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The Book Club

George Eliot’s Middlemarch

1. Middlemarch: A Study Of Provincial Life. George Eliot’s novel is, not surprisingly (primarily due to its considerable length and number of volumes, chapters), a huge undertaking. Even though the plot revolves around a few main characters – namely Dorothea Brooke, her husband Edward Casaubon and their counterparts Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate – it spans across a number of events and covers significant ground in terms of the thematic development. More importantly, on a personal note, my unfamiliarity with the historical context, specific Victorian developments and respective examples of “provincial life” drawn did make some of the inferences difficult to comprehend. These references (not in chronological order) include the Reform Bill, the dissolution of Parliament, the supposed threat of cholera et cetera. However, it is worth noting that these social and political changes do not take centre-stage or dominate the narrative; but are integrated with the lives of the characters in terms of how the events affect the latter’s life. Hence, the reader will gradually take these events as they come.

2. The pervasive narrative voice (I). The primary role of the narrator in “Middlemarch” is to relate and describe the events that revolve around the involved character; though there are specific instances in which the narrative voice becomes more pervasive, thereby augmenting propositions or introducing perspectives to the many conundrums. There is a fine balancing act between realism and idealism – especially with the awareness to lessen degrees of romanticising the female protagonists – and the narrator does a fine job in contrasting the actions and thoughts of the characters.

3. The pervasive narrative voice (II). The narrator is not specifically judgemental or critical of actions, and leaves the reader to judge for themselves as the narrator increases the character coverage in breadth and depth. The reader would realise that perceptions of characters are often formed by the bias and partiality in the words and deeds of the other characters. The narrative voice is also productive in terms of displaying the internal turmoil experienced by the characters; for instance, in the verbalising of Lydgate’s range of conflicted emotions – him feeling constantly “checkmated” by Rosamond – when dealing with issues.

4. Narrator’s description of Lydgate. “But he had deliberately incurred the hindrance, having made up his mind that it was now time for him to adorn his life with the graces of female companionship, to irradiate the gloom which fatigue was apt to hang over the intervals of studious labour with the play of female fancy, and to secure in this, his culminating age, the solace of female tendance for his declining years”. The reader – as a result of the narrator’s endeavours – feels an intense sense of connectedness to the assortment of characters; as well as their corresponding dispositions, be it positive or negative. The novel as a whole is definitely a great analysis of individual psyche.

5. Conversations and the command of dialogue. This is another function in which Eliot expertly uses to reveal the interactions between characters, as well as the subsequent interpretations of their actions and thoughts. Irate meetings between Vincy and Bulstrode, and Bulstrode and Lydgate show their relationships to be superficial and unhappy; and at the same time show that the individual characters are considerably selfish and self-absorbed. In contrast, genuine conversations between Farebrother and Mary, Dorothea and Rosamond (in the absence of significant expressions) reveal deep connections and common understandings; and generosity in human interactions.

6. Comprehending the usage of epigraphs (and the Saint Theresa prelude). The usage of epigraphs are extensively proliferated, with the inclusion one (usually penned anonymously – supposedly by Eliot herself – or attributed to literary figures such as Shakespeare and Donne) before each paragraph. In general, these epigraphs foreshadow the narrative in individual chapters – in terms of character development or thematic expansion – so progressively the reader would be challenged to make these inferences and links; many of which I did not manage to establish. I suppose the allusions to the famous literary figures premise “Middlemarch” more prominently in the canon of works; while the prelude of Saint Theresa – with her gung-ho and idealistic nature eventually curtailed by circumstances – is an obvious foreground before Dorothea’s introduction.

7. The deficiency and idealism in terms of expectations towards marriage. Casaubon wanted an administrative secretary and admirer; while Lydgate desired an admirer and presentable “trophy wife” (“of a decorative figure who can sing and play the piano and provide a soft cushion for her husband to rest on after work”). Dorothea, on the other hand, was looking for intellectual fulfilment and tangible engagement of her perceived abilities, while Rosamond craved stability and recognition in rank and status, especially with Lydgate’s familial connections and relationships. Ultimately, it seems obvious that there is a disjoint in terms of how men and women (of different learning and nature) perceive marriage; though simultaneously it is interesting to see how differently the two female protagonists react towards their unsatisfactory unions. This conflict in marriage is part of a bigger conundrum between appearance and reality; as well as on the topic of disillusionment. Fred Vincy is a clear product of self-disillusionment in the beginning of the novel; constantly hedging his chances and money to become wealthier through dishonest means, racking up debts, and having his sights set on the big inheritance and living life comfortably without completing his education, or working hard any way.

8. Tertius Lydgate. Lydgate is a secular medical man, presented to be committed to his craft and profession; more importantly, beginning in the narrative with the best intentions to modernise medical methods and do his best for his patients. Far from being engaged in a supposedly glamorous profession – as Rosamond constantly floods Lydgate with admonitions on his poor career choice – it is hard graft and work; especially in terms of the effort put in for the Hospital without expectations of monetary gains. Unfortunately, Lydgate is conflicted between his personal aspirations and circumstantial pressures. His academic talent is not complemented by important people skills and use of tact; elements that have been perceived to be vital for the inhabitants of Middlemarch. Lydgate’s gradual deterioration and fall from grace is made more believable from his domestic interactions with Rosamond (as he is constantly made to bow under the yoke), which reveals his traits of commonness beyond the sphere of superiority as a medical researcher. His future is a sad result of him being a victim of circumstances, as well as the culmination of his personal weaknesses and deference to his wife’s desires.

9. Dorothea and the role of women. Critics have pointed out that motherhood had been left out on purpose by Eliot to further the argument on the role of the women within and beyond the household. Lydgate and Casaubon are critical in terms of their ideals of womanhood; though Dorothea does play a decisive role to reflect her significance as an individual when she makes the decision to visit Rosamond after her jealously over the perceive sexual relation between Will Ladislaw and Rosamond. She spurs notions of material comfort and conscientiously embarks on projects that are for the common good without expectations of return. Celia Brooke, Dorothea’s sister, does oppose this sense of idealism. Rosamond, on the other hand, presents a different form of perseverance and doggedness for her personal wishes against her husband; while Mary Garth’s constancy and practicality – and patient methodologies towards Fred – presents another dimension in the interpretation of women in the novel.

10. “People are almost always better than their neighbours think they are. Dorothea delivers the most empathic statement in the novel; which puts into perspective how people are often too quick to judge or denounce their counterparts. It aptly summarises the degree of suspicions between individuals in “Middlemarch”, as well as the incompatibility between personal ambitions and standardised social expectations.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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