One of the most poignant fictional examples of literary failure is that of Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The below passage speaks for itself – the growing realisation of an author that his life’s work, “The Key To All Mythologies” is unlikely to be completed and Casaubon’s chagrin regarding the lack of appreciation by other scholars of his talent.
morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea– but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?
protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too
will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable
to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually
a-hungered like the rest of us. He had done nothing exceptional in marrying–nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths
and bouquets. It had occurred to him that he must not any longer defer his intention of matrimony, and he had reflected that in taking a wife, a man of
good position should expect and carefully choose a blooming young lady–the younger the better, because more educable and submissive–of a rank equal to
his own, of religious principles, virtuous disposition, and good understanding. On such a young lady he would make handsome settlements, and he would neglect
no arrangement for her happiness: in return, he should receive family pleasures and leave behind him that copy of himself which seemed so urgently required
of a man– to the sonneteers of the sixteenth century. Times had altered since then, and no sonneteer had insisted on Mr. Casaubon’s leaving a copy of
himself; moreover, he had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of his mythological key; but he had always intended to acquit himself by marriage, and the
sense that he was fast leaving the years behind him, that the world was getting dimmer and that he felt lonely, was a reason to him for losing no more
time in overtaking domestic delights before they too were left behind by the years.
when he had seen Dorothea he believed that he had found even more than he demanded: she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense
with a hired secretary, an aid which Mr. Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr. Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was
expected to manifest a powerful mind.) Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed. A wife, a modest young lady, with the purely
appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex, is sure to think her husband’s mind powerful. Whether Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooke in
presenting her with Mr. Casaubon was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much
about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy. As if a man could choose not only his wife
hut his wife’s husband! Or as if he were bound to provide charms for his posterity in his own person!– When Dorothea accepted him with effusion, that
was only natural; and Mr. Casaubon believed that his happiness was going to begin.
had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr.
Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness
into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of
that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough
to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity. And
Mr. Casaubon had many scruples: he was capable of a severe self-restraint; he was resolute in being a man of honor according to the code; he would be unimpeachable
by any recognized opinion. In conduct these ends had been attained; but the difficulty of making his Key to all Mythologies unimpeachable weighed like
lead upon his mind; and the pamphlets–or “Parerga” as he called them–by which he tested his public and deposited small monumental records of his march,
were far from having been seen in all their significance. He suspected the Archdeacon of not having read them; he was in painful doubt as to what was really
thought of them by the leading minds of Brasenose, and bitterly convinced that his old acquaintance Carp had been the writer of that depreciatory recension
which was kept locked in a small drawer of Mr. Casaubon’s desk, and also in a dark closet of his verbal memory. These were heavy impressions to struggle
against, and brought that melancholy embitterment which is the consequence of all excessive claim: even his religious faith wavered with his wavering trust
in his own authorship, and the consolations of the Christian hope in immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten Key to all Mythologies.
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle
of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self– never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness
rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious
and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon’s uneasiness. Doubtless some
ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous
lips more or less under anxious control”.
Poor Casaubon dies with his work in such disarray that it will never be fit for publication. Such a waste of a life, Casaubon exemplifies the danges writers can get caught up in, endlessly conducting research but never drawing together their work for publication. He is, as Eliot says to be pittied.