Dorothea Brooke of “Middlemarch”, written by George Elliot, longs to make a difference. Every part of her internal working is meant for bigger things. She is a more sophisticated version of “Scuffy the Tugboat,” a Golden Books story in which a little red toy tugboat is dissatisfied with his toyshop and bathtub existence.

“I was meant for greater things,”

he sulks.

One day he finds the opportunity to do what he feels meant to do. The accommodating man with the polka dot tie who runs the toyshop takes Scuffy and his son to the babbling brook. Scuffy moves quickly and finds himself on an adventure.

He is excited and proud, then frightened and lonely. In the end, he finds that maybe the biggest adventures were not what he was meant for, and he finds contentment back in the bathtub and domesticity.

What does it actually mean to be meant to do great things?

Are great things only the big visible things that go viral on social media, make it to the news and front pages, making good stuff for a memoir? Some of these great things change the world, change the course of history, change lives. But the world makes a poor witness and as soon as her attention is turned, the spotlight shifts and the next big story hits the front page.

Perhaps greatness is the simple act of giving a child a beautiful plumb-colored snapdragon from the garden they are not usually allowed to pick from because the flowers are bound to be sold in bouquets. The child carries the flower around until the buds fall off, he cries, and you give him another, brightening his world once more. The joy is deep but lasts only as long as that little bloom.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

Is it a meal ready on the table for a hardworking husband? Is it the car unexpectedly filled up with gas-saving a trip later that day? Is it picking out a book for a friend, or sending an Instagram photo with a caption you know would make them laugh?

Dorothea married Mr. Casaubon, a character repeatedly described as “dried up” in comparison to her youthful vitality and beauty. She marries him in the hope and dream of being introduced to the world of great things, where she can do a great work, effect a great difference. She quickly finds herself disappointed and disillusioned, outside whatever mechanism drives and inspires him. In a modern world, she likely would leave him behind to look for her path to greatness.

Faithful, she remains, full of trust that her path will reveal itself in her given circumstances, circumstances she chose for herself. Elliot presents a particular problem for the woman in this period. Dorothea makes one decision, to marry the man, and she must wait patiently before anything can change. She is, for the most part, powerless in her circumstances. This is contrasted with another character, Dr. Lydgate, who, as a man, is in a position to make decisions professionally and personally and, even after a disappointing marriage, can choose what step he will take next.

What do they do with their opportunities?

What does Scuffy do? The key feature is that Dorothea keeps her vision. Her desire is not entirely set on one dream, as Lydgate’s was of professional greatness. Thus her desire can adapt. It is not the great thing itself, but to make a difference. To make a difference in the world can be as entirely intimate as offering a flower to a child, or as global as building a hospital.

The greatness comes from pouring oneself out, in offering what one has at his disposal for the good of another, of looking for opportunities to give, and then giving.

I tell my children that virtue is practiced in the small things so that when the big moments arise, we have trained ourselves to either do good or avoid evil. Greatness works similarly. So whether a housewife outside a rural town or a doctor in a big city, when we take our circumstances for what they, work with them in that sphere without resentment or distraction, keeping our eyes open and our will ready to serve, the great moments come. And I venture to say, they’ll be more than we realize and effect a greater difference in those around us than we ever could have imagined.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Review: Meander through Middlemarch

My friend told me this was a book about people who want to do great things…and not everybody gets to. She and I struggle with that. We are housewives who ache for some expression in the world. We follow politics, read classic literature, KonMari our homes and look systems to improve our budgeting, housekeeping or cooking. Still, we are not satisfied. As an adult, my favorite children’s book is the Little Red Tugboat: “I was meant for greater things!” There is nothing greater than parenting, and yet, I get to feeling unused in some strange capacity. I feel pulled into the world, but in an unhealthy way.

My friend’s synopsis intrigued me. I ordered it from the library and soon it came, all 841 pages of it. I began…slowly.

For the first 100 pages, I think I disliked every character. Then we heard more about Dr. Lydgate. I liked him. I appreciate a medical mind wanting to make discoveries. As soon as the fictional Rosamond and I had developed our crush on him, author George Elliot began to reveal his faults. She did not hide Dorothea’s faults. Dorothea was irritating from the get-go, probably much like I was as a youngster.

This book is largely about young people finding their way in the world. Dorothea and Lydgate ache to do great things. Fred, Mary and Rosamond do not. Will has all the energy to do great things but lacks motivation. They all find their way, some more roundabout than others.

Every character evolves. Every character is good and bad. Every character is capable of feeling and is capable of experience a want of feeling.

I had to stay friendly with the footnotes. Elliot manages to make references as quickly as the Gilmore Girls, only it is not my pop culture. She makes brilliant feminist commentary on what few advantages there are for women but speaks so satirically about their weakness and inability to think, their need to be governed. The author acknowledges in the end that some endings may be dissatisfying, perhaps the woman should have achieved more, but we all exist in our context. “A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life…” Not just passion but circumstances make a way for public heroes.

That is wisdom.

This is the way that great literature can teach us. With real characters who are not flat but can be felt, who take shape with flesh and blood in our imagination. In learning their lessons, it is like learning from people we know, who share life with us. Those lessons sink deeper than something stated to us with little depth or feeling. We need the lives of the saints to teach us about perseverance in spiritual dryness. We need Therese and her parents to teach us about the little way. We need Dorothea to teach us about making great sacrifices. We need to learn a lesson from fallen characters.

In the end, I loved it. I simply loved it.