The Egoist by George Meredith is a remarkable depiction of a sensitive and intelligent woman’s mental, moral, and emotional agonies as she attempts to free herself from her engagement to an egotistical man. With an unusual degree of self-awareness, honesty, and perceptivity, Meredith identifies with Sir Willoughby Patterne’s egoism and convinces his readers that egoism is characteristic of all humans.
Several parallels to Meredith’s life are significant. In 1849, when Meredith was twenty-one years old, he married Mary Ellen Nicolls, who was twenty-seven, the widow of a marine officer and the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock. The marriage lasted seven years and was full of tension and quarrels. Meredith believed that his egoism drove her away. The breakup of this relationship underlies the deep psychological probing in the fifty poems of Meredith’s Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside (1862). There, Meredith indicates that he, like Willoughby, sought control, expected others to submit to him, entertained an artificial but quite conventionally sentimental conception of femininity, and thought of himself as the center of the universe. In the poems and in the novel, he emphasizes the suffering of the woman and concludes that both men and women are trapped in tragic circumstances by insincerity and lack of mutual understanding.
In The Egoist, Clara Middleton, like Mary Ellen Meredith, is caught in a nexus of relationships because of her virtues: purity, docility, and usefulness to men. Meredith allows the reader to share her thought processes as she works her way through a labyrinth of dilemmas. Willoughby is in everyone’s eyes the perfect husband; she faces social disgrace. Fortunately Clara escapes before the wedding instead of after and manages to gain her freedom without sacrificing her reputation or hurting anyone.
Meredith not only shared with Willoughby a self-esteem based on thoughtless self-importance but also shared the scholarly interests of Dr. Middleton, Clara’s father, who values the opportunity to use the library and to drink the aged wine at Patterne Hall above his responsibility toward his daughter. Dr. Middleton, who is thought to be a fictional portrayal of Peacock, is also an egoist; his confidence in his own judgment blinds him to Clara’s needs.
Vernon Whitford is thought to be modeled on two of Meredith’s friends, Sir Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf—which is particularly...
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