Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Middlemarch, Chapter 61, Book 6: Has Eliot Mucked Something Up?

Middlemarch, Chapter 61, Book 6

Has Eliot mucked something up?

.....The spiritual kind of rescue was a genuine need with him. There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.

The service he could do to the cause of religion had been through life the ground he alleged to himself for his choice of action: it had been the motive which he had poured out in his prayers. Who would use money and position better than he meant to use them....Also, profitable investments in trades where the power of the prince of this world showed its most active devices, became sanctified by a right application of the profits in the hands of God's servant.

This implicit reasoning is essentially no more peculiar to evangelical belief than the use of wide phrases for narrow motives is peculiar to Englishmen. There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.....

This odd, as in strange, narrative reflection goes on in Chapter 61, in which Bulstrode in the end tries to make all kinds of amends in offering to buy off Will.

Clearly, Bulstrode is a much more complex bad guy than Raffles, who's a straight up rogue with no tincture of doing good. But the argument here, save if Eliot's narrator, Eliot too, is being coy and subtly ironic, a possibility I lean against strongly, is that since Bulstrode isn't an out and out con man and fraudster, which he's not, he's less morally compromised in the result. His hypocrisy is of a piece with mankind's: "...the use of wide phrases for narrow motives...," that wherever we squander our good intentions by turning away from "fellow feeling" and seek our own narrow ends that we cover over with "wide phrases," we are in league with Bulstrode and he with us, and so he is less villainous and objectionable than a Raffles who is deviantly criminal.

I beg to differ.

I'd say, contrary to what Eliot *seems* to argue for, Bulstrode is more morally objectionable than Raffles, save for Raffles's sadistic streak, loving to torment others for his own pleasure, getting off on "effects." Raffles has no pretence about himself and he feeds off others' wrongdoing in his blackmail. This isn't of course to make a case for him, just to compare immoralities. Bulstrode has, not to put too fine a point on it, swindled others, caused the innocent loss at his gain.

While we can feel Bulstrode's pain, we pity him, it's hard not to, rather than sympathize with him. The substance he has made of his life, his actually doing some good, cannot expiate his blatant wrong doing. And his gradual fall into evil ways, rather than straight up, immediate criminal self seeking, does nothing to ameliorate his wrongs. It rather just instances another more of wrong doing slathered over by hypocrisy, such that some straight up clarity about what he was and did would be like a breath of fresh air. Consistent with that hypocrisy, my call is that what animates his urge to "protect" himself with penitential acts is the threat of being exposed and the scorn and opprobrium that will be heaped on him should Raffles go public.

We never so much grieve over our wrong doings and become penitent, seeking ways to ameliorate their consequences, as when we are in the midst of getting caught.

It takes Raffles's threat to expose Bulstrode to move him for the first time to try to make concrete amends for the loss his fraud on his first wife has caused to her rightful heirs, Will and his mother at his, Bulstrode's, own huge enrichment.

This, the imminence of the crashing down of reality on him, rather than substantive, uncalculating, truly motivated, genuine remorse, is what ultimately causes Bulstrode his agonizing, internally sick-making woe. That is made clear when Will refuses to be bought off with tainted money from the sleazy pawn brokering business, which thrived on dealing in stolen goods,which forces Bulstrode to comfort squarely the worst of himself without "wide phrased" defences, and when Bulstrode's own weeping for himself, his reality likely to be exploded, is somewhat staunched by his realization that Will "...was not likely to publish what had taken place that evening."

So Eliot in the narration I quoted seems untypically out of step with herself here, her grand theorizing here getting the better of her, given the novel she has written, specifically Bulstrode's own criminal wrong doing, and his subsequent insidious, continuous hypocrisy. And, I surmise, she has gotten lost, untypically, in the very complexity she accords to Bulstrode.


And by the way, Bulstrode in keeping the information about Will and his mother to himself and bribing Raffles to keep quiet when he'd undertaken to execute the search is criminal and is civilly actionable, just as his pawn brokering receipt of stolen goods was criminal. Eliot has Bulstrode denying he has no legal obligation to Will, just the compunctions of conscience. He's dead wrong. I think Eliot is as well as I read the narrator to suggest as much.

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