An Objective Aural-Relative in Middlemarch

By Capuano, Peter J. | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview
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An Objective Aural-Relative in Middlemarch

Capuano, Peter J., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900

  Jubal ... watched the hammer, till his eyes,
  No longer following its fall or rise,
  Seemed glad with something that they could not see,
  But only listened to--some melody,
  Wherein dumb longings inward speech had found,
  Won from the common store of struggling sound.
  --George Eliot, "The Legend of Jubal" (1)

Midland England in the pre-Reform years may indeed look like the "very tuneless" place that Rosamond Vincy so positively assures Tertius Lydgate it is when they meet at the outset of Middlemarch (1871-72). (2) She is correct. As Rosamond laments, "there are hardly any good musicians" in this community and perhaps even fewer "who sing at all well" (p. 159). Not a single professional musician lives in Middlemarch. The most perspicacious reader never witnesses an oratorio, concert, or symphony. Based on these facts, the reader of Middlemarch may expect to encounter only what the medical newcomer Lydgate calls "comic songs" rudely tapped on a drum in a faintly "rhythmic way" during his first encounter with Rosamond Vincy (p. 159). This is certainly a realistic representation of what life was like in a provincial English town in 1829.

But how much richer a world we experience in reading Middlemarch if we listen more closely to the melodic functions of sound despite its conspicuous deficit of professional music. (3) Drawing on the work of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, George Eliot develops her most cherished themes of benevolence and sympathy within both a deeply musical and a realistic text. A primary contention of this essay is that musical sound--formally described and ideologically inscribed in Schopenhauerian philosophy--offers us an alternate mode of realism in a novel traditionally praised by critics for its imagistic precision. Middlemarch may very well be what George Levine calls the "fullest achievement of English realism," but I would further this claim by suggesting that the musical connection between Schopenhauer and George Eliot complicates our traditional understanding of sight-based realism even in this most "realistic" of English novels. (4)

Despite nineteenth-century England's reputation among European countries as "the land without music" (das Land ohne Musik), many Victorian writers depict music frequently. (5) A number of critical works on music published within the last decade prove quite convincingly that Victorian Britain was richly musical despite the lingering assertions of the nation's tone deafness. (6) George Eliot is among the most musical of Victorian authors because of her sustained emphasis on musical themes in Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Daniel Deronda (1876). These particular novels, rather than Middlemarch, have attracted far more critical attention with regard to the subject of music because of their explicit representations of musical culture. (7) Yet applying the same critical rigor to the structural and melodic functions of sound in Middlemarch allows us access to an important and alternate vector of reality within the novel. In particular, we may observe how George Eliot constructs an aural realism and refines her formulation of sympathy as a result of her knowledge and appreciation of Schopenhauer.

The details surrounding George Eliot's admiration for German philosophy have been amply discussed, but Schopenhauer's impact on her fiction in general, and on Middlemarch in particular, has largely escaped critical commentary. (8) Schopenhauer devoted nearly one-quarter of his twelve-hundred-page principal work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818), to the aesthetic experience, and he was the first of the Continental philosophers to proclaim music as the highest of the arts. His emphasis on the aesthetic experience as a primary means of epistemological inquiry was particularly interesting to George Eliot. Long before his work was translated into English, Schopenhauer hailed music as the most moving and the most feeling of all the arts.

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An Objective Aural-Relative in Middlemarch


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