The Other Side of Silence: Music and Sympathy in George Eliot’s Middlemarch


John Constable, Stour Valley and Dedham Church, detail, a perhaps Middlemarchian view

How will you know the pitch of that great bell 

Too large for you to stir? Let but a flute

Play ‘neath the fine-mixed metal: listen close

Till the right note flows forth, a silvery rill: 

Then shall the huge bell tremble—then the mass 

With myriad waves concurrent shall respond 

In low soft unison.

Middlemarch, Chapter 31 (293)

Chapter 31 of George Eliot’s Middlemarch begins with a short little poem (quoted above) which casts relation in the language of music. How can one know the tone of a bell so great one cannot ring it? Through relation, by playing a note on a flute beneath the bell and hearing the response from the bell mingle with the voice of the flute. The pitch of the great bell can be known, but only through the flute—through in both the sense of through its aid and in the sense that you will only ever be able to hear the tone of the great bell in “soft unison” with the tone of the flute, never on its own. To know one is to know the other. To know one requires both an awareness of separateness and interconnectivity. This theme of knowledge through sympathetic relation is at the heart of Eliot’s Middlemarch and that it is here so pithily distilled in terms of a musical metaphor is telling. While the project of Middlemarch could perhaps be said to analyze sympathy and the relations of sympathy in and of themselves, it is simultaneously to find a metaphorical medium with which to represent those sympathetic relations. Though science and medicine (and their accompanying metaphor of the microscope and interconnection of all natural things) play a part in this search for structural medium and are often given full-credit, it is not ultimately science and medicine which suit Eliot’s purpose, but the intangible essences of music.

Middlemarch is a novel of sounds, not images. Eliot distinguishes characters primarily not by visual cues—a particular color or gesture—but by aural ones: voices, accents, particular turns of phrase (as in Mr. Brooke’s unceasing “you know”). Rhythm, tone, modulation (or lack thereof) are given the kind of detailed attention one might expect faces to be given if we were to accept the metaphor of the microscope offered by Lydgate’s science. But even from the first, Eliot is not held by the visual; if the microscope metaphor applies it is only because of its emphasis on the concept of detail, not on visual detail. As characters are introduced to us, we sooner hear them than see them, getting to know them by their tones and verbal tics. Celia is as recognizable for her “quiet, staccato evenness” (32) as Casaubon is for his “measured official tone” (197) or Will is as “a gay little chime” (212)¹. Lydgate, we are told as we first meet him, is “gift[ed]” with “a voice habitually deep and sonorous, yet capable of becoming very low and gentle at the right moment” (124).

Indeed, Eliot’s attention to tone and the shadings and modulations possible in the human voice is such that the word “tone” appears no less than 173 times throughout the novel. The novel itself is “a structure of tones” (553)—the same phrase which Caleb Garth uses to describe music—a carefully built and balanced construction of individual voices and their modulations which together are Middlemarch, both town and novel. That the preface and epilogue are given the musical names “Prelude” and “Finale” only serves to emphasize the musical nature of the novel: the Prelude performing the function of a musical prelude by introducing briefly and broadly the themes to come and the Finale entering a contemplative mood to reprise the themes of the prelude and the piece, bringing them into harmony with one another, and ending the work.

However it is not simply in voices and the novel’s structure that Eliot hears and portrays music. Life itself, by the end of the novel, has come to be understood both musically and as music. Eliot’s first deep analysis of Caleb Garth, in which she explicates his understanding of the word “business,” is key in understanding life through music as he recalls

“the echoes of the great hammer where roof or keel were a-making, the signal-shouts of the workmen, the roar of the furnace, the thunder and plash of the engine, were a sublime music to him; the felling and lading of timber, and the huge trunk vibrating star-like in the distance along the highway, the crane at work on the wharf, the piled-up produce in warehouses, the precision and variety of muscular effort wherever exact work had to be turned out, — all these sights of his youth had acted on him as poetry without the aid of the poets” (250-51).

Though Eliot refers to the elements of this passage as the “sights” of Caleb’s youth, it is not in fact sights that we have just witnessed, but sounds we have heard. The echoes of the hammer, the signal-shouts, “the thunder and plash of the engine” are all fundamentally unseeable and even as Caleb moves towards actual imagery with “the crane at work on the wharf, the piled-up produce in the warehouses,” we hear more than see these things in the strong alliteration of their w’s and p’s. Caleb’s intensely aural rendering of experience gives the reader a sense of the rhythm of a life of honest work, reflected in the rhythm of the passage itself in words like “a-making” (the added “a” giving the line the feeling of a poem or song which keeps to a certain rhythm and meter). For Caleb, and for Middlemarch, life’s underlying structure cannot only be understood by music,  but it is music, “the sublime music” of tone, modulation, and rhythm. It is for this reason that words so often fail Caleb, as they fail any of the other characters who understand and appreciate music. For it is not simply that music provides a convenient structure for understanding and representing life—as in Caleb’s understanding of “business,” but that music provides a means for connection to the world.

Music as music appears surprisingly often in Middlemarch, and it is remarkably divisive in the way in which characters respond to it. On the one hand there are characters like Celia, Casaubon, and Rosamond for whom music is a dead, static thing, which they cannot understand. On the other are Lydgate, Caleb Garth, Will, and, most importantly, Dorothea, for whom music is a living experience which connects them to a greater consciousness beyond themselves, inspiring in them active passion—which we will eventually understand as sympathy.

It is interesting that this fault line does not match the divide between those who are technically “musical” and those who are not. Rosamond, the most technically proficient musically in the novel, is the least “musical” in the important sense. Dorothea, however, is not a musician at all, never once touching an instrument. What is important, then, is the relation between the person and the experience of music. Early on, Dorothea describes being taken to hear the organ at Freiberg, an experience which “made [her] sob” (66). Her reaction is a passionate and involuntary one: she is made to feel as she does by the music, she makes herself feel nothing. The intensity of this response is mistrusted by Mr. Brooke and Casaubon, for both of whom music is not a thing to be interacted with, but simply heard—with tolerance by Casaubon and as mere recreation by Brooke. Casaubon’s relation to music is symbolized neatly in the fact of the harpsichord at Lowick being “covered with books” (65) so as to make it unplayable, while he himself can conceive of music only as “measured noises” (65), the negative connotations of the word “noises” more than adequately conveying his feelings on the subject and “measured” implying his inability to conceive of any kind of life or passion in music.

Music for Celia and Rosamond, both of whom play very “prettily” and “admirably” and are “always ready to play” (65, 159), is a similarly dead thing, but, unlike Casaubon, rather than shun it entirely, they participate in a shallow facsimile of it. Rosamond plays with the “executant’s instinct”—a deliberate play on the literal meaning of execute as she kills the music with her passionless rendering of it, performing what she has learned “with the precision of an echo” (161) and none of the actual life and passion which should be inherent to it. The music matters nothing to Rosamond; she wants only “to know what her audience liked”—whether the demand is for popular songs or Haydn’s canzonets makes no difference to her (161). Rosamond does not experience music, she merely “give[s]” it (160), a stark contrast with Eliot’s description of Lydgate’s relation to music only a page before.

When Rosamond assumes his appreciation for music means he has studied it (dissected and executed it as she has), Lydgate replies “No, I know the notes of many birds, and I know many melodies by ear; but the music that I don’t know at all, and have no notion about, delights me—affects me” (159). Lydgate’s experience of music is configured entirely in terms of relation—he to it, it to the world. For Lydgate, as for Caleb, there is music in the world’s workings as well as in music itself. And to be affected by music (I would hazard to say of either category, though Lydgate speaks only of literal music) one need know nothing of it. Whether one knows or does not know the music does not make a difference; it is not like visual art which, in Will’s words, “is an old language with a great many affected styles”  (206) that must be learned in order to be known and cannot be understood intuitively. While visual art is affected, music has the power to affect, whether it is understood or not.

In this way music is not only more universal than visual art, but it is also a connecting force, rather than an isolating one. When Dorothea is in Rome on her honeymoon, she feels profoundly isolated, largely because of the esoteric form knowledge of visual art takes in the novel. She compares her feeling to blindness—it makes no difference whether or not you want to see the sky and try to see the sky if you are blind. Similarly in Middlemarch, one can be surrounded by visual art and not experience or participate in it, even if one tries to. Even Will, who is an initiate in the language and world of visual art, acknowledges its limitations, rejecting painting on the grounds that “it is too one-sided a life” (207). Just as the life of a painter is one-sided, the life that his paintings represents is one-sided, for they can only represent what the language of art allows.

Eliot is wary of representation throughout Middlemarch, making perhaps her most profound statement about the limits of representation in observing Bulstrode in prayer following his decision to give Mrs. Abel the key to the wine cooler. “Private prayer is inaudible speech, and speech is representative: who can represent himself just as he is, even in his own reflections?” (710) Eliot asks, cutting to the heart of the inadequacy of words to represent truth, whether of self, life, or relation. For what is visual art but representation, which necessarily is not what it represents? In this there is a fundamental untruth at the basis of visual art, which further prevents it from mapping onto life. Music, on the other hand, is not representative but experiential, allowing it to access a deeper truth and to reflect and unite itself with life.

Thus it is not surprising how closely identified Eliot’s sympathetic heroine Dorothea is identified with music. Her voice, like those of the other characters, is given detailed attention, but where other voices can generally be summed up neatly as a single note played in the musical structure that is Middlemarch, Dorothea is not a single note, but a whole range of tones. She is not simply musical (in Eliot’s sense) as Lydgate, Caleb, and Will are; she is music. Sometimes her voice is “rhapsodic” (32), sometimes “clear and tender” (810), sometimes it has a “birdlike modulation” (223), striking notes and tones from all over the register, composing its own music, rather than participating as one note in a larger piece.

This quality of her voice is reflected in its description as “rhapsodic,” connoting the free-flowing range of a musical rhapsody, but also in the way in which other characters often experience her voice directly as music. When Will first meets her, he thinks of her voice that “it was like the voice of a soul that had once lived in an Aeolian harp” (80) and regards it a mistake of nature that a voice like that could belong to someone so apparently passionless. We forget this early equivalency between capacity for passion and degree of musicality in a voice because Will dismisses it, but as the novel progresses it becomes apparent that for Eliot, musicality of voice and capacity for passion are entirely equivalent as Dorothea proves the most passionate character in the novel, while those voices which are flat, even, and measured are without passion or much emotional capacity.² This experience of Dorothea as music is not simply the product of Will’s infatuation with her, for Caleb experiences her in the same way, saying she has a “voice like music” which “reminds [him] of bits in the Messiah” (552). Dorothea’s musicality is immediately apparent to anyone receptive to it. Thus her musicality both provides and symbolizes a means of connection between her and those around her; music is allied with receptivity.

It is this function of music which becomes the central fact of its place in Middlemarch. Music, unlike art, is based on relation, connecting people and things to one another. Because music fills a space, all things it touches become participants in it. Here is the true image of the web in Middlemarch: not the web of interconnected tissue which can be—someday—disentangled, but the web of entirely interdependent notes which make up music. To attempt to separate and “understand” in the Rosamondian sense these notes would be to “execute” them—just as “the life goes out of”  (206) the paintings Dorothea sees when she tries to understand them by examining them one by one. However it is not simply that music connects, but that it primes those who are “musical” to forge connections on their own, becoming the basis for Eliot’s conception of what sympathy is.

In Middlemarch, sympathy is a reaching outward of a soul towards another soul in the awareness of that soul’s simultaneous independence and interconnectivity. A capacity to feel musically, to be affected by music—whether that of the birds, the wharves, a voice, or the organ at Freiberg—is a capacity for sympathy in this sense. In hearing music, one becomes conscious of both consciousnesses beyond one’s self and of one’s place in a greater consciousness. When Dorothea sits alone weeping in Rome at the start of her marriage, Eliot observes that the capacity of most of us for sympathy is limited and that “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (194). But beneath the surface is a vast interconnectivity which she configures—importantly—not in terms of the visual, but the aural.

Both the squirrel’s heart-beat and the hearing of the grass growing are things which could be rendered visually, but Eliot has chosen to focus on their aurality. The squirrel’s heart-beat and the hearing of the grass grow are part of Lydgate’s natural symphony, of Caleb’s musical experience of his work—they are simply a deeper, less easily accessible part. They lie on the other side of the silence which most of us experience in our daily lives because we, like Celia, Rosamund, and Casaubon, are not musical; we “walk about well-wadded with stupidity” (194) unable to hear  beyond the silence. But those of us who are musical—to whatever varying degree—are able to tap into the “dull roar” of a greater consciousness and reach outward to consciousnesses beyond ourselves. It is this in music which makes Caleb “sit meditatively” in “a profound reverence” for music and the connection to “that dull roar” it brings, unable to find any words but the expletives he “throw[s]. . . into his outstretched hands” (553).

That for Eliot it is through sound and not image that sympathy is inspired is emphasized in the moment in which Dorothea becomes conscious that Casaubon “ha[s] an equivalent centre of self” (211) to her own. Dorothea only comes to an awareness of Casaubon’s separate and equivalent consciousness through her emerging from the “moral stupidity” which we are all born into, in which we take “the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves” (211).  Eliot’s use of the word “stupidity” links this passage immediately to the analysis of sympathy and “that dull roar” only seventeen pages earlier. The “moral stupidity” Eliot describes here is the same stupidity which prevents us from accessing the dull roar of sympathetic interconnectivity.³ Dorothea, in gaining the capacity to have sympathy for Casaubon through recognizing his separate consciousness, is emerging from that stupidity with which we are all born wadded. Thus the inspiration of sympathy goes back to that emphasis on the aural, the musical.

To emerge from our “well-wadded stupidity” and tap into “that dull roar” which is the sympathetic consciousness of other consciousnesses is the project of life as Eliot presents it in Middlemarch. Through music—both in our human sense of compositions and the expanded sense of awareness of the music of general experience—Eliot’s heroes and heroines are able to gain the emotional capacity and the passion necessary to shrug off their wadding and begin to forge sympathetic connections with one another, an exercise which, far from onerous, is one characterized by a sometimes overwhelming joy, akin almost to a religious fervor, as we saw in Caleb Garth. Music becomes for the novel what Caleb’s aural fragments were for him: “poetry without the aid of poets, . . . philosophy . . . without the aid of philosophers, a religion without the aid of theology” (250-51).



Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Penguin. 2003.

  1. Recalling the poem which opens Chapter 31, particularly considering that the full line is “[his voice] seemed a gay little chime after the great bell [of Casaubon’s voice]” and that it is only through Will that Dorothea is able to understand Casaubon.
  2. Will draws the Aeolian harp comparison again when he becomes aware of the “melodious fragments in which her heart and soul came forth so directly and ingenuously” (209). He also calls her music when he describes a poet in terms of “chords of emotion” (223), connecting the discernment of a poet to music and then proceeds to tell Dorothea “you are a poem” (223), essentially calling her music, and not the musician.
  3. Tracing the word “stupidity” further, we are led back to Lydgate and his delight in the music of the world, which he follows with the exclamation “How stupid the world is that it does not make more use of such a pleasure within its reach!” (159).

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