Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Man, I have not written about anything nonbiblical I have read in a long time. I was on a little bit of a George Eliot kick for a while: we read Silas Marner in a course I was taking on 19th-century literature, and then I read Daniel Deronda to be a bit in the loop on my parents’ book group, but the word was that Middlemarch was really her magnum opus, so that ws next on the list.

So: Middlemarch, like Daniel Deronda is a pretty wide story with lots of characters and a bit of indeterminacy about the identity of its protagonist: Dorothea is put forward pretty early as a focus character, but Lydgate emerges pretty early on in the narrative as sharing near-equal prominence; Fred Vincy also gets a pretty hefty pagecount on his own story. Fortunately, in spite of this structural similarity, in this book Eliot manages to maintain a sense of both threads’ relevance much better than in Daniel Deronda. Also, unlike in Daniel Deronda, we’re spared the irritation of having one of our characters be a moral exemplar.

In fact, Dorothea and Lydgate (and to a lesser extent Mary Garth) feel in some ways like inversions of the Voice of Moral Clarity: both have very specific, strong moral views which ultimately lead them to the brink of disaster. Dorothea’s moral absolutism in particular feels tragicomic: from our very first introduction to here she comes across as entirely too high-minded for words, and that’s conveyed in a way that’s played for laughs, but this attitude of hers very quickly becomes the lynchpin of her doomed fidelity towards the equally high-minded Casaubon. Lydgate is a bit harder to suss out, because his tragedy and his ideology are somewhat more distant from each other. His idealism is the cause of his lack of worldly success, but like Dorothea his marriage seems to be the real misfortune (and unlike Dorothea his marriage doesn’t seem to serve his ideals at all).

In spite of all this tragedy, and a fair amount of ribbing of its sillier inhabitants (mostly Dorothea, and some for the luckless Fred Vancy), Middlemarch feels a fundamentally sweet and optimistic story. There’s never too much of a doubt that truth will out and virtue prevail, and there’s a solid core of sympathetic characters who generally keep the reader from ever feeling that this rural society is really as vicious as it sometimes looks.

In the aforementioned 19th-century literature class, Eliot stood out as something of an idiosyncrasy which was identified as “social realism”. It’s easy to lump her in with satirists like Austen, but her observation of society feels both more and less pointed—more pointed because there isn’t nearly as much insulating wit and absurdity between the reader and the horrible things occasionally happening to the characters; less pointed because ultimately there is an overall feel to her work that things will and must come out right and that people are basically good.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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