In Our Small Worlds: We Are, Thus, We Choose

George Eliot’s Middlemarch & Jane Austen’s Emma seen through the prism of Himmelfarb:

Lydgate fails in his moral ambition to do “good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world,” because he is inadequate to the small world in which he finds himself, whereas Dorothea is fulfilled as a moral being precisely because she is content to do good work in her small world, thus for the world as a whole. (33) (bold added)

She further notes a second close relationship, one she feels Austen understood because:

she was a moralist and thus an individualist. Her characters, of whatever class, are responsible moral agents. And the measure of their character is the way they conduct themselves toward others, above all toward those whom they regard as their social inferiors. (33) (Bold added)

In that small word, “thus,” so characteristic of Himmelfarb, lies the drama of much 19th and early 20th century fiction – the climax is often barely perceptible to those across the room from a character. This emphasis, little different perhaps from Shakespeare’s in terms of ethics, is internalized in the novel genre. The universality is potent in these middle class works written for the middle class, for a world in which a drawing room offers both temptations and triumphs for a character concerned with right conduct. Moments of such realizations are hard to capture on film; perhaps that is the reason so many have failed. But I sometimes fear it is because we give less weight to individual recognition and individual responsibility. We have grown accustomed to broad gestures, to arguments made through representative figures no more sophisticated than those of proletarian novels, and perhaps most often characterized by a violence that obscures such subtlety. Much literature that is praised today is of victims with no apparent responsibility. As I was judging a high school drama reading contest a year or two ago, I was struck that most were told from the point of view of a victim of child abuse or a battered wife.

When critics like David Lodge argue that diminishing individuality and the richness of characterization is a political act with political consequences, I suspect they are giving that “thus” its full force. We may not expect anything more from a newspaperman or a demagogue – but we should expect this awareness from our art.

What the hell – why not make this timely, controversial and superficial all at the same time. Still and all this contrast should make us think of the observations of Eliot & Austen. Each of us can make choices; those choices, in our small world, have consequences.  One candidate in the 2000 presidential election built a house with a small footprint (a size that many lower class families might choose) and an even smaller use of resources (choosing stone that was generally cast away, reusing water). Such choices encourage conservation by making it profitable in the marketplace. Such small and personal choices encourage innovation.  Our second contestant built a house of disproportionate size (not perhaps to what those of his exalted pay scale and status have but to the general populace and, one would expect, normal needs); the planning did little to reduce the use of resources, relying, instead, on the traditional plans of Southern aristocracy,  While not achieving the “small good,” he kept his eye on the larger one. He encouraged others to environmentalize by lecturing them. And his group found fear an attractive method as well.

As for me, I feel that the advertisements for environmentalism may be effective, but I don’t want any of those people speaking again of the duck & cover days of the fifties with contempt.  I didn’t go to bed fearing those bombs.  I suspect the attractive child standing in front of an on-going locomotive is affecting many a child’s dreams today.  We might argue that a certain good may come from making choices that do not lead to nightmares.