not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
Middlemarch stuns you. Not right away, mind, and not all at once – if anything, it starts out in an almost willfully perverse fashion, beginning where so many other 19th-century British novels end- with a wedding. Well, no, that would be too straightforward, we could immediately see what it was doing if it tried to run the same old formula in reverse. No, at first we’re introduced to two girls who seem to embody two different shades of unpleasant – one a self-righteous prude and the other a simpering half-wit – and we’re asked to follow them around for the next 120 pages, which by our taste is probably around 100 pages too long. At the end of these pages, the prude gets married, though it’s strange… that label seems to almost do her an injustice now, I mean, she’s still no fun, but we can maybe see why she is how she is, we can understand that she’s at least sincere, and we can tell that, while she and her sister maybe don’t like each other, they certainly do love each other. And they’re nothing compared to the people around them! Like Casaubon, who Dorothea (the prudish sister) marries, a ridiculous old man who is trying to create a great scholarly work, but has his own head so deeply pressed into his books that he can’t see that the whole thing is impenetrable scholarly twaddle, or the priggish Sir James, who is convinced that he loves Dorothea but has no problem settling for her sister Celia- a good thing, since he’s possibly the only character stupider than she is. The only other candidate is Mr. Brooke, the guardian of Celia and Dorothea, who is always going on about past adventures he never actually managed to have, and, when called upon to say something impressive, creates a flurry of half-statements that end before he gets to the part that would make them impressive. Unsurprisingly, he’s decided to run for Parliament, which he’s decided to keep a secret, except that everybody already knows because he can plan a subterfuge almost as well as he can complete a sentence, which he can’t do at all.
Except that Mr. Brooke is a kind and well-intentioned man, who raised his nieces without a second thought and is content to let them do what they want with their lives. And Sir James does seem to grow truly affectionate toward Celia, and is capable of noble gestures that help those around him, often at personal cost- despite his lack of self-awareness, he seems in most respects to be a true gentleman. Casaubon is mostly just insecure and ill-at-ease, and his work seems to be the result of a man who is quiet intelligent but never quite figured out how to put that intelligence into use, and is constantly afraid that someone is going to find out. He is more worthy of sympathy than scorn.
From the beginning, the English novel tried to be about everything. Daniel Defoe put Robinson Crusoe on an island in part so Crusoe could discover and re-create his home civilization on that island, figure out everything that he needs, and in doing so inform readers of all the small things that, when added together, gave them their way of life. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, one of the earliest and most-celebrated English novels, essentially started out as a sort of how-to guide: he wanted to show young women the proper way to behave in any situation, no matter how dire, so he created a young female protagonist and put her through every horrible situation he could think of, and then had her exhibit the proper behavior for that situation. Somewhere along the way, he realized he was writing a story.
So the typical English novel, if it is aware of its own history and is responding to that history (as most novels tend to do), is trying to throw its arms around the world, trying to represent every aspect of life in accurate and memorable detail. If it is not trying to go all around the world – if it is, like Jane Austen’s novels, trying to throw its arms around a specific and concentrated part of the world – it will try to represent that part as a microcosm of the larger society, and show how the most venial and commonplace characteristics of an individual may be expanded outward until they tell us something important about the great structures of society, or possibly even life itself. The novel is at heart a catalogue, a “book of everything,” and the British flavor represents this as a hierarchy of hierarchies through which the reader may pass with the freedom afforded by authorial control, an ability to finally take in the whole picture. And no other English novel – not that I’ve come across, anyway – manages to do this quite as well as George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
The primary method Middlemarch uses to create this feeling of totality, this feeling that we’re able not only to comprehend the full scope of life, but to experience it, is its narrator. The narrator is technically omniscient, able to move to the inside of any character’s head and tell us what they’re thinking, but this is also a narrator that comments on what the characters are thinking, judges the characters, sometimes has a laugh at their expense. It’s one of the reasons we’re able to bushwhack through those first 120 pages, because while we may not like any of the characters initially, we get the feeling we’re not alone in this. The narrator seems to regard them with a sideways sense of amusement, tempered by an affection that we eventually grow into. This is going to seem like a crazy comparison, but if you’ve ever seen the American version of The Office, the sense is kind of similar. Most of the characters seem terrible and are only watchable because we realize that they’re supposed to be, and we have some company in the form of the everyman characters who have to spend time with them. But over time we get to know them, and our scorn slowly turns to affection, or at least empathy. Much has been made of the lack of any divine presence in Middlemarch, and while there are several good reasons for this to be a novel without God (the primary one being that Eliot did not believe in God), I can’t shake the feeling that the reason we don’t see God here is because we’re seeing the world of the novel through His eyes.
Maybe I’m just thinking about The Office because Middlemarch contains a good deal of cringe humor. There’s one character in it named Fred Vincy, who seems to be a nice enough guy – he’s received education from a university, which makes him impressive in the eyes of most people – but he owes most of his status to circumstance, having been brought up in a family that was rich enough and ambitious enough to send him to university. The expected place out of university is the clergy, but Fred isn’t a great student and doesn’t really want to be a clergyman – in fact, the only thing his education seems to have done for him is to give him a higher opinion of himself than he really deserves, and introduced him to gentlemanly habits and pastimes that he does not have the income to afford. Fred has no idea how he’s going to get any money, but remains certain that he’ll “come into some” eventually, and makes vague plans for getting money that he never quite follows through on, though each time he makes a new plan, he feels confident enough to spend more money he doesn’t yet have. He’s never hugely in debt – he always tells himself that he knows gentlemen who are much further in debt than him – but he still owes money that he has no way of paying back, and he never quite seems to realize why this is a big deal.
All of the passages describing Fred’s money troubles are hilarious, yet I always wanted to turn away from them. They’re written cringe comedy, and the reason I found Fred’s so funny and so particularly painful is that my scenario somewhat mirrors his. Grad school has left me with a few debts I have difficulty repaying- nothing crazy, mind you, but I’m still in debt – and for some reason I can’t bring myself to do anything about it. I could take out a student loan to at least defer payment, I could ask for help from home, I could sell my books and movies and videogames, but I’m just not doing any of it. And sometimes I feel like I’m looking down at myself and saying “hey! Stop being such a damn idiot, Fred Vincy!” And I laugh at myself for being rather foolish, and decide I’m going to do something about it, and then never do. Which is exactly what Fred Vincy does. Who is George Eliot, and how is she able to read my mind when she’s been dead for over a hundred years?
The first part of that question is rhetorical, of course. Everyone knows who George Eliot was- at least, they know George Eliot was the pen name of a woman who wrote big novels. Most people seem to assume that she wrote under a male pen name because she was afraid she wouldn’t be taken seriously as a lady, but they have it wrong and backwards- everyone knew that Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, because Evans was considered a formidable scholar, thinker, and philosophic writer who used the name George Eliot when she wanted to write something that was more focused on being entertaining than being intellectually rigorous. Not that her novels weren’t intellectually rigorous – they were, even for her time – but she didn’t want her scholarly reputation getting dragged down to the same level as writers who made silly love stories, so she created a pen name to help her readers separate the two facets of her work.
There’s so much I haven’t written about in Middlemarch, and I find that every time I try to tackle some aspect of it, I have to refer to a third source- my life, TV shows, the English novel in general. It was all I could do to stop myself from starting this entry by explaining how much George Eliot’s literary worldview seems to inspire the Harry Potter books, and how much J.K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, owes to this one book- though you probably figured that out when you saw the New York Times book review that referred to it as Mugglemarch.
But that’s what a novel of Middlemarch‘s scope seems to do to me- my paper on it seemed scattered and distracted, my notes on it for my master’s exam seem incomplete and overlong at the same time, and when I think of it, more than anything else I am filled with a sensation that seems difficult to render into words. Middlemarch tries to throw its arms around the world, but I can’t get mine all the way around the book.