Last Updated September 5, 2023.
George Meredith's The Egoist, published as three volumes in 1879, during England's Victorian era, exemplified the era characterized by Neoclassicism—that is, a social philosophy that centered on the revival of particular and/or universal Greco-Roman ideals. Meredith's novel can be realized thus as a classic and comedic novel; just as well, it can be realized as "comedic" in the classical, Aristotelian sense. According to Aristotle and others, comedy served as an amusement of, or for, human life. Aristotle writes in his Nicomachean Ethics (chapter 8) that “Life includes rest as well as activity, and in this is included leisure and amusement" (5, par. 3). In agreement with the medieval theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, and others, we can appreciate Aristotle's understanding of comedy as that which serves the purpose of amusement. If we take Meredith's story into account per the element of amusement in it, then what may be tragic and/or romantic about The Egoist is softened appropriately.
All the same, a summary of Meredith's novel is in order. George Meredith's The Egoist has been styled as not merely comedic, but as comedy with elements of romantic tragedy. As the title of the novel would suggest to us, Meredith's novel tells the story of a man, Sir Willoughby Patterne, as he seeks a spouse who fits his own considerably egoistic ideas about himself. Meredith details, with the "wit, brilliant dialogue, and aphoristic quality of language" that so often comprised his novels, lectures, and writings, how Patterne seeks his spouse by describing Patterne's progression from one woman to another. As we follow Meredith's protagonist (i.e., Patterne), readers are simultaneously amused and heartbroken at the subtle experiences two people undergo in a romantic relationship. For example, after experiencing heartbreak at the unfaithfulness of Constantia Durham, his then fiancée, Patterne goes on to pursue another woman, Clara Middleton, who eventually realizes that Sir Willoughby Patterne is, in fair opinion, anything but faithful to her. Readers are therefore simultaneously amused and heartbroken at the hypocrisy of Patterne, who is both angry at Constantia's unfaithfulness and unfaithful himself! Meanwhile, Patterne develops his affection for Laetitia Dale through encouraging her with tender feelings. Soon thereafter, Patterne and Clara separate, and Patterne, humbled by the clarity in which he now sees his true love, Laetitia, pursues her and asks her to marry him.
In summary, George Meredith's The Egoist is an amusing tale of the journey we as humans take from one romantic relationship to another. It is a journey filled with the sometimes amusing nature of paradoxical feelings, hypocrisy, humility, and pride, and, after all, it is a journey with a relatively positive ending; it is a novel-journey that serves to remind humans not to take life too seriously, especially when we start looking for a spouse!