This is a book that can make you feel wonderful about being a nobody. That may not sound like it is necessarily an endorsement, but it is — it’s an excellent book about small town life. Here’s an overview:
Author: George Eliot
Rating (of 5): ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Year published: 1983
The full name of the book is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life — and indeed it is. The book focuses on the surprisingly dramatic goings-on in the small English town of Middlemarch. The book follows a series of new marriages, most of which are inherently incompatible. Dorothea is the focal figure, frequently depicted as saintly but more importantly as a saint without the circumstantial coincidences leading to the fame of sainthood. Her perpetual interest in doing what is “right and best” makes it intriguing to imagine what she would have been in a less restricting time. After all, although her verve and passion finds marital choices and excessive religiosity as its primary outlets, in a more advanced time she could have been a civil rights lawyer, a feminist leader, or a doctor. We are continually reminded that in another time and place she could have been something entirely different: “For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone” (799). Although this depiction of commoners as everyday saints could be considered optimistic in some sense, because of her depictions of marriages throughout the book, Eliot is generally considered much darker than other female Victorian novelists. The route to love is convoluted, the characters deeply flawed, and the ending — while satisfactory — not entirely happy.
Eliot was loathe to adhere to the conventions of Victorian women’s literature, and thus the book can, not surprisingly, be viewed as a proto-feminist work, and not just in its opposition to the yoke of marriage. Even the superficial nature of Rosamund’s character seems a criticism of the male societal expectations that made her what she is. Overall, the book is not anti-love, but it is certainly anti-marriage (in the Victorian lifelong yoking sense of the term), as even the ultimate marriage toward which the whole book moves has significant drawbacks. Interestingly, the relationships that are the most successful are those in which the woman has some say, such as with Fred and Mary and with Mary’s parents, the Garths. Even one of the less successful relationships, the one between Lydgate and Rosamond, becomes much less of a failure toward the very end when Rosamond starts to have more say in things.
I love the depth of the characters as well as the fact that they are all so flawed in such realistic ways. Fred was one of my favorites; I naturally sympathized with him because he keeps screwing up again and again, but he’s actually smart and deeply sincere. Despite his many mistakes that could easily be demonized by those who don’t know him, he’s actually a good guy. Generally, Eliot seems to be very sympathetic to the fact that people make mistakes and that mistakes — even repeated mistakes — do not necessarily signify a bad person. Even the saintly main character, Dorothea, makes mistakes for which Eliot is willing to forgive. The narrator observes, “Those who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been a ‘nice woman,’ else she would not have married either the one or the other. Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful.” Nonetheless, the narrator takes great pains to explain how good-hearted she is.
I was initially sympathetic toward Lydgate for his noble medical ideals, although when it became apparent that he was so scientific that he essentially lacked the ability to sympathize with others’ emotions, I began to like him less and less. I don’t always feel compelled to side with female characters, but in this book I certainly did — which is interesting because the female characters are each visibly flawed just as much as the male ones, yet somehow more sympathetic.
Unfortunately, with a book of this depth and length, it’s very difficult to offer a summary reaction that does justice to the text without becoming a weighty tome in and of itself — and I’ve certainly failed to do much justice here. Suffice it say, this is definitely in the “Victorian novels I loved” category. I don’t like some Victorian works (I hated Pride and Prejudice) but I absolutely love others (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre) and this definitely goes in the latter group, not the former.