Book Review: Middlemarch
Middlemarch, by George Eliot, is considered by many to be the greatest English novel ever written, and I can’t say I take issue with this sweeping statement. It is a masterful work, but this high praise, these assertions of greatness, do not need to be something that scares us away from reading a book like Middlemarch. Great novels such as this, especially when they are removed from us by past, may seem more difficult or like they require too much effort. However, they are not inaccessible; in fact, Middlemarch is very enjoyable to read, and the efforts that are put into reading and appreciating the book will be richly rewarded.
At the centre of Middlemarch are the issues of progress and change. Middlemarch itself is a provincial town in England, and the book is set just before the first Reform Bill, which passed in 1832. Along with the Reform Bill came many changes in the law and in the way that things were done and understood, but in the novel the possibility of such changes is regarded with suspicion by many of the townspeople. Yet Middlemarch, the novel, is not merely focused on the political tension preceding change, but on relationships, on love and on marriage.
The two main characters in the novel are Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate (very memorable names, I would say). What strikes the reader first about Dorothea is her zealousness, her intense desire for the pious and the good, leading to a severe denial of self. Lydgate is a doctor who is new to Middlemarch, and his noble ambitions are impeded by the unfamiliarity of his new medical ideas. Dorothea’s early, imprudent marriage to a cold and middle-aged intellectual, and Lydgate’s marriage to a woman whom he thinks will provide the necessary happiness and structure to enhance his work, both lead to struggle and subsequent alienation.
In reading this book, I was really fascinated by Eliot’s depiction of these two relationships in particular, and by the depiction of marriages of other minor characters. There is a plethora of books and movies, especially in our current age, exploring the familiar “will they-won’t they” storyline. Two people are portrayed as they begin to feel an attraction for one another, and as necessary complications and misunderstandings ensue. More often than not, these depictions end when the two express their mutual love or enter into a relationship. This is the “end” instead of the beginning, the beginning of another chapter: of marriage.
And yet this is precisely what Eliot does such a masterful job of exploring in Middlemarch. The relationship between husband and wife is explored not only in what they say to each other, but also in what they do not say. Sometimes, these unspoken words are more powerful than the ones that take external shape. The book, in my mind, probes the depths of language: its great potential as well as its failures and ultimate limitations.
However, the relationships in the novel and the resulting failure or success of communication and defeat or triumph of love revolve around the concept of sacrifice. Alienation occurs when a character becomes so engulfed in their own individual troubles, in their desires and ambitions, that they are unable to bridge the gap between their self and that of the other person. Ordinary (and sometimes out of the ordinary) choices, as well as uncontrollable circumstances, bring about suffering for some of the characters. Whereas Lydgate desires to share his suffering with his wife and work together, in good and in bad, towards their common future, her unwillingness to sacrifice herself for him leads to both of their unhappiness and the disconnect between them. On the other hand, a different character in the novel at one point finds himself facing the dire ramifications of bad decisions he made earlier in life. His fears of abandonment and rejection upon telling his wife of his past lead to one of the most beautiful passages in the entire book:
“He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, ‘I know’: and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side. They could not yet speak to each other of the shame which she was bearing with him, or of the acts which had brought it down on them. His confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent” (Eliot, Chapter 74).
Here, the wife, although blameless in the situation, is willing to sacrifice her reputation, her pride, her comfort, for her husband, for the love to which she promised to remain “faithful” to in marriage. In this gift of self to another (perhaps unearned, perhaps not in her “individual” best interest), I think Eliot shows us the truest and most beautiful depiction of marriage, not as it always is, but as it was intended, “for better or for worse.”
The novel, told in the third person omniscient, flits through the thoughts of many different characters. In doing so, it does not seek to condemn or to judge these characters for their failings, their weaknesses, their poor choices. Rather, it strives to understand, to love and to empathize with them. This reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote I particularly like: “We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand.” And it is this that I think George Eliot does so well (that is, understand), and which allows her work and her characters to transcend the constrictions of a single historical period. As I see it, there are no villains or heroes in the novel; there are humans: imperfect, broken, and yet beautiful.
Although Middlemarch is a very long novel, and was written over a century ago, I think it has much to offer each of us today. I hope you’ll give it a chance, because it is a book that deserves to be read, reread, discussed, and pondered deeply.