The issue of moral judgment is a preoccupation with George Eliot. She wants to be fair to the persons in her fiction, to do right by them in keeping with an attitude often described by readers as sympathy or fellow-feeling. This is why in Chapter 29 of Middlemarch, after casting Mr. Casaubon so unfavorably for so long, she announces "For my part I am very sorry for him" (193) and goes on to show why. However, the injunction to avoid hasty or excessively harsh judgment carried with it the risk of excessive tolerance, of being too good to a character, and of thus compromising the moral fairness and realism to which she was committed.
Her treatment of Fred Vincy illustrates such risk. Of the novel's principal characters, he has the most help and the easiest time in getting where he wants to go. So unambiguous is the impression we receive of him that it appears that someone much more influential than Mary Garth, her father, or Mr. Farebrother--namely George Eliot herself--is working hard to protect his positive image and good end. However she may have scaled down her original intentions for Fred (Millet, 33, 57; Homans, 143), his presence in the novel is both highlighted and troubled by this favoritism.
A few nineteenth-century readers did wonder in passing why George Eliot cared so much for Fred or made life so easy for him (see James and Colvin). More recently, though, he has been said generally to merit that care and ease: either as a necessary part of the novel's generalized study of egoism and a yardstick to measure both its more, and less culpable characters (Hardy, 76-7) or as an "everyday" indicator of George Eliot's ambivalence toward the "transcendental" ambitions of others in the novel, notably Dorothea and Lydgate (Miller, 122,145; cf. Homans, 144-5).
It is my contention, though, that the treatment of Fred cannot be explained away so easily, and that it constitutes a compromise of the values central to the novel and, indeed, a symptom of problems within its ideological center. Repeatedly in Middlemarch George Eliot invokes the image of the web, to suggest that the individual does not live in a moral or social vacuum, that we humans are bound together by an often invisible network of social connections, and that our actions demand consideration of likely consequences for ourselves and others. That same web-image suggests the tightness of design in this "greatest of multi-plot novels" (Fowler, 296): the careful intertwining of many narrative strands and substrands--individual yet related, distinctive yet contingent on each other for development and meaning--which emblematically reinforces the novel's social morality.
George Eliot's treatment of Fred Vincy unravels both the moral and the aesthetic design of Middlemarch. The degree of exemption given him from the mode of judgment and consequence which is the norm elsewhere in the novel produces a jarring sense of inconsistency. Thomas Vargish's description of Middlemarch as "the most worldly of George Eliot's novels" seems apt, in that the assumption by certain characters that they possess the "key" to cosmic secrets becomes "a moral and spiritual disorder" (216). But here, as in her other fiction, George Eliot's narration is infused with suggestions of a morally efficient universe, stocked with determinable motives and actions, where deeds ultimately carry influence, consequence, punishment and reward. In place of a caring, intervening divinity, she substitutes human morality and its connection with the way things turn out in life. This is the argument of the novel's final sentences justifying the "unhistoric acts" of Dorothea's marriage with Will Ladislaw.
But Fred Vincy and his story upset things, and for no good reason. D. A. Miller may be right to claim that "nothing that the text has trained us to care about is sacrificed in Fred's settling down with Mary in the end" (147), but only because the text consistently understates what is at stake. …