The Gossamer Webs of Perception

“Seated with his back towards her on a sofa which stood against the wall on a line with the door by which she had entered, she saw Will Ladislaw; close by him and turned towards him with a flushed tearfulness which gave a new brilliancy to her face sat Rosamond, her bonnet hanging back, while Will leaning towards her clasped both her upraised hands in his and spoke with low-toned fervour” (729).

Much to the reader’s consternation, this passage does not spring from the perspective of Middlemarch’s unknown narrator, but instead from Dorothea, who arrives at Lydgate’s with the intention of convincing Rosamond that her husband is in the right. Dorothea, having seen Rosamond and Ladislaw poised in this intimate moment immediately backs away and makes her leave without fulfilling her original intention. The tragedy of this moment is not that Ladislaw loves Rosamond best, as Dorothea believes, but that all three characters are unable to recognize that their perception of the relationships on display before them do not square with the actual nature of their relationships.

Rosamond, bored in her marriage with Lydgate, is charmed with Ladislaw; beyond that, she desperately reaches out for what she cannot have, allowing her desires to manipulate her perception of reality. She dreams that Ladislaw will give up loving Dorothea, all the while knowing that even if this might be the case, she would remain still married to Lydgate. Ladislaw, deeply in love with Dorothea but unable to speak with her and bored with provincial life, turns to Rosamond and to Lydgate for entertainment and for conversation. Though the reader recognizes that Ladislaw loves no one but Dorothea, it is impossible not to notice that Ladislaw’s intimate relationship with Rosamond is inappropriate. Dorothea, despite Ladislaw’s pledge to her, doubts both his and her own feelings, only allowing herself to admit that she loves Ladislaw when confronted by the above-mentioned moment at Lydgate’s.

This moment shared by these three characters is a microcosmic illustration of the novel’s central problem: how does one navigate the relationship between perception and reality in a closed social system? This problem escalates with Lydgate’s unknowing involvement in Bulstrode’s affair with Raffles, into which Ladislaw and the rest of the town are subsequently dragged, either through association or through gossip. Lydgate, unable to convince the town that reality is far from their perception of the affair, suffers from the consequences. Dorothea, too, after perceiving a non-existent relationship between Will and Rosamond, suffers.

One has to wonder how it is that reality and the characters’ perceptions of reality become so different. Why is it, one must ask, that Dorothea, despite hearing Ladislaw’s pledges, is unable to see Ladislaw’s love for her? Why is it that Dorothea cannot see her own love for Ladislaw?  Though I can speculate, I don’t know the full answers to these questions. The consequence, however, is that understanding the dynamics of the gossamer web of social relations in the novel becomes much more complicated.

The novel’s free indirect discourse gives the reader a broad understanding of Middlemarch and its dynamics. Broad as it may be, however, it is not always comprehensive: there are gaps and moments over which the narrator skips. Still, the reader has a much more complete picture of the social network and the perceptions of its members than does any one member of the social network. The gossamer web of Middlemarch exists, but it is not a stable one, precisely because each character within the web has a different perception of the dynamics within the network—different from the other characters and sometimes different from reality.

If we were to map the web of Middlemarch from Dorothea’s perspective, relating all of the characters to each other by the ways in which Dorothea perceives them, the map would look quite different from the one created from the perspective that the narrator offers us. Imagine, then: the gossamer web as spun from each of the characters’ perspectives. There would be too many maps to create, though some would be more detailed then others. The question that arises is this: to what extent is the gossamer web of reality—the one offered by the narrator—really relevant?

Eliot writes: “For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside of it” (784-5). Is perception, then, more central to character development and the creation of relationships than is reality? For Dorothea, regardless of the reality between Ladislaw and Rosamond, the scene on which she accidentally intrudes sets off small ripples in each character’s life—all of which have their own consequences.  The novel is a series (a long series) of ripples stemming from false perceptions. These ripples go on to affect reality; it is impossible, in that way, to separate them.  And yet, it seems impossible that all of the characters’ perceptions of reality can exist simultaneously within one space because they are so different from what the reader sees.

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