THE NOVEL | THE TEXT
A Study of Provincial Life
1872 in eight volumes
Approx. 325,000 words
At the middle of the world
What's incredible about Middlemarch, George Eliot's masterwork, is how engrossing it is.
I mean, this is a novel that deals with issues of art, education reform, scholarly research, medical science and provincial British politics of the early nineteenth century—hardly the stuff of page-turning popularity.
Oh, yes, and also, working through all the complex intellectual narrative are several male-female relationships, which admittedly could account for some of the appeal. However, few, if any, work out happily in the main body of the story.
Yet Middlemarch is put together so carefully, with such craft and emotional precision, that any intelligent, mature reader may be completely drawn into the fictional world and deeply moved. Moved not by displays of sentiment, nor by overpowering intellectual content. But by it all. By the world created and experienced.
Most accounts of Middlemarch fail to capture the effect of the novel and fall into dull summaries of the complicated plot lines. For trying to describe what Middlemarch is about is like trying to explain what it's like to be alive. It's something that has to be engaged in.
Not to say anyone picking up Middlemarch will be immediately transported to another land. This is not escapist fantasy. As with many realistic works of this period, you have to engage with this novel to allow yourself to engage in it.
The key to reading and appreciating such works is to put aside your postmodern proclivities for a quick hit and to start by reading slowly. Authors of Eliot's time assumed they and their readers had the leisure to thoroughly develop their all-sided stories. Take a few deep breaths, settle in a comfortable chair and start by savouring the early background details, the initial ideas, the long rhythms of the language. If you amble through the early pages, then later, as the world of the novel becomes familiar, you can start flipping pages through the more exciting parts, gasping at the most dramatic pauses, plunging into melancholic reverie for the philosophic passages.... In short, you put yourself in the hands of the skilful storyteller to direct your speed and comprehension.
Especially in Middlemarch. For it is here that Eliot, more than any other writer I can think of, fashions a story that ranges through all parts of a society, touching on so many essential aspects of humans living, learning and loving together.
It's several stories actually, woven together in the fictional town of Middlemarch in the centre of England.
Affluent and idealistic young Dorothea works with the poor, aiming to do something great with her life. But when austere, elderly scholar Casaubon impresses her with his talk of a massive intellectual work he's undertaken, she decides to make helping him her noble project and she weds him. However, she finds herself losing faith in him and his work, while being drawn to his more passionate, younger and artistic cousin Ladislaw.... Meanwhile, Ladislaw befriends progressive young doctor Lydgate who has set up a struggling practice in town and marries Rosamund, the social-climbing daughter of the town's mayor and niece of local money man Bulstrode, who helps drive him into dire financial straits.... Meanwhile, Rosamund's brother Fred is trying to find his way in life after giving up a church career at the behest of his longtime girlfriend.... Meanwhile, Dorothea's uncle Mr. Brooke runs a bizarre campaign for election to parliament on the Reform ticket.... Meanwhile, Fred's expected benefactor Mr. Featherstone dies and there's a controversy over his will, bringing in his greedy relatives.... Meanwhile, there are hints of a dark secret in Bulstrode's past.... Mixups and misunderstandings occur, some of which are resolved and some of which are not.
See, I told you any kind of plot outline is pointless, at best giving the idea that Middlemarch is a soap opera. On the other hand, any collection of passages cited from the novel (witness the Great Lines quoted on this page) make it seem like a dry intellectual treatise, at best a novel of ideas.
Middlemarch is, in fact, a novel full of ideas, full of exploration and analysis. But Eliot has finally learned in this novel—after her experience with the weighty and largely unread Romola (1863), and with the politically preachy and slightly better received Felix Holt (1866)—how to meld thought, emotion and behaviour in a seamless work of art. Any quote from the book taken out of context may sound didactic, but at home in the novel it's part of a scene that is also revelatory of character and expressive of an emotional state.
I find it personally disturbing that the character I most disdain in Middlemarch, the cold, dogmatic and spiteful Casaubon, is also the one who elicits in me the greatest sympathy once he is exposed. In his striving to attain a lofty goal, he is no worse than Dorothea or Lydgate or others in Middlemarch, but his very loftiness, his inability to let his views be polluted by anyone else's thoughts—and perhaps anyone else's feelings—has made his lifework worthless. How many others like him are there among us today, who will eventually depart unlamented, without achieving their dreams, without making any lasting impact on those they leave behind, and never realizing why?
The character we most identify with is Dorothea, her own search being the thread we come back to through the various stories in Middlemarch. But she is hardly a paragon of virtue either. Or, rather, she is a paragon of virtue, but that is not always such a good thing. The author Eliot is a moralist, all right, but her morality recognizes that life presents ambiguous directions that no one set of rules can always resolve correctly. Dorothea retains her good heart and then, unlike Casaubon, muddles through, engaging with others, adapting to whatever resources are provided, and in the end she succeeds in a far different way than she had hoped at the novel's beginning. She leaves her mark on those around her—and following after her—in a manner Casaubon could never have envisioned.
Eliot's protagonist has been both praised and criticized from a feminist perspective. Despite her intelligence and strength of character, Dorothea too easily lets herself play second fiddle to men, it is said. At the end Dorothea has none of Eliot's own accomplishments to show for her noble intentions. That last line of the novel may be seen as a kind of booby prize: well, she may pass unrecognized, but on balance what's-her-name has had a positive effect in the world.
But not every woman can become George Eliot. Much as we'd like to read every author into his or her leading character, Eliot is beyond this typecasting. Middlemarch is no rigid novel of ideas in which every character represents a specified point of view, including one stick figure delivering the author's own sermons.
This really is a novel about someone named Dorothea, someone named Lydgate, a town called Middlemarch, and so on. Eliot's moral imperatives are imposed on no one and nothing. Instead, they arise out of the personalities and situations of the people in this environment. Middlemarch shows how people strive to behave within their given natural and social parameters.
For a writer whose name is linked with certain "isms", Eliot may disappoint some by not being more doctrinaire or pedagogical in Middlemarch. But in this possibly greatest of all English novels Eliot reveals the personal in the political (or in other big ideas). So all we "ists" can find and read about ourselves in the story.
THE NOVEL | THE TEXT