Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Way of the Reason in George Eliot's Romola

by Anne White

"What a world is opened up even by a single novel like Romola..."  Ronald McNeill, "The choice of Literature for the Young," Parent's Review, Volume 8, no. 9, 1897, pgs. 561-568; 624-630

"Literature is full of tales of temptation, yielded to, struggled against, conquered. Sometimes temptation finds us ready and there is no struggle, as in the case of Tito Melema..."  Charlotte Mason, Ourselves

"In like manner, every young man who reads of Arthur Pendennis, or Edward Waverley, or Fred Vincey, or, alas, of Tito Melema, or of Darsie Latimer, George Warrington, or Martin Chuzzlewit––the list is endless, of course––finds himself in the hero."  Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character
"Commonly we let reason do its work without attention on our part, but there come moments when we stand in startled admiration and watch the unfolding before us point by point of a score of arguments in favour of this carpet as against that, this route in preference to the other, our chosen chum as against Bob Brown; because every pro suggested by our reason is opposed to some con in the background."  Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education
What is the hold that fictional characters have on us?  What is their role in shaping our "norms" or our "nobility?"  The value of reading about the truly heroic is obvious; but what about the not-so-heroic, the characters with feet of clay?  Why the "alas" in the mention of "Tito Melema?"

Unless we are unusually big fans of George Eliot, the reference is likely to be lost on us.  Tito Melema is the main character in Eliot's novel Romola, which was published as a serial from 1862 to 1863, and which is set in Florence during the Renaissance.

Tito, from the beginning, is kind of a mystery man.  He shows up in the first chapter, having survived a shipwreck; but even after he sells off some jewels to get him on his feet in Florence, and gets a job assisting an elderly, blind scholar with his work (Tito is obviously well educated), he doesn't tell much about himself, and hints about his true identity come slowly.  One day, though, his past confronts him: he has an adoptive father, Baldassare Calvo, who has most likely been sold into slavery, and who should be--should already have been--ransomed with the money from those jewels.  Tito, in other words, had no business starting a new life until he had done everything he could to help this man to whom he owed a great personal debt.

So does Tito drop his new job, new sweetheart (Romola) and everything else and go rushing off to rescue his father?  No, he does not.  The only other person in the world, seemingly, who knows about this situation, is a monk who gave him the message; and immediately afterwards, he hears that the monk is gravely ill, likely to die.  When nobody else knows what you've done wrong, it's easy to reason yourself into anything you want.

Here is a passage, slightly shortened, from the end of chapter 11 and the beginning of chapter 12 of Romola.  It might be worthwhile for older students to work through it, see how well Tito reasons--but also to discuss why his decision is still just plain wrong.

(You might also want to read "Literature as Moral Instruction," posted here by Wendi.)

* * * * *
Tito had never had occasion to fabricate an ingenious lie before: the occasion was come now—the occasion which circumstance never fails to beget on tacit falsity; and his ingenuity was ready. For he had convinced himself that he was not bound to go in search of Baldassarre. He had once said that on a fair assurance of his father’s existence and whereabout, he would unhesitatingly go after him. But, after all, why was he bound to go? What, looked at closely, was the end of all life, but to extract the utmost sum of pleasure? And was not his own blooming life a promise of incomparably more pleasure, not for himself only, but for others, than the withered wintry life of a man who was past the time of keen enjoyment, and whose ideas had stiffened into barren rigidity? Those ideas had all been sown in the fresh soil of Tito’s mind, and were lively germs there: that was the proper order of things—the order of nature, which treats all maturity as a mere nidus for youth. Baldassarre had done his work, had had his draught of life: Tito said it was his turn now.
And the prospect was so vague...After a long voyage, to spend months, perhaps years, in a search for which even now there was no guarantee that it would not prove vain: and to leave behind at starting a life of distinction and love: and to find, if he found anything, the old exacting companionship which was known by rote beforehand. Certainly the gems and therefore the florins were, in a sense, Baldassarre’s: in the narrow sense by which the right of possession is determined in ordinary affairs; but in that large and more radically natural view by which the world belongs to youth and strength, they were rather his who could extract the most pleasure out of them. That, he was conscious, was not the sentiment which the complicated play of human feelings had engendered in society. The men around him would expect that he should immediately apply those florins to his benefactor’s rescue. But what was the sentiment of society?—a mere tangle of anomalous traditions and opinions, which no wise man would take as a guide, except so far as his own comfort was concerned. Not that he cared for the florins save perhaps for Romola’s sake: he would give up the florins readily enough. It was the joy that was due to him and was close to his lips, which he felt he was not bound to thrust away from him and so travel on, thirsting. Any maxims that required a man to fling away the good that was needed to make existence sweet, were only the lining of human selfishness turned outward: they were made by men who wanted others to sacrifice themselves for their sake. He would rather that Baldassarre should not suffer: he liked no one to suffer; but could any philosophy prove to him that he was bound to care for another’s suffering more than for his own? To do so he must have loved Baldassarre devotedly, and he did not love him: was that his own fault? Gratitude! seen closely, it made no valid claim: his father’s life would have been dreary without him: are we convicted of a debt to men for the pleasures they give themselves?
 Having once begun to explain away Baldassarre’s claim, Tito’s thought showed itself as active as a virulent acid, eating its rapid way through all the tissues of sentiment. His mind was destitute of that dread which has been erroneously decried as if it were nothing higher than a man’s animal care for his own skin: that awe of the Divine Nemesis which was felt by religious pagans, and, though it took a more positive form under Christianity, is still felt by the mass of mankind simply as a vague fear at anything which is called wrong-doing....
Chapter Twelve. The Prize is nearly grasped.
 Tito walked along with a light step, for the immediate fear had vanished; the usual joyousness of his disposition reassumed its predominance, and he was going to see Romola. Yet Romola’s life seemed an image of that loving, pitying devotedness, that patient endurance of irksome tasks, from which he had shrunk and excused himself. But he was not out of love with goodness, or prepared to plunge into vice: he was in his fresh youth, with soft pulses for all charm and loveliness; he had still a healthy appetite for ordinary human joys, and the poison could only work by degrees. He had sold himself to evil, but at present life seemed so nearly the same to him that he was not conscious of the bond. He meant all things to go on as they had done before, both within and without him: he meant to win golden opinions by meritorious exertion, by ingenious learning, by amiable compliance: he was not going to do anything that would throw him out of harmony with the beings he cared for. And he cared supremely for Romola; he wished to have her for his beautiful and loving wife. There might be a wealthier alliance within the ultimate reach of successful accomplishments like his, but there was no woman in all Florence like Romola. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank-you so much for this because I have not read this book and I did not get the reference. TBR,