Book review: Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot. Highly recommended.

It seems that it’s nearly impossible to talk about Middlemarch without mentioning its breadth and scope. The irony is that the entire novel takes place within the confines of this small community and within the sometimes-small minds of its various citizens.

Although a vast number of characters populate Middlemarch and its environs, each who speaks has a distinctive voice, yet does not fall into being mere type only. The horse dealer sounds like a horse dealer — but one with a particular background and perspective. The setting itself represents every type of town, suburb, village, or neighborhood where you’ll find the complacent, the critical, the aspiring, the intellectual, the earthy, the wealthy, the poor, and the worker in between. As with many English novels, the setting, in this case Middlemarch, becomes as much a central character as any other, whether it’s Dorothea or Lydgate.

The tapestry Eliot weaves is complex; one character’s actions can affect the lives of others he or she may rarely meet, while the unknown behavior and works of Bulstrode in his youth decades ago eventually touch nearly all.

How the characters come together is sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle. Dorothy’s interest in Causabon, although a puzzle to her friends and family, is painted in broad strokes to the reader; her later interest in Will Ladislaw, grows somewhat more delicately if based in the same altruistic roots. Mary Garth and Fred Vincy have, in their way, come together in their childhoods; they are still struggling with mutually agreeable terms that will allow both to acknowledge the love and affection that are already there. Lydgate and Rosamond are both more of a puzzle and less of one — a case of two opposed personalities with opposing views, opposing goals, and opposing personalities drawn together by that most capricious of matchmakers, proximity and circumstance, to form a union that will frustrate both and satisfy neither.

Against the background of these four sometimes difficult relationships (Dorothea and Causabon with its lack of love or eros, Dorothea and Will with the barriers set by Causabon’s will and that of the Middlemarch society who frown on Will and Dorothea’s association with him, Fred and Mary with her imposed restrictions to set him on the correct course in life before she can make a commitment to him, and Lydgate and Rosamond with their diametrical oppositions) is the long, happy marriage of Nicholas Bulstrode and his Vincy wife Harriet. Unlike the others, there are no visible barriers to their happiness, and they are happy as a couple — except for the events in Bulstrode’s past that haunt him in the back of his mind and then at the front with the appearance of Raffles. The marriage survives the ensuing scandal, but the individuals — Nicholas and Harriet — become poor shadow of their former selves.

It is in a town like Middlemarch that a woman like Dorothea will find it impossible to find approbation for her plans and Bulstrode will find the antagonism of those who have come to terms with their own worldly desires. It is in a town like Middlemarch that merely the raving words of a delirium tremens-afflicted Raffles can upset the respectable work of a respectable lifetime. The downfall of Bulstrode validates the town and its modernizing secular culture.

Middlemarch is a novel of insight into personality, motivations, social behaviours, and history. In the end, even the happiest characters have failed at most if not all of their youthful aspirations and have become variations on the Middlemarch theme — husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, day-to-day toilers rather than dreamers and achievers. Middlemarch is Everytown, where you will find an example or two of Everyone — and their dreams or lack thereof.

If you intend to glean the utmost from it, begin with an annotated, critical edition; while Eliot enjoyed a high enough level of erudition to reference the current events of 1830s England along with mythology, religion, quotations, and developments in science and medicine, most of us today cannot begin to follow them without assistance. Knowledge of these references will enrich the rich text of a rich mind.

1 September 2002
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf


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