Oh my goodness, my History of the Novel class has been doling out 800-pagers one after another. Fortunately, Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is the final significant novel we have. It’s an 838-pager—and, honestly, not my favorite we’ve read this semester. Still, it has plenty of redeeming and noteworthy aspects: here we go. 🙂
Middlemarch is a fictional English town—one of those provincial, farming communities where the elite rule and class is paramount in connections. Gossip spreads (regardless of social status) quickly around its small perimeter. The novel focuses on three main characters: Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate, and Nicholas Bulstrode. Though the story centers largely around these three, their stories are intertwined with so many other figures that Eliot’s character count rivals Dickens’ in this work. All three of these figures marry, and have extended family in Middlemarch, too, so that happenings and relations pertain to the entire community. The abundance of names leads to a fair amount of narrative jumping among perspectives, which didn’t appeal to me much. However, character development through dialogue at least gives the reader something to hold onto for each one. Eventually, the narratives do loop around and link together in what is referred to as a social “web.”
Speaking of the narrator, she—I’m using that pronoun because of Mary Ann Evans—at times seems to ramble. Sometimes pages are chock-full of characterization; other times, it simply feels like there’s too much “telling” happening. By the middle, action picks up enough that this voice comes across less intrusive. Thus, the narrator is someone the reader may grow to like more with time. The positive side to this presence is that “she” aids the reader in knowing and caring about the characters, whose steady development wouldn’t be as strong otherwise.
One of the novel’s most poignant and apparent aspects is its social satire. The story explores implications of rich-poor relations, controversial marriage connections therein, financial reform, and other dynamics. There is an extensive examination of gossip throughout: the effect of words which sweep around a community on an individual reputation, whether these rumors are founded or not. The rate at which word passes allows for a drawing out of tension among members and groups of Middlemarch that I find effective. The book is dubbed by Evans as “A Study of Provincial Life,” and Evans certainly utilizes the small universe of Middlemarch (though scene setting and description mostly exist in the margins) to showcase the beauties and commonplace flaws of this lifestyle.
Other notes: While the book is long, Eliot utilizes the space well—though it isn’t my favorite, it’s an engaging novel that one won’t regret having explored afterwards. Plus, the achievement of reading that many pages will be a point of pride, too. 😉 The chapters and eight books are fairly concise, which helps that motivating sense that the reader is moving faster than perhaps is the case.
Before the wrap-up, here are some of my favorite quotes:
“The man was still in the making, as much as the Middlemarch doctor and immortal discoverer, and there were both virtues and faults capable of shrinking or expanding. The faults will not, I hope, be a reason for the withdrawal of your interest in him.” (149).
“‘I call it improper pride to let fools’ notions hinder you from doing a good action. There’s no sort of work,’ said Caleb, with fervour, putting out his hand and moving it up and down to mark his emphasis, ‘that could ever be done well, if you minded what fools say. You must have it inside you that your plan is right, and that plan you must follow.’” (410).
“It was a fine night, the sky was thick with stars, and Mr. Farebrother proposed that they should make a circuit to the old church by the London road.” (674).
“‘But, my dear Mrs. Casaubon,’ said Mr. Farebrother, smiling gently at her ardour, ‘character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.’” (734-735).
“Mr. Brooke was evidently in a state of nervous perturbation. When he had something painful to tell, it was usually his way to introduce it among a number of disjointed particulars, as if it were a medicine that would get a milder flavour by mixing.” (814).
A strong, faith-centered attribute of Middlemarch is its presentation of Christians—especially pastors—in the flawed light we have found to be valid in our own lives. While reputation casts falsely-negative (or –positive) light on people, the narrator introduces us to characters’ true integrities. Eventually, consequences of actions in the novel do come to fruition. It’s important to note, still, that the destinies of Eliot’s characters don’t always line up with their “dues.” This frankness is at the same time a reminder and a kind of admonition towards righteous living, because many of the righteous acts do end up receiving their earthly rewards. In all cases, eternal fairness is implied as a final result in the lives of everyone.