begs us to have compassion for him, though by this time he is hard to like. She makes us realize that he can no more be blamed for his unenthusiastic soul than if he’d been born with a missing limb. It’s the closing clause which humbles the reader into empathy:

‘He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul … For my part, I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self.’

 

Source: George Eliot, Middlemarch (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 62, 86 and 298-99

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