Wednesday, January 27, 2010
He Promises Nothing and Implies Everything: a Response to Ganz’s Article, "Binding the Will: George Eliot and the Practice of Promising"
Melissa Ganz, in her article, "Binding the Will: George Eliot and the Practice of Promising" analyses Eliot's use of promises and promise making in three of Eliot’s major works: Mill on the Floss (1860), Middlemarch (1871-1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Ganz chooses to interpret the events regarding Mr. Featherstone's will and Fred’s ultimate disappointment as Eliot’s commentary of undue expectations, and is therefore very critical of the Vincy family, specifically Fred and Mrs. Vincy. Yet, this assertion seems to go contrary to the argument Ganz sets up in her article, specifically the idea that Eliot believes that “one becomes bound by a promise whenever one knowingly excites another’s expectations concerning the existence of an obligations, even though one does not intend to be bound” (emphasis mine)(Ganz 566). A careful evaluation of Mr. Featherstone’s actions toward Fred will show that Mr. Featherstone did knowingly, and even deliberately, excite Fred and his family’s expectations. Understanding Mr. Featherstone’s actions in this light suggests that Eliot had a more complex motive behind this subplot than simply criticizing people for having unfounded expectations.
To make this point, it is necessary to refute Ganz’s claim that Fred should have realized that Mr. Featherstone never intended to leave him the land or any inheritance. Ganz bases this claim on the fact that Mr. Featherstone says: “I promise nothing” (Eliot 130). However, while Mr. Featherstone may never say the words, “I promise,” his actions certainly imply that he does intend to leave Fred an inheritance. The implied promise is, or should be socially and morally binding. Fred Vincy and his family’s expectations are therefore a result of Mr. Featherstone’s deliberate attempt to use implication as a form of manipulation.
The strongly suggestive nature of Mr. Featherstone’s actions can be seen early in the novel when Mr. Featherstone rebukes Fred for the rumor circulating that claims Fred has borrowed money based on his expectation of inheritance. Mr. Featherstone demands a written letter from Bulstrode to the effect that the banker does not believe Fred has done so. At first Fred refuses, but Mr. Featherstone repeatedly uses his will as a point of leverage, saying: “I can alter my will yet” (Eliot 113). What purpose does this statement have if not to imply that in its current state Mr. Featherstone’s will bequeaths an inheritance to Fred? Furthermore, Mr. Featherstone taunts Fred by saying, “You neither want a bit of land to make a squire of you instead of a starving parson, nor a lift of a hundred pounds…” (Eliot 114). The implication here is that if Fred wants either of these things, he must comply with Mr. Featherstone’s demands. As Fred does receive the small monetary gift directly after satisfying the old man’s demands, it is only logical that he would assume that he should also expect to inherit the land as well. These events clearly reveal that Mr. Featherstone’s actions not only excite Fred’s expectations, but that he did so knowingly and therefore, he should consider himself bound by to the promise he made to Fred.
The deliberate nature of the old gentleman’s raising and dashing of Fred Vincy’s expectations is made clear in chapter thirty-five. Mr. Standish interprets the presence of the first will as the intention that it be read and can therefore, also be interpreted as Featherstone’s intention to dangle an empty promise before Fred Vincy and his family. Mr. Featherstone may have had a change of heart regarding the second will, as evidenced by his desire that Mary Garth burn that particular document. However, that does not change the fact that Mr. Featherstone did, at least for a time, intend to taunt Fred and his family with the promised inheritance, only to snatch it away at the very last moment. This desire, however fleeting reveals the depths of Mr. Featherstone’s social depravity. He is cruel simply for the sake of being so and no amount of death bed remorse can change this fact.
Mr. Featherstone’s actions gave strong implications that he would leave Fred an inheritance, and he certainly knew that he was arousing expectations in Fred; in fact, the old man was counting on it. According to Ganz’s carefully laid out understanding of Eliot’s interpretation of promises, this implied promise is in fact binding. This understanding means that Fred and Mrs. Vincy’s assumptions, while not wise, are not completely unfounded. It shifts them from the position of transgressors to victims of Mr. Featherstone’s willful manipulation. This reveals that Ganz assertion that Vincy family’s dashed expectations are merely Eliot’s caution against having unfounded expectations is, at the very least, too superficial an evaluation. Eliot was using these expectations to set up Mr. Featherstone’s manipulative and socially dishonorable, if not immoral character. With this understanding, it becomes clear Eliot is instead suggesting that to hang hopes upon tacit agreements and implied promises is inadvisable, even foolish, because the immoral can so easily back out of them. However, while Fred and his mother are fools for counting on a man such as Mr. Feather stone, it is Mr. Featherstone’s himself who is cast in the most negative light because he fails to uphold the promises he made through implication.
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