I first read Middlemarch when I was 17. It was assigned in the Telluride Association Summer Program at Cornell, and I think I loved it because it was the first time that I had read any book in a seminar, with real college professors and many hours spent on a single text. It was my first experience with close reading and with the application of challenging theory to literature. Gradually, as the years passed, I forgot most of the content of the novel–even the plot. I used to joke that it had retired undefeated as my favorite novel. But then, about a month ago, I opened it casually to remind myself of something near the beginning, and I found myself unable to put it down. I finished the very same copy that I had read almost a quarter century ago.
What is Middlemarch? It is a great feminist text, an indictment of the structure of relations between men and women that is not an indictment of the men as individuals. Patriarchy stunts the lives of male and female characters alike; and women often actively promote it. (Mrs. Garth, for example, is consciously raising her son Ben to be superior to her daughter Letty, and she is able to do that because she has such strong ideas and such control of her household that her husband could not object.) The “imperfect social state” of patriarchy prevents Dorothea from achieving public greatness and reduces her to “liv[ing] faithfully a hidden life.”
It is a superbly constructed story. Henry James denied that Middlemarch was “an organized, moulded, balanced composition, gratifying the reader with a sense of design and construction.” It was, he wrote, “a treasure-house of details, but … an indifferent whole.” That was nonsense, and I suspect he was jealous. Five or six plots are carried throughout, intertwining and building pressure on the characters until the denouement reveals Dorothea’s true heroism. Although the novel is not overburdened with coincidences or artifice, one could spend months finding careful symmetries and parallels. Take, for example, the brief visit of Dorothea to Rosamond’s house that opens Book V. This is the first time that two major story lines intersect. The women are foils, different in class, character, and appearance. Their first encounter, in the presence of a man who becomes an object of jealousy, causes all three to see themselves differently, in ways that reverberate until the end. This episode is just one example of how skillfully the whole work is constructed.
It is a grown-up’s novel. “Marriage,” says the narrator, “has been the bourne of so many narratives.” A bourne is a brook, and many romantic stories are streams flowing toward the inevitable wedding, when the ingenues, having overcome obstacles to their love, are united in a timeless happily-ever-after. In Middlemarch, however, two of the three essential weddings come near the beginning, and then the plot really begins. The novel is not cynical about marriage, nor critical of it. But it refuses to dwell only on the moment of falling in love or becoming united. Lives go on, and going on is hard.
It is a novel that is remarkably clear-sighted about economics. “I will learn what everything costs,” Dorothea exclaims at a crucial moment. Debts and inheritances figure strongly in the plot. There is an important auction. People confuse “use value” with “exchange value” (what things are really worth versus what they capture in a market). Because of the social structure of a market, it is not easy to be moral. “Spending money so as not to injure one’s neighbours” is a challenge.
It is a novel about a large network. I wish I had marked each significant character on a piece of paper and drawn a line between them whenever they had some “connection” (which is an important word in the text). The result would be a complex web with at least 50 nodes and hundreds of connections, which often link the gentry to the riffraff in just a few steps. News and gossip travel with fateful effects along this network. In many cases, the parties who are linked directly do not understand one another. In fact ….
It is a novel about misunderstanding other people; and the misunderstandings arise for a huge variety of moral, psychological, and social reasons. People misread others out of vanity, fear, naivete, and even because of admirable faith. Middlemarch would be one kind of novel if the omniscient narrator patronized these characters for their all-to-human failure to know one another. But the third-person omniscient narrative voice is occasionally broken by a first-person acknowledgment of uncertainty. The narrator will remark that he (or she?) doesn’t know what a particular character was thinking. This must be a deliberate reminder that understanding other human beings is never possible.
The narrator also occasionally expresses an explicit judgment or even interrupts the narration irritably. These outbursts are comic surprises because the rest of the narration is so objective. For instance, I love this beginning of chapter XXIX: “One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea–but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect.”
Perhaps the most prevalent reason for misunderstanding in Middlemarch is egoism, which comes in many forms, some contemptible and some fully excusable. Egoism is relevant to the idea of a network, because any node can be taken as the center and all the other nodes can be seen as arrayed around it in various degrees of separation. There is a famous and very rich passage in Middlemarch about our propensity to see ourselves as the central node:
An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass [mirror] or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent …
The narrator supplies a heartbreaking reason that we must place ourselves at the center of the network, act egoistically, and fail to understand one another fully. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” Our “stupidity” is essential for our survival; none of us could bear to comprehend the suffering of everyone else.
Finally, Middlemarch is, I suppose, a comedy. It has jokes, a lightness of tone, and a satisfying conclusion that I would not call tragic. Most of the loose ends are tied up. And yet there is a powerful sense of the weight of norms and the inertia of history. We are left with a deep question: whether Dorothea’s life has turned out to be a good one.
[Spoiler warning: I can’t address this question without giving away the conclusion.]