By Dr Hugh Mercer Curtler, Cottonwood, Minnesota, USA
I firmly believe that there is truth in fiction and, indeed, profound truth in the fiction of people like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, and George Eliot. Eliot is one of my favorite writers and she always provides a wealth of food for thought. There is depth and wisdom in her novels. One of her novels is a special treasure despite the fact that many people find it a “hard read.” It is the novel Romola which is set in 15th century Florence and focuses on a most interesting character named Tito Melema who is described by the narrator as having a “soft, pleasure-loving nature.” We might add he is also spoiled: the adopted son of a wealthy, adoring father who made his life as easy as possible while turning him into an accomplished scholar, somewhat resentful of his father’s demands on his time. In fact, the story centers around Tito’s failure to rescue his father from pirates with a purse filled with jewels, including a valuable ring, his father entrusted to him. When these jewels are sold and kept by Tito who decides not to pay the ransom, they make Tito a very wealthy man — and one who finds that his charm, outgoing personality, and scholarly abilities suit him splendidly for success and status in Florence.
The novel is historical in the manner of Walter Scott. It mixes the fictional Tito and his eventual wife Romola with such figures as Savonarola, Lorenzo Medici, Machiavelli, and Pico della Mirandola — among others. It is masterfully done. But, again, the main interest for this reader is the character Tito and his remarkable resemblance to growing numbers of people I find myself surrounded by each and every day. Note how Eliot described this “soft” man as he gradually reconciles himself to the fact that he has abandoned his father for the wealth and fame he finds irresistible:
“. . . 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. . . with the ready inoffensive sociability which belong to a good nature . . . 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 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.”
This remarkable description, coupled with the ensuing story of Tito’s growing lust for wealth and power, not to mention the suffering he brings upon himself and those close to him, presents us with a likable, easy-going man who doesn’t set out to do the wrong thing but who lacks the will-power to resist. In fact, I would say this is a novel about character (“the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character”) and the growing awareness on Eliot’s part that the world around her was beginning to turn its back on the Victorian notion of human virtue and duty to others which set the age apart (despite its many shortcomings). She saw more clearly than most of those around her what a growing preoccupation with wealth coupled with a lack of strong character could mean to the people involved. Tito never means to do the wrong thing; he simply does not bother to think about what the right thing might be in a particular case. Moreover, he doesn’t have the strength of will to resist temptation and do the right thing even when he knows what it is. He becomes the master of rationalization and as a consequence he follows mindlessly the easy path to self-destruction.
The novel was written in 1863 but it tells us a great deal about ourselves today. Tito is a token of a type — “soft, pleasure-loving” people who have never been denied anything they wanted — that is becoming more and more familiar in our century.
You can read Hugh Curtler’s blog here: http://hughcurtler.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/learning-from-great-poets/