Free Will and Determinism in Middlemarch by George Eliot

Category: Ethics
Date added
2021/11/29
Pages:  4
Words:  1212
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Free will and determinism are two things that are very different from each other and yet they are inexplicably connected. In Middlemarch by George Eliot, this particular connection can be seen clearly when looked at in regards to two of the main characters- Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon. Dorothea begins as an orphan who lives with her uncle, Mr. Brooke. She was fortunate enough to be educated and her ambition is to design new cottages for the poor tenants on her uncle’s estate. But, like other women of her time, as soon as she reaches a certain age, all of the pressure is on her to find a husband and settle down.

Dorothea finds that there isn’t anyone of interest locally but she is immediately enraptured with Casaubon and his discussions of his “great work” in philosophy and theology. Dorothea decides that he would make a perfect ‘companion’ and begins to fantasize how useful she could be to him and his work and how they could ‘partners’ In every endeavor in life from the point of their marriage on. However, as the story of their relationship unfolds in the novel, it becomes easier and easier to question Dorothea’s choice in marrying Casaubon as quickly and enthusiastically as she did and even easier to question Casaubon’s intentions. The real questions begin, though, when it is taken into consideration the fact that the ‘free will’ implicit in Dorothea’s choice of husband can actually play directly into the idea of a deterministic worldview.

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“Determinism” is a word easily confused with “predestination.” However, the authors idea is not that everything in our lives follows a predetermined plan but that everything in life is affected by past choices made by one’s self and the community around them. The complexity of these connections have often been likened to a ‘web’ and the analogy does not fall short in the least. In Middlemarch, everything is connected in one way or another. In “Determinism and responsibility in the works of George Eliot,” George Levine claims, “every event has its casual antecedents,” and that:

George Eliot saw a deterministic universe as a marvelously complex unit in which all parts are intricately related to each other, where nothing is really isolable, and where past and future are both implicit in the present. Nothing in such a universe is explicable without reference to the time and place in which it occurs or exists. This suggested that one can never make a clear-cut break with the society in which one has been brought up, with one’s friends and relations, with one’s past. Any such break diminishes a man’s wholeness and is the result of his failure to recognize his ultimate dependence on others, their claims on him, and the consequent need for human solidarity. For George Eliot, every man’s life is at the center of a vast and complex web of causes, a good many of which exert pressure on him from the outside and come into direct conflict with his own desires and motives. (Levine, pg. 270)

George Eliot’s determinism is easier to understand when looked at backwards instead of forwards. It encourages us to understand the history behind a situation and what decisions and events led up to it. An important moral implication of the theory of determinism is that because your current situation is the product of your past choices, you are responsible for it — and you cannot hope to evade the consequences of your actions. Free will comes into play whenever it is utilized to make decisions, even though those decisions are affected by the past of the person utilizing their free will in the first place. So, is free will really free will if every choice you can make has been determined by not only your actions, but the actions of other people, as well? Or does the concept of free will only exist in order to delude people into thinking they have a choice at all?

Free will is a concept that we, as human beings, utilize in order to declare our singular autonomy in a very un-singular universe. However, in the universe of Middlemarch, free will means something different to the characters involved than it does to a 21st century reader such as you and I. Whenever Dorothea chose to marry Casaubon, this execution of her free will was admirable If not a little questionable for the swiftness with which it was undertaken. At the end of the day, Dorothea truly did choose Casaubon as her husband- nobody persuaded her or forced her to marry him in particular. But did Dorothea make the choice to marry him because she truly wanted him or did she want what she thought he could give her? Being as young as Dorothea was whenever she married, it’s easy to see how she would have been confused over what she truly wants for herself and her future vs. what she thinks she should want for herself.

Personally, I feel as if what Dorothea truly wanted whenever she married Casaubon was a teacher instead of a husband. She wanted someone to teach her new, exciting things and prove both to herself and to everyone else that she can be useful in academic endeavors- such as helping out with Casaubon’s ‘great work.’ Regardless of Dorotheas rationalizations towards her marriage to Casaubon, the man himself is also questionable in regards to his utilization of his own free will.

Casaubon had lived a life dedicated to his academic pursuits and I fail to see why he would suddenly decide he needs a wife in order to keep pursuing his life’s work. If he had truly needed someone to help him along the road towards scholarly achievement, he would have been infinitely more kind and appreciate- not to mention attentive- to Dorothea. Especially considering Dorothea was ready to give up everything in order to help him achieve his goal. Instead of being grateful, Casaubon showed his true colors when he began to degrade her intellect and ability to understand what he was doing. He showed himself to be a bitter old man who wasn’t half as clever as he thought he was and then proves himself to be truly awful upon placing a codicil in his will for Dorothea. So why, in light of all of this, did Casaubon utilize his free will to marry Dorothea in the first place whenever he could have just not done that and avoided turning out to be such a terrible person?

Both Dorothea and Casaubon are responsible for the choices they made concerning each other, but as previously stated, your current situation is a product of your past decisions and past enactments of your free will. For example, Casaubon’s decision to marry dorothea brought new people into Dorotheas life. Dorotheas interest and connection with these new people cause Casaubon’s unfounded anger. Every decision made before the decisions they actively, presently made in regards to each other were all a lead up to what actually happened. Not only that, but their connections inevitably connected them to someone else and so on and so forth. This interconnected series of relationships are what make Middlemarch so interesting.

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free will and determinism in middlemarch by George Eliot. (2021, Nov 29). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/free-will-and-determinism-in-middlemarch-by-george-eliot/