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Reading the Classics: MIDDLEMARCH

The occasion of this recent reread was a discussion of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. At the end one of the groups said, “Why is this considered a classic?”

The question took me by surprise. I don’t know why, since I’ve been asking myself that very same question about many of the so-called greats on various lists. But in my own perception, Middlemarch truly is a great novel, for its transcendant last paragraph–last line–alone. There is no better ending in any book I have ever read.

But first we have to get there, eh?

On this rereading, it occurred to me that that ending caps a novel that demonstrates among many other things the heroism of kindness.

At the very beginning, the Prelude cautions the reader about women who seek greatness in a man’s world, and how tragic and ineffective their lives often are. And yet the book that follows is not a lugubrious tragedy. In fact, in this reading I noticed just how much humor veins this polysemous work, not the least of which is conveyed through the trenchant irony of the narrative voice as ardent young Dorothea Brooke propels herself into a disastrous marriage while all her friends and neighbors look on, appalled.

Some of the funniest scenes in the book occur in the company of middle-aged Mrs. Cadwallader, whose sharp eyed observations about the varieties of human experience are usually spot on. She gives Dorothea’s marriage to the dry, scholarly Mr. Casaubon a year before it heads for shipwreck.

Celia, Dorothea’s younger sister, had until that time looked up to Dorothea, but afterwards she has lost her respect for her sister; in this reading it became clear to me that Celia has a better sense of what marriage is actually about than poor Dorothea, with her high-minded determination to subordinate herself dutifully to her husband’s superior mind.

In short, Dorothea discovers that her husband’s mind is not superior at all, and at the same time her husband discovers there is more vexation then bliss in being married to a beautiful young lady of intelligence and integrity, because she actually expects to be a wife instead of a dutiful, occasionally glimpsed private secretary.

This marriage is contrasted with the courtship and marriage of Tertius Lydgate–a forward-looking doctor–and Rosamond Vincy. These two do everything right according to the fashionable rules of society, but while managing to never understand the other in the slightest. Rosamond’s gently insidious narcissism is profoundly unsettling, the more because it is entirely believable. Who among us has not met at least one Rosamond?

Whereas Dorothea finally wakes up to all the possibilities of love, when it looks like it is too late to do anything about it, in meeting Casaubon’s volatile, idealistic young cousin Will Ladislaw. And in a stunning moment, takes the reins. All along the narrative voice tells us what everyone says and does, though sometime prefacing remarks by “I think.” So it has to have been a stunning moment to Victorian audiences when Dorothea and Ladislaw kiss, and the narrative voice cannot tell us who made the first move. In other words, shecould have! This was a really big deal during a time when the fashion was for fainting, passive, tiny-footed heroines.

It is not just young marriages we get a look at. We also find ourselves involved in middle-aged marriages, and with middle-aged people who would like to marry, or had once been.

But to say that this book, unlike George Eliot’s friend Mrs. Gaskell equally brilliant book Wives and Daughters, is confined to courtship and marriage would be to ignore half the book. It is also about a society in transition, and the laws of society are made by men, though women make many of the rules.

Though it is set in 1830, when medical reform was just beginning, it is surprising how much of a parallel exists today.

. . .for since professional practice chiefly consisted in giving a great many drugs, the public inferred that it might be better off with more drugs still, if they could be got cheaply, and hence swallowed large cubic measures of physic prescribed by unscrupulous ignorance . . .

To a certain extent, that sums up a problem of modern medicine, as envisioned by the mighty pharmaceuticals buzz.

The various strata of medical knowledge, ignorance, and myth provides both humor and harrowing tragedy. Then there are the political issues, which are easy enough to draw parallels to today. What we find in this novel are men of affairs in conflict, their characters complex, their motives a mix. After asking why this book is considered a classic, the discussion group member added, “Would it be considered a classic if it had been written by a man?”

Well, shoving aside the fact that most of the old list of classics were written by men, pretty much ignoring women’s contributions, the implication that this book might be included on the list because it was written by a woman (tokenism) I think is wrong. I think if anything it is on the list in spite of having been written by a woman.

Though there are many great male-authored novels of the period, I find for the most part that the female characters they create are stock, if not one-dimensional. Most of Dickens’ heroines are pathetically passive, suffering virginally as they wait for the hero to be awarded them at the end of his labors. Thackeray does better women, but they tend toward caricature. Trollope also does better than Dickens, but his women tend to be skewed because of his particular hobby horses.

But in Middlemarch, we get men and women who have equal agency in personal dynamics, even if women cannot work as physicians, or run for office. What the women do and think matters as much as what the men do and think.

Is it a perfect novel? I don’t know that there is any such thing. This one was remarkably innovative for its time, though it was set, as so many were, forty years in the past. One has only to read the reviews as the serial came out to find out what an effect it had on its audience, many of whom did not know that a woman’s hand gripped the pen.

It was written serially, which meant the early chapters were already in print when she wrote the end; though for the most part Eliot admirably avoids the coincidences and fateful-hand plottings of many of her peers, the entire third act turns on a coincidence, and I strongly suspect that had she time, she might have done a great deal of trimming, especially in the middle and latter third, to vast effect.

That said, because the narrator can see into all hearts and minds equally, we get a close look at the costs of social deflections, religious sophistry, political maneuvering, and personal failures. And yet it is not a novel of darkness. The observations of human complexity resonate enough with real experience enough to underscore to breathtaking effect the consequences of choices made out of faith, integrity, and kindness. Choices that can change the entire courses of lives, though the moment of decision is made in quietude, and the acting on it is not hailed by the multitudes.

In short, it is a wise, compassionate, sometimes funny and sometimes harrowing look at the range of human affairs, leaving us on a note of hope, with the conviction that life as it could be is actually possible for us all. One decision at a time.

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