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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

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...

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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!

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

On the day of his majority, Sir Willoughby Patterne announces his engagement to Miss Constantia Durham. Laetitia Dale, who lives with her old father in a cottage on Willoughby’s estate, loves him, she thinks secretly, but everyone, including Willoughby, is aware of it. Ten days before the wedding day, Constantia astonishes everyone by eloping with Harry Oxford, a military man. For a few weeks after the elopement, Willoughby courts Laetitia, and the neighborhood gossips about her chances to become his wife. There is great disappointment when he suddenly decides to go abroad for three years. On his return, he brings with him his cousin, Vernon Whitford, to advise him in the management of his properties, and a young distant kinsman named Crossjay Patterne.

Laetitia is at first overjoyed at Willoughby’s return, but she soon sees that she is to lose him again, for he becomes engaged to Clara Middleton, the daughter of a learned doctor. Middleton and his daughter come to Willoughby’s estate to visit for a few weeks. Over Willoughby’s objections, Vernon encourages Crossjay to enter the marines, and the young man is sent to Laetitia to be tutored for his examination. Vernon, a literary man, wants to go to London, but Willoughby overrules him. Noting Willoughby’s self-centered attitude toward Crossjay, his complete and selfish concern with matters affecting himself, and his attempt to dominate her own mind, Clara begins to feel trapped by her betrothal. She reflects that Constantia escaped by finding a gallant Harry Oxford to take her away, but she sadly realizes that she has no one to rescue her.

When Clara attempts to break her engagement, she finds Willoughby intractable and her father too engrossed in his studies to be concerned. Willoughby decides that Laetitia should become Vernon’s wife, so that he will have near him both his cousin and the woman who feeds his ego with her devotion. According to Willoughby’s plan, Vernon can retire to one of the cottages on the estate and write and study. When Willoughby asks Clara to help him in his plan, Clara takes the opportunity to ask Vernon’s advice on her own problem. He tells her that she must move subtly and slowly.

In desperation, she persuades Dr. Middleton to agree to take a trip to France with her for a few weeks. She hopes never to return to Willoughby, but the wary lover introduces Dr. Middleton to his favorite brand of claret, and after two bottles of the wine, the doctor is putty in Willoughby’s hands. When Clara asks him if he is ready to go to London with her, he tells her that the thought is preposterous.

Colonel De Craye, who arrives to serve as best man at the wedding, gradually senses that Clara is not happy at the prospect of her approaching marriage. In desperation, Clara writes to her friend, Lucy Darleton, and receives an invitation to visit her in London.

Clara gives Crossjay the privilege of accompanying her to the train station. A hue and cry rise at her absence from the estate, and Vernon, accidentally discovering her destination, follows her to the station and urges her to come back. She does so only because she believes that her behavior might injure Crossjay’s future. Vernon is soon to go to London to follow his writing career, and if she left, too, Willoughby would have full control of the young boy.

Complications result from Clara’s attempted escape. At the station, Vernon persuades her to drink some brandy to overcome the effects of the rainy weather. The neighborhood begins to gossip. Willoughby confronts Crossjay, who tells him the truth about Clara’s escape. Clara hopes that Willoughby will release her from her engagement, but he again refuses. Dr. Middleton, determined that his daughter should fulfill her pledge, ignores what is happening. In any case, he likes Willoughby’s vintage wines and the estate.

Gradually, though, the egoist realizes that his marriage to Clara will not take place. To soothe his wounded vanity, he asks Laetitia to become his wife. She refuses, declaring she no longer loves him. Colonel De Craye shrewdly surmises what happened. He tells Clara the hopeful news. Clara feels that her only remaining obstacle is her father’s insistence that she not break her promise to Willoughby. Now, however, she can show that Willoughby broke his promise first by proposing to Laetitia while still pledged to her.

Dr. Middleton announces firmly that Clara need not marry Willoughby. He decides that he admires Vernon’s scholarship more than he likes Willoughby’s wines. The twice-jilted lover tries to even the score by manipulating Clara to consent to marry Vernon, which he feels will have the ironic touch that will be some measure of recompense to him. He is denied even this satisfaction when Clara tells him it is already her intention to wed Vernon as soon as her engagement to Willoughby is officially broken. The egoist’s selfishness and arrogance bring them together.

Defeated, the egoist goes to Laetitia, offering her his hand even if she is willing to marry him only for his money. Laetitia accepts on the condition that Crossjay be permitted to enter the marines. Clara and the doctor plan to leave for Europe. Vernon arranges to meet them in the Swiss Alps, where he and Clara will marry.

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