This piece continues a series of reviews highlighting highlighting philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s list of the best “novels of ideas”. George Eliot’s Middlemarch was the second entry on her list.
Reviewed in this essay: Middlemarch, George Eliot. Penguin Classics, 2002 (Originally published: 1871-1872 (with the first single volume set appearing in 1874 and further revisions following)).
The subtitle of Eliot’s Middlemarch, “A Study of Provincial Life”, succinctly demonstrates her breadth of ambition. She is not merely concerned with telling individual narratives, but also with examining their place in a particular society. By telling the story of three young women of slightly different classes, their suitors and the social milieu in which their relationships develop, Eliot is able to show the nuances of class in the 1830s. While Eliot lets a labourer state that both the personal and political narratives she tells leave things “all aloike to the poor man”, she focuses primarily on higher classes capable of instigating change. She thereby demonstrates the reciprocal influence of individual narrative and broader social trends.
Only Part 4 of Middlemarch is devoted to “Three Love Problems”, but one can understand the novel’s structure in light of three marriages. Its primary focus is Dorothea Brooke. The novel is bookended by comparisons between Brooke and Theresa of Avila, noting that Brooke, unlike Theresa, is not in a society that allows her to flourish. Dorothea, the novel’s Spinozan core, believes in the supremacy of knowledge and thinks she can find wisdom by marrying and assisting an elderly would-be scholar. In her eponymous section, Dorothea is visited by Dr. Lydgate, who quickly marries town beauty Rosamund Vincy. Both Dorothea and Rosamund are unhappy in their marriages. Only Mary Garth, a poor woman who waits for her beloved to find financial stability before marriage, does not regret her decision.
Thus presented, Middlemarch appears as a warning against rash marriages. As a man who was engaged for years before marriage, I did not need that lesson. It is the context of these relationships that nuances them and make for fascinating reading. The stories of Dorothea’s uncle’s political career, Lydgate’s medical practice, and Mr. Garth’s business are as important as the romances. The personal and the political are inextricably linked in Middlemarch.
Middlemarch can be a difficult place to enter. Middlemarch was long for its time, requiring a non-traditional 4 volume release. Further, Eliot presumes a great deal about the reader’s knowledge. Each of the novel’s 86 chapters is prefaced with short quotation (Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc.) or sayings (written by Eliot) introducing its theme. These are easier to follow than the offhand references to other literature throughout the text, which are, in turn, more familiar to the average reader than the offhand references to political matters that commonly mark time in the text. I recommend an edition with footnotes rather than endnotes. Regardless, reading explanatory notes is necessary. These points of context are not mere minutiae in the lives of the denizens of Middlemarch, but impact their lives. While one can mark time by following casual details about local occurrences, such as the birth of Celia Brooke’s baby, it is important to note how these markers are juxtaposed with political ones. Political actions constrain the actions of several characters, thwarting their expectations and engendering self-deception.
Middlemarch does not present its ideas as clearly as other novels of ideas. While peppered with high literary references (Dorothea’s first husband is mockingly compared to Aquinas, her second husband compares her to Dante’s Beatrice, etc.) and political discussions, the latter are rarely deep and it is often unclear who wins a particular debate. Instead, the novel’s strengths qua novel indirectly lead to more important concerns, such as the relationship between decision and determinism.
The novelist Eliot is empathetic to each of her characters. Her narrator carefully notes that s/he will spend time explaining certain activities from the view of each character. For all the follies committed in the novel, only Rosamund and her uncle Bulstrode appear uncharitable when their viewpoints are explicated. By understanding and explaining how and why people act, Eliot engenders empathy with one’s fellow man at the same time that she firmly establishes that one’s actions have social repercussions for which one is responsible. Middlemarch warns one not to be rash and to be prudent about one’s expectations, but also raises important points about the relationship between the personal and the political and the implications on responsibility therein.