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  • Naomi Nicholas

Empathy, Miscarriages, and Middlemarch


Cover of Middlemarch by George Eliot 


Middlemarch by George Eliot is subtitled A Study on Provincial Life and that is exactly what it is. It follows a large cast of characters navigating politics, romance, and social divisions in the fictitious British town of Middlemarch during the first half of the nineteenth century. Instead of focusing on a grandiose and theatrical plot, Middlemarch largely follows its cast and their mundane life experiences that ultimately, are not very unique. 


In many ways the novel’s mundanity is what allows it to explore one of the novel’s biggest themes: empathy. Eliot writes in her novel, “we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual” which highlights how people may struggle to find empathy for people suffering from hardships that are not uncommon. “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.”


In Middlemarch, Eliot challenges readers to view the novel’s condensed world with the aforementioned “keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life.” One of the reasons the novel spans over 800 pages long is because it offers the perspective of many different characters at any given time. The audience is given the power to see the novel’s conflicts and heartbreaks from many viewpoints, making it nearly impossible not to feel a twinge of empathy for every character at least once. 


Despite being a novel so largely about empathy, there is one character who is given little grace for her flaws: Rosamond Vincy. Similarly to many other characters, Rosamond has many defects, her most obvious one being her narcissism. There is no redemption for her character and Eliot makes little effort to empathize with her, but it is still shocking in a book about empathy to see almost none expressed when Rosamond suffers a miscarriage. 


However, this may be indicative of a wider perspective and not just Eliot’s intolerance of Rosamond’s selfish ways. 


For centuries, there has been a lot of stigma surrounding miscarriages and stillbirths. Much of this is a result from the Middle Ages when women in Europe were blamed for their miscarriages. When King Henry VIII’s wife, Anne Boleyn, had a miscarriage in her second trimester, court documents and letters place the blame on her emotions and possible inability to bear children.




A bourgeois wife shows her husband the preserved fetus of her cousin. 19th century Wood engraving by F. Rouget after S.G.C. Gavarni.


In the Victorian Era when Middlemarch was written, women were encouraged to not have emotional outbursts during puberty, as it might compromise their fertility. It was also often suggested that certain strong emotions, such as shock or anger, could result in miscarriages. Pregnant women were sometimes encouraged to retreat from the world and not engage in certain activities, to lower the risks of losing their baby. In Middlemarch, Rosamond’s husband attribute’s her miscarriage to her decision to go horse riding, a perpetuation of the idea that women were often at fault for their own miscarriages. While Rosamond insisted she was not at fault, many women in the nineteenth century felt a sense of failure and shame after suffering a miscarriage.


Now, with new developments in technology and medicine, it is known that miscarriages are not the fault of women or their emotions, and usually a result of chromosome and placenta problems. Yet, there continues to be a sense of shame and silence surrounding the topic. Part of this is because many women are not aware of how common miscarriages really are. A survey of 49 states in the U.S. showed that the majority of women believed that miscarriages were rare and impacted less than 5% of pregnancy, when in reality about 20% of women suffer miscarriages. With all of the medical care and treatments available, many women come to believe that miscarriages have become a rarity and that if they suffer one it is a result of some failure of theirs, an idea which encourages them to remain silent about their pain.


Another cause of the silence surrounding miscarriages is the anti-abortion movement. Many anti-abortion activists have attempted to use the tragedy of a miscarriage to insist that life begins at conception to further their idea that abortion is murder. A result, “Most feminists have maintained a studied silence on the topic” out of fear that their words may be misconstrued, as Linda Layne, an anthropologist of miscarriage put it.  


Whether or not George Eliot’s lack of empathy for Rosamond’s character was a result of the actual culture surrounding the topic is up for debate, but it is clear that there was a lack of empathy for women who suffered miscarriages in Eliot’s world, and that inadequacy is still clear today. Miscarriages affect about one in five women and it is time that more resources were put towards helping women deal with their grief and that society can cultivate a culture where women are unafraid to speak on their experiences and lean on each other for support. From the Middle Ages to the present day, it has been clear that miscarriages have psychological as well as physical effects on women. It is time that women should no longer have to suffer their grief alone and are offered more empathy and support from others. 

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