Classic Literature / Highly Recommended

Review: Middlemarch, Part 2

I finished Middlemarch at last, and while I’m a little bit happy to move on to a new book, Middlemarch is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time!  It’s too big a novel for me to write any kind of comprehensive review, but here’s a summary and some brief thoughts (and see my earlier post for some background on Eliot).

The plot revolves around the residents of a small English town in the 1830s.  Eliot spends a lot of time describing the  politics and social mores of this town, but at the same time her characters are timeless: they struggle to have meaningful lives, to love each other, and to live up to their own moral codes.  The story includes a huge number of characters but Eliot focuses on the younger generation, probably because they are more easily changed by circumstances and influenced by others.

Dorothea Brooke is the main character.  She is compared to a saint from the very beginning of the book; yet I didn’t find her very likeable at first.  She is certainly an unusual woman for her time – she wants to manage her own affairs, study great works, manage property, design cabins for the less well-off, and carry out other philanthropic works.  (Fortunately she is also wealthy and beautiful so is able to do most of what she wants.)  She cares very little for her own happiness and has no interest in material possessions.  But she also has very little emotional maturity and no real understanding of how other people feel.

Without giving away too much of the plot, two marriages are at the center of this novel.  Dorothea marries Mr. Causabon, a dour old scholar, because he is more intelligent than the rest of the men in town, and she believes helping him with his studies will make her life meaningful.  At first the match doesn’t seem so bad, because at least Mr. Causabon treats Dorothea like an intelligent woman and not just decoration.  Dorothea puts her whole heart into the marriage, but they struggle as Dorothea becomes friends with Causabon’s young cousin Will Ladislaw, and Causabon becomes jealous and insecure.  Dorothea doesn’t understand jealousy because she never has an unfaithful thought.  I found their relationship terribly sad because Causabon becomes trapped in his internal fears about his health, his work, and Dorothea’s love.  Dorothea on the other hand wants a husband who is a partner and communicates with her. They enter into a cycle where he becomes more silent and she becomes more offended, until they mean very little to each other.

And just as clearly in the miserable light she saw her own and her husband’s solitude – how they walked apart so she was obligated to survey him.  If h had drawn her towards him, she would never have surveyed him – never said “Is he worth living for” but would have felt him simply a part of her own life… Was it her fault that she had believed in him – had believed in his worthiness? And what, exactly, was he? She was able enough to estimate him – she who waited on his glances with trembling, and shut her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits, that she might be petty enough to please him.

In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate.

Tersius Lydgate is a talented young doctor who wants to reform medicine and cares little about how much money he makes – until he marries Rosamund Vincy.  He finds her attractive but doesn’t mean to propose – then he gets caught up in a romantic moment and loses his head. Their marriage is doomed from the start because they have no idea what the other wants.  Lydgate is really looking for a woman like Dorothea, who will understand and support his work, but he is flattered by Rosamund’s flirtation.  Rosamund is primarily interested in Lydgate’s family status, and the fact that he is from outside Middlemarch, and his work quickly becomes boring to her.  (Unfortunately Lydgate’s work is his whole world.)  Rosamund is shallow and stubborn – but not completely unsympathetic.  Lydgate too is guilty of poor communication – he has financial problems that he doesn’t share with his wife until far too late; and when he does, he refuses to listen to any of her suggestions.  She then goes behind his back to try to fix their money problem, which as she points out, affects both of them equally.

The complexity of Eliot’s writing and storytelling is amazing.  My summary here is only one small part of the story – but I found myself most affected by the sadness of these characters who loved each other but struggled to make their marriages work.  And while much of this story is firmly rooted in the social, political, and religious issues of the early 1800s, the marital issues are every bit as relevant today.

And Dorothea’s character is truly inspiring. One of my favorite quotes in the book is when Dorothea is being scolded for living alone as a widow; and she says “I never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did.”  She always stands up for herself and always expresses her feelings as honestly as possible.

I also love how all of the younger characters evolve throughout the book – no one is a hopeless case.  I struggled a little with the Ladislaw character – when Dorothea first meets him we can see why she is so interested in him.  But as the story goes on he begins to seem more and more opportunistic (why is he spending so much time with Rosamund) or at least not very perceptive.  He doesn’t seem good enough for Dorothea – but then Dorothea learns to not expect perfection in others.

Dorothea makes those around her better people.  Lydgate, on the other hand, could have been a great person and saved many lives but he is brought down by those around him.  Throughout this book, the characters have to make choices about who they marry, work with, lend money to, and support politically, and all of these choices influence their lives. And those are choices we all make, every day.  Eliot suggests that time, place, and context matter – Dorothea wouldn’t be Dorothea in our time, she’d be someone different.  But a person who is good, honest, and strong, still has the power to change the lives of those around her.

“It always remains true that if we had been greater, circumstance would have been less strong against us.”

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