Middlemarch by George Eliot

Set in the fictional village of Middlemarch in 1830's England, this book has as many plots and characters as any real life village where dozens of stories are lived out simultaneously and where each person's choices affect the lives of many others. There is Dorothea, an idealist who marries an older intellectual with the hope of assisting him in his life's work and finds that life doesn't always deliver what it promises. Complicating her life is a man of questionable character who has become attracted to her and doesn't seem to know when to back off. Then there is the young doctor with fresh ideas about medicine who sets up practice in Middlemarch and meets with resistance from a community that is content with the way things have always been done and does not see any need to change. Another character is Fred Vincy, a young man who has yet to develop a work ethic or a sense of responsibility. He has put all his hopes in the mere possibility of an inheritance and his recklessness with money gets him into trouble with his own family and with that of the girl he hopes one day to marry. Throughout and around their stories are those of  family members, local clergy and politicians, and of course, the neighbours.

Though there are some lighter moments, the overall tone of the novel is resigned, almost melancholy. Eliot has a sober outlook on life, marriage and a woman's place in both.  She says of Dorothea: "It had been easier ever since to quell emotion than incur the consequences of venting it.", a truth for many but sad nevertheless. The lot of women in society is a major theme, with Eliot questioning the barriers and restraints placed on them through her female characters. Those who speak up and take some control in their relationships are the ones who end up happiest in the story.

The authour's views on marriage are more realistic than pessimistic. Whereas many romantic novels end with the marriage of the main characters and an assumed happily ever after, Eliot takes us beyond that into the daily reality of married life and doesn't allow us to deceive ourselves about the difficulties and disappointments. The marriages in the novel aren't perfect by any means, but it does say something that as the novel ends, all of the long married couples still have deep affection for one another.

I enjoyed Eliot's characters because they are flawed like us, and their lives, like ours, are a messy mix of happiness and misery. One writer summed it up this way: "Her ambition was to create a portrait of the complexity of ordinary human life, quiet tragedy, petty character failings, small triumphs and quiet moments of dignity." She wanted to give her readers a story that resembled real life rather than just another fairy tale.

There were times when I found the writing tedious, like in Chapter 45 where one sentence alone had more than 100 words, 8 commas and 2 semi-colons. But then she would say something like this: "...concealment had been the habit of his life, and the impulse to confession had no power against the dread of a deeper humiliation.", and I'd be captivated again by her ability to express such a large concept in so few words. I love the language; it's elegant and intelligent and sometimes deeply moving, like this beautifully crafted sentence: "this was the consciousness that Bulstrode was withering under while he made his preparations for departing from Middlemarch, and going to end his stricken life in that sad refuge, the indifference of new faces". And besides all that, I'd much rather be a person "whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations" than just somebody who's easily led astray. I love Eliot's writing and find it pure joy to read.

Eliot expresses her views on society in the thoughts and dialogue of her characters, but there are times when she silences them completely and speaks directly to the reader as herself, and she doesn't pull any punches:
  • "As it is, the quickest of us walk about well padded with stupidity."
  • "Sane people did what their neighbors did so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them."
  • " ...the critical strictness of persons whose celestial intimacies seemed not to improve their domestic manners..."
After recounting in the story the many failings of Mrs. Cadwallader, she turns directly to the reader and says: "Let any lady who is inclined to be hard on Mrs. Cadwallader inquire into the comprehensiveness of her own beautiful views, and be quite sure that they afford accommodation for all the lives which have the honor to coexist with hers." Keeping in mind that it was she who painted the unkind picture of the woman in the first place, one wonders if she holds the reader to a higher standard than she does herself. Hmmm.

I was quite happy to find the "Finale" at the end. It would have been too disappointing to spend so much time with these characters, watching their stories unfold day by day, then simply turn away not knowing if any happiness was achieved in their lives. Eliot saves us from that by giving us a quick summary of where they go from here.

The final paragraph was a good summary of the whole point of the novel: nobody has a great life all the time, but the bit of good each one can do in the small space they occupy is worth something and does make a difference. And maybe Eliot is justifying her novel here. Maybe she's saying that the ordinary stories are worth telling, especially if they strengthen our inclination to do good in our own time and place. It was, I think, the perfect ending to a perfectly wonderful book.  


Jason C. said...

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years taunting me. It just seems so daunting in its length and dense prose. You convinced me to at least give it another shot. :)

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