Friday, May 14, 2010

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch (Oxford World's Classics)I try to blog immediately after I read a book, but sometimes I'd just rather move on to the next book in the pile. Such has been the case lately, and I'm already starting a third book with two to blog about. Alas! So this will be short on comments (maybe!) and long on quotations.

I have heard that some consider Middlemarch to be the prime example of the modern/Victorian novel, and if you can make it through the 800+ pages, most readers would probably agree. I found it humorous to find the following notes in the margins of my library copy: "stopped at pg. 86 - will pick it up again when more in the mood" (facing the title page) and on page 86, "This book is a struggle to read!" To be honest, there were parts that I found a little tedious (mainly political discussions for which I had little understanding or background information), but the characters were diverse and true (as in, authentic) enough to keep me reading to the end. Though I am far from a literary critic, George Eliot's (Mary Ann Evans) characters and her many insights into human character are what make this novel great. In fact, I almost ran out of post-it tags in marking memorable passages.

If I were to describe it in one sentence, I would say that Middlemarch is one of the most honest and insightful portrayals of the ideals, delusions, deceptions, and disappointments of male/female relationships, particularly the before and after of courtship and marriage, that I have ever read. Human character has not changed much in 100+ years, and I identified with and found reflections of myself, for good and ill, in several of the characters. I might even venture to say that Middlemarch could be an ideal read-aloud (or listen to an audio version together) for engaged or married couples as it would provide so much material for discussions about one's expectations and misconceptions of marriage, hopefully with the outcome of capitalizing on the (few) successes and avoiding the pitfalls of these characters.

A few quotations of some of the gems I found therein:

"The fact is unalterable, that a fellow mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same." (186)

"'It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it' [Dorothea said] 'I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,' said Will, impetuously...'If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy - when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth's character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight - in art of in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralising over misery? I suspect you have some false belief in the virtues of misery, and want to make your life a martyrdom.'" (209)

"[Mrs. Garth] had sometimes taken pupils in a peripatetic fashion, making them follow her about in the kitchen with their book or slate. She thought it good for them to see that she could make an excellent lather while she corrected their blunders 'without looking,' - that a woman with her sleeves tucked up above her elbows might know all about the Subjunctive Mood or the Torrid Zone - that, in short, she might possess 'education' and other good things ending in 'tion,' and worthy to be pronounced emphatically, without being a useless doll." (230)

"Rosamond's discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband..." (717)

"'Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings. Even if we loved some one else better than - than those we were married to, it would be no use' - poor Dorothea, in her palpitating anxiety, could only seize her language brokenly - 'I mean, marriage drinks up all our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort of love. I know it may be very dear - but it murders our marriage - and then the marriage stays with us like a murder - and everything else is gone.'" (759)

And my favorite - a tribute to all wives and mothers:
"Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done..." (797)

Isn't it interesting that being "only" a wife and mother was criticized in the 1800's, when we tend to think that similar attitudes are unique to the past 50 years or so. The motives behind the criticism may have changed from that of social class structures to feminist ideas of equality and empowerment, but the denigration of the roles is nothing new.

It was fun to discuss this with my book club, since everyone had a favorite character and some different opinions about the storyline. I'm interested to know, if you have read Middlemarch, would you have played matchmaker differently if you had the same cast of characters to work with? Would things have been better (they certainly would have been different) if Dorothea had married __________(fill in the blank), or if Mary had taken the rector instead of Fred? How would you have arranged the marriages of Middlemarch if you had the sovereignty to do so?


Laura said...

Dorothea and the doctor - both were so kind and unselfish towards everyone else, especially to their own selfish spouses. Wouldn't it have been nice if they could each have enjoyed the kind of spouse each of them were?

A few years ago I read and discussed this with a friend online. We'd each read 100 pages per week, and email each other our thoughts and insights, questions, and comments on the weekend. It was a lot of fun!

hopeinbrazil said...

Yes, this book is worth the effort. It's one of the few books I can honestly say I'll re-read someday.

Carol in Oregon said...

I'm with Laura and Hope. In fact, I could say I love this book. It's funny, I forget the difficult parts, but after reading your review, I remembered!

This book is full of such great quotes. Thanks for sharing your favorites.

Carrie said...

I haven't read this. And I'm totally clueless about it. You beat me out! =)

As a side note - I sent you an e-mail requesting your address for something you won on my site. Can you e-mail me and I'll take care of that?


Page Turner said...

Laura ~ I agree with your "match." I wonder if Eliot was trying to portray the irony that social structures barred the 'right' people from marrying. I had thought about blogging as I read - it certainly would be fun to discuss or record impressions throuought the book.

Hope ~ I think I might re-read it sometime, but I have so many other books that I'd like to read that it will probably be a while before I return to it.

Carol ~ I hope my comments didn't give the impression that I didn't like Middlemarch because I do. It lacked a little in picturesque descriptions to which I am partial, but the character development completely made up for it!

Carrie ~ for an 800 page book, it really didn't take me that long to read. I'm sure you'd love it! And I won something - that's great!

Vintage Reading said...

I always felt sorry for Causabon, working on that never ending piece of academia! He didn't deserve Dorothea, though! Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the novel.

Corinne said...

I LOVED this. I tried it once and gave up but when I tried it again, I was astonished by the truth I found in it. Great review :)