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Introduction to Middlemarch
Throughout the novel, Eliot paints Bulstrode as a religious and moral bully who uses his wealth and power to exert control over other people. He is never, from start to finish, portrayed in a solely positive light. That is because all of his actions are tainted by his religious egotism and hypocrisy.
While Eliot is careful to say that moral degeneracy can happen with or without religion, in the case of Nicholas Bulstrode, religion plays a huge role in his sense of identity and ability to justify his wrongdoings both past and present. He conceives of himself as a chosen one in God’s eyes and, therefore, presumes to believe that all his misdoings are pardoned because he, as a devout instrument of God’s will, must accrue power and wealth since he knows how to properly carry out God’s will.
We see throughout the book that Bulstrode’s conception of God’s will conveniently aligns with his own desires. So while Eliot includes a warning stating that neither hypocrisy nor religious egotism is unique to Bulstrode, it is abundantly clear that this kind of hypocrisy and egotism is especially odious.
Why is Bulstrode not well-liked in Middlemarch even prior to his past being discovered?
Attitude: Religious and Moral Superiority
From the beginning, Mr. Bulstrode is not well-liked in Middlemarch for several reasons, the foremost of which is his sense of moral superiority and rigid sense of religion. In fact, the very first time that we meet Bulstrode, he is described as “Mr. Bulstrode, the banker,” who “disliked coarseness and profanity,” especially when that profanity is taking the lord’s name in vain (89).
Clearly, Mr. Standish, the man he was offended by, believes, as does most of Middlemarch, that Bulstrode is “tyrannical” in his views on religion and altogether too strict, especially regarding other people (130). Other characters who are seen as religiously or morally strict only apply those rules to themselves.
In the case of Dorothea, she applies a much more rigid sense of religious devotedness than her sister. Still, she assures Celia that she does not judge her because “souls have complexions too: what will suit one will not suit another” (12). Caleb Garth, another morally upright character, similarly does not apply his own moral code to others and is described as being “one of those rare men who are rigid to themselves and indulgent to others” (232).
Dorothea and Caleb Garth’s sense of devotion and morality are well-liked because they do not lord that devotion over others or presume to make judgements “to point out other people’s errors was a duty that Mr. Bulstrode rarely shrank from” (128). Middlemarchers “disliked this kind of moral lantern turned on them” (123). Furthermore, “Mr. Bulstrode’s close attention was not agreeable to the publicans and sinners in Middlemarch; it was attributed by some to his being a Pharisee, and by others to his being Evangelical” (124).
The problem with Bulstrode’s sense of religion seems to be his insistence on his own moral superiority. Mr. Vincy says it best when he tells Bulstrode outright that “this tyrannical spirit, wanting to play bishop and banker everywhere—it’s the sort of thing that makes a man’s name stink” (130)
He Is an Outsider
Another major mark against Bulstrode, according to the people of Middlemarch, is the fact that he is not originally from the town nor connected by birth to a prominent Middlemarch family. This makes him an intruder to the community in much the same way as Lydgate. Bulstrode is able to enter the community as a respectable member despite being “a man not born in the town, and altogether of dimly known origin” through his marriage to Harriet, a member of the Vincy family described as “old manufacturers,” who had “kept a good house for three generations” (96).
Even so, Mrs. Bulstrode has to continually defend her husband’s status as an outsider by reminding her neighbors that it is good Christian doctrine to accept strangers. She reminds her friend Mrs. Plymdale that “Mr. Bulstrode was a stranger here at one time. Abraham and Moses were strangers in the land, and we are told to entertain strangers” (295)
Despite her defense of him, the people “wished to know who his father and grandfather were, observing that five-and-twenty years ago nobody had ever heard of Bulstrode in Middlemarch” (124). On this point, perhaps Bulstrode is blameless since being a stranger to a place does not necessarily mean he has poor intentions.
Using Wealth and Influence to Control People
Apart from the town’s objection to his religious superiority and his being a stranger, there is a strong dislike for Bulstrode because he uses his wealth and prominence to pull strings and exert power over other people. Eliot makes sure to give the reader an inside look into this power dynamic by devoting a large section of time to describing how Bulstrode uses his financial power over the new hospital and over Lydgate’s involvement in that hospital to influence Lydgate’s vote in the question of the Chaplaincy of the infirmary.
He tells Lydgate directly, “what I trust I may ask of you is that in virtue of the cooperation between us which I now look forward to, you will not, so far as you are concerned, be influenced by my opponents in this matter” (126). While he claims “I have devoted myself to this object of hospital-improvement, but I will boldly confess to you, Mr. Lydgate, that I should have no interest in hospitals if I believed that nothing more was concerned therein than the cure of mortal diseases,” the reader gets the sense that his real aim is not devotion to saving the souls of the sick, but to accrue more power and influence over others and town affairs for his own purposes (126-127).
We are told that Mr. Bulstrode knows “the financial secrets of most traders in the town and could touch the springs of their credit,” holds a “chief share in administering the town charities,” and holds a number of “private minor loans” (155). In this way, Bulstrode “gathers a domain in his neighbors’ hope and fear as well as gratitude” because “it was a principle with Mr. Bulstrode to gain as much power as possible, that he might use it for the glory of God” (156). Even here in the realm of finances, Bulstrode’s sense of moral superiority and belief in his own righteousness as God’s chosen one plays a role.
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Bulstrode’s Sordid Past
Throughout the novel, Eliot reveals that the town’s suspicions and dislike for Mr. Bulstrode are not unfounded. Before moving to Middlemarch, Mr. Bulstrode was a member of a “Calvinistic dissenting church” and preached in private homes as “Brother Bulstrode” before he was tempted by “the vista of a fortune”(616). That temptation came in the form of a business that dealt in “the easy reception of goods offered without strict inquiry as to where they came from” (616). In other words, Bulstrode was involved with a business that sold stolen goods and made profits from “lost souls” (616).
If that was not enough, after the death of Mr. Dunkirk, the proprietor of that trade, Bulstrode married his rich widow. This act in and of itself would not be so scandalous, except that Bulstrode went through the pains of finding the widow’s lost daughter and child but hid the information from her so that she would not will the money to her grandson, who turns out to be none other than Will Ladislaw.
Eliot tells us that “The daughter had been found; but only one man besides Bulstrode knew it, and he was paid for keeping silence and carrying himself away” (617). In the past as well as the present, Bulstrode used his money and influence to buy the cooperation of others while furthering his own interests to the detriment of others.
How Bulstrode Justifies His Actions to Himself
The most disturbing part of the revelations about Bulstrode’s past are not the actions themselves, but how Bulstrode justifies those actions to himself using religion and his own conception of himself as God’s chosen one.
Bulstrode felt at his core that his involvement in the business was wrong since he felt himself “shrinking” from it and engaged in “arguments; some of these taking the form of prayer” struggling to work out his moral responsibility (616). Yet, he could not resist the fortune that his involvement promised.
He began his justifications by telling himself that “the business was established and had old roots; is it not one thing to set up a new gin-palace and another to accept an investment in an old one?” and further supposes that the opportunity was “God’s way of saving his chosen” (616). In this way, he assures himself that his “soul sits loose from these things” (616). Bulstrode found that “his religious activity could not be incompatible with his business as soon as he had argued himself into not feeling it incompatible” (617).
This pattern of justification continued regarding his marriage to the widow by convincing himself that the widow’s daughter and her husband and child were “given up to the lightest pursuits, and might scatter it (the wealth) abroad in triviality” and were undeserving of the inheritance because he would use the property better than they would in the name of God (618). In this way, “it was easy for him to settle what was due from him to others by inquiring what were God’s intentions with regard to himself” (618).
Bulstrode’s ability to transform his own selfish, greedy desires into righteous acts done in the name of God only continued to get stronger as he aged. He asked himself, “who would use money and position better than he meant to use them? Who could surpass him in self-abhorrence and exaltation of God’s cause?” and convinced himself that he was the answer (619). He even went as far as to see those who opposed any of his views, spiritual or otherwise, as attacks on religion itself since he imagined he was God’s chosen one.
His justifications kept amassing: “the years had been perpetually spinning them into intricate thickness, like masses of spider-web, padding the moral sensibility; nay, as age made egoism more eager but less enjoying, his soul had become more saturated with the belief that he did everything for God’s sake, being indifferent to it for his own” (617). This kind of moral gymnastics is only made more repulsive because of his inability to regard anyone else’s actions with sympathy.
The Past Cannot be Tamed: The Return of Raffles
While Bulstrode tells himself that if he had the choice to go back in time, “he would choose to be a missionary” rather than entangling himself in this moral web of lies, Bulstrode proves that in the present, he is no more equipped to resist his own selfishness and greed than in the past.
When Raffles returns from the past dressed in a “suit of black and a crape hat-bend” with a “swaggering attitude,” Bulstrode begins a whole new downward spiral (522). Bulstrode attempts to use his power and money to bribe Raffles into staying away from him and his respectable life in Middlemarch, but what Bulstrode does not realize is that Raffles, as the physical embodiment of his dark past, does not truly desire his money, he only desires to “torment” Bulstrode (524).
Raffles’s subsequent returns and Bulstrode’s realization that “neither threats nor coaxing would avail” symbolize Bulstrode’s mental process of continually justifying his past wrongs (614). Raffles shows up again and again, like a bad memory of his own sin to be justified and hidden away indefinitely, but his justifications, just like his bribes, can only work to block the flood for only so long.
Bulstrode’s Appeal to Will Ladislaw
In response to the fear that Raffle’s return has caused Bulstrode, he decides to try to make amends for past wrongs by helping Will financially. He does not do so because he wants to, but because he believes that helping Will is the best way to bring God back to his side.
He believed “that if he spontaneously did something right, God would save him from the consequences of wrong-doing” (620). But even as Bulstrode attempts to right himself with God and Will, he fails to take full responsibility for his actions. While he does admit to Will where his fortune came from and that he knew of Will’s mother and kept it secret from Will’s grandmother, he partially justifies his actions by repeating over and over again that in terms of “human laws,” Will has no claim over him (621).
He further portrays his giving Will money as a favor by emphasizing, “I am ready to narrow my own resources and the prospects of my family by binding myself to allow you” (623). When Will rejects his offer, Bulstrode is shocked. Because of the lies he has told himself over the years, he cannot see how Will could look upon his attempt to supply him as anything less than an incredibly generous charity.
The rejection has a profound impact on Bulstrode; “when Will was gone he suffered a violent reaction, and wept like a woman. It was the first time he had encountered an open expression of scorn from any man higher than Raffles; and with that scorn hurrying like venom through his system, there was no sensibility left to consolations” (624-625). The heartbreaking thing about this encounter is that Bulstrode does not really change after it. He is doomed to continue to spin his web of lies and justifications and deepen himself in sin.
The Death of Raffles and Bulstrode’s Culpability
On Raffle’s final return, Bulstrode is put under the ultimate moral test and fails. Although he does send for Lydgate to tend to the sickly man, Eliot gives us the sense that he only does so because he wishes to appear to do the right thing in front of Caleb Garth and his housekeepers.
On his way to Stone Court, Bulstrode admits to himself that “he knew he ought to say ‘Thy will be done,’…but the intense desire remained that the will of God might be the death of that hated man” (697). Once there, he claims that he feels “bound to do the utmost for him” and seems to be invested in his care by sitting up with Raffles two nights in a row and tending to him faithfully according to Lydgate’s instructions. Yet, when he hands over the care of Raffles to Mrs. Abel, he conveniently forgets to mention when the doses of opium should cease, causing her to use almost the entirety of the vial (709).
In addition, he gives Lydgate the thousand pounds he asked for to create a “strong sense of personal obligation” (705). In other words, he attempts to bribe Lydgate, although Lydgate himself does not realize the money is a bribe to keep him quiet.
If that weren’t bad enough, once he realizes that he forgot part of Lydgate’s instructions, he gets up out of bed to say something to Mrs. Abel but ultimately rationalizes that “it was excusable in him, that he should forget part of an order, in his present wearied condition” and deciding that perhaps “Lydgate’s prescription would not be better disobeyed than followed, since there was still no sleep (709).
His decision to let Mrs. Abel wrongly administer the opium could have indirectly killed Raffles on its own. Still, Bulstrode goes further in ensuring Raffles’s death by giving Mrs. Abel the key to the wine-cooler (710). This time no justifications are offered by Bulstrode as to why he should allow the brandy when Lydgate expressly forbids it, but we do see him get rid of the evidence in the morning so that Lydgate will not suspect foul play. “He put the phial out of sight, and carried the brandy-bottle downstairs with him, locking it again in the wine-cooler,” implying a sense of guilt (711). Watching Raffles die, “his conscience was soothed by the enfolding wing of secrecy” (711).
It seems that the only justification he can give himself is that if no one knows he has done wrong, then it really never happened. Clearly, Bulstrode succumbed to the ultimate temptation and went so low as to indirectly murder a fellow human being. Bulstrode’s religious feeling that his murder of Raffles is actually the will of God is meant to disgust and horrify the reader.
What does Eliot Think of Bulstrode’s Hypocrisy?
In the end, all of Bulstrode’s efforts to contain Raffles and the secret past he represents are all for naught. The secret escapes and propagates around the town like wildfire, causing everyone’s dislike to be justified through the revelation of Bulstrode’s dark past and the suspected murder of the man who knew of that dark past.
While Eliot warns the reader that Bulstrode’s particular brand of self-justification and inability to apply his own moral code to himself “is essentially no more peculiar to the evangelical belief that the use of wide phrases for narrow motives is peculiar to Englishmen… there is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men” the reader cannot help but feel especially repulsed by Bulstrode’s hypocrisy and perversion of religion (619).
Views From the People of Middlemarch
Eliot uses the townspeople and their gossip as a sounding board for the various moral judgements made by people regarding Bulstrode.
Some, like Mrs. Sprague, believe Bulstrode’s actions were “a discredit to his doctrines” and that “people will not make a boast of being methodistical in Middlemarch for a good while to come” (743). Others, like Mrs. Plymdale, whose husband happens to have a close connection with Bulstrode, believe that the town “must not set down people’s bad actions to their religion” (743).
Certainly, Eliot agrees with the latter opinion to a certain extent; she does not believe that any only particular set can be the cause of Bulstrode’s particular kind of moral hypocrisy. Eliot states that Bulstrode “was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs” (619).
She goes on to say that “if this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world” (619).
Bulstrode’s Fall and His Attempt to Cling to Moral and Religious Superiority
It is important to remember that although Eliot makes it clear that religion is not a sure way to become a hypocrite and that hypocrisy is present in all of us, she gives us signs that Bulstrode’s religious hypocrisy, whether common or not, is still especially repulsive.
At the town meeting, Bulstrode is called upon to “either publicly deny and confute the scandalous statements…or else to withdraw from positions which could only have been allowed him as a gentleman among gentlemen” (726). Once that demand is made, Bulstrode immediately falls back upon his sense of religious superiority, retorting, “I protest before you sir, as a Christian minister, against the sanction of proceedings against me…who shall be my accuser? Not men whose own lives are unchristian, nay scandalous—not men who themselves use low instruments to carry out their ends—whose profession is a tissue of chicanery—who have been spending their income on their own sensual enjoyments, while I have been devoting mine to advance the best objects with regard to this life and the next” (727-728).
This statement causes a few more exchanges between Bulstrode and various members of the board, who assure Bulstrode that although they may not be as religiously devout as him, they are not murderers nor profit off of thievery. Finally, Mr. Thesiger, Bulstrode’s clergyman, steps in and speaks for the “general feeling” that Bulstrode’s “present attitude is painfully inconsistent with those principles which [he has] sought to identify [himself] with,” he further calls on Bulstrode to step down and leave the meeting (728).
Based upon the board’s reaction, as far as we can call them a measure of Middlemarch’s opinion and of Eliot’s, Bulstrode’s effort to cling to his religious superiority is disgusting, repulsive, and hypocritical.
Eliot’s Message Concerning Religious and Moral Hypocrisy/Egotism
Eliot’s message regarding Bulstrode is complex and comes with warnings, but it is clear that using religion as a means to justify oneself out of every sense of responsibility for wrongdoing is especially odious. For example, Raffles himself, who is as deplorable a man as Bulstrode, makes no efforts to disguise it and is not commented on with the same harshness as Bulstrode.
If we ask ourselves, what is worse, a hypocrite who justifies his sins through religion and believes that he is God’s chosen or a man who sins but has no moral compass? The answer is most certainly the first because hypocrisy, especially in the name of an egotistical sense of religion, is abhorrent to our sense of right and wrong.
We can understand a man who has no moral compass, to begin with acting in such a way, but we cannot understand or forgive a man who has a moral compass to apply to everyone else but himself. Presuming oneself to be immune from your own moral compass because any actions you take are God’s special will, is a particular kind of egotism that is far more infuriating.
Perhaps this kind of behavior by religious tyrants like Bulstrode is one of the many reasons that Eliot herself chose to leave the church. Therefore, while Bulstrode’s religious egotism and hypocrisy are not unique to him or his religious faith, Eliot shows us that their religious tone makes them all the more repulsive.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Isabella King