52 in 52 Week 50: Middlemarch by George Eliot
Virginia Woolf once said that Middlemarch was, "the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." So true! It is not for those who have not seen a little bit of life and had the bright light of their "young idealism" dimmed due to unrealistic choices made in the height of that idealism and romantic fantasies of life. As Fantine from Les Miserables sings, "Life has killed the dream, I dream." I encourage all who have tried to read it to read it again as a "grown up"!
Invitation to the Classics writes:
Eliot called Middlemarch "this particular web" because a central feature of the novel is the complex interconnectedness of the people--and their choices--in the town of Middlemarch. All the major characters are related in some way. Even the minor characters, who gossip in the taverns and at work, influence the main players.
Middlemarch develops through two main plot lines--and multiple subplots. It follows the growth from egoism to altruism of two young, naive idealists, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. Eliot had originally planned two separate novels about Dorothea and Lydgate, which explains the novel's length-six to eight hundred pages, depending on the edition. (p.272)
I will not go into anymore details about the book, but do not let the length deter you. I think it is such a thoughtful book about our choices and the consequences of those choices, but even the ability to rise above those bad choices!
One of my favorite quotes from the novel:
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ills with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
So appropriate after our previous summer's family quest to find the gravestones of my ancestors in rural Pennsylvania!
Here are the questions from Invitation to the Classics:
1) Throughout Middlemarch Eliot emphasizes the need to make wise moral choices. Do her characters have the freedom to make choices?
2) Eliot believes that humans beings are the products of laws of inheritance. Can they have free will?
3) She insists that people should not allow "a fatalistic point of view to affect practice." Does she make her characters' freedom to choose believable in the context of a world determined by laws of social and biological inheritance?
4) Furthermore, can they as products of Darwinian struggle consciously and rationally choose to nurture feelings of sympathy rather than selfishness? Or do the characters' moral choices make an evolutionary ("survival of the fittest") model false?
I should add that although Eliot's fiction employs Christian ethics, she employs it as a form of goodness without God. Although she passionately embraced Christianity while a girl, she totally rejected it at twenty and was an avowed agnostic. She translated English editions of The Life of Jesus by D.F. Strauss and The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach, both books that denied the supernatural aspects of Jesus' life but embraced his morality and the principles he taught. Here is also a thoughtful analysis of Middlemarch in light of Darwinism:
5) Does Eliot's evolutionary model make the moral lessons too remote from a Christian notion of reality?
George Eliot, Charles Darwin, and Nineteenth Century Science
I will answer the questions below. Don't read them if you don't want plot spoilers! But before I start this, I heartily recommend the mini-series:
In the excellent Reader's Guide at the end of the DVD, the screenwriter, Andrew Davies, makes the point that for some, it will take watching the mini-series before reading the book because the book does read very slowly. I listened to the excellent reading by Kate Reading (She has the perfect name since she reads books to people.). It did help me to have pictures of the characters in my mind as I listened (I had to do that for the first book of Lord of the Rings too.). But as always, the books is so much better than the movie because you know what is going on in the characters' heads! A movie cannot convey this without having annoying voice-overs!
I am so glad I did not stop at the mini-series and did not listen to some of my friends. To each her own though! I loved it, even though it took me several years to do so! What is so funny is that we watched the mini-series because my husband, George, had read the book, and he loved it. Why didn't I just listen to him because we have very similar tastes in books!!!
By the way, the actors in this series are all pitch perfect, and you will see many favorite British actors if you are familiar with period dramas from across the pond. We especially loved seeing Colin Firth's younger brother, Jonathan Firth, in the roll of Fred Vincy. He is every bit as good an actor as his older brother! I want to see more of him!!! And of course, as always, Rufus Sewell is perfect in his role as Will Ladislaw. The actor who plays Casauban is just creepy, but that is as it should be! I haven't even mentioned Thomas Hardy who is brilliant as a fop!
Well, now I really will attempt to answer those questions, but DO NOT READ if you do not want spoilers:
1) Yes, her characters do have the freedom to make wise moral choices, but due to desperation, those in the lower classes, often do not always make them. Poaching is illegal, but what is a man to do to feed his family and are oppressed by the landed gentry who dominate them?
In many ways people, especially of the lower classes, do not have the freedom to make choices to rise above their class status. They are often at the mercy of their "betters." Fred Vincy makes bad choices and gets into debt, but what eventually saves him are others who "lift him" above his present station. Education and apprenticeships were a way to upward mobility but there was a ceiling to that mobility due to the division between the landed gentry and the working class.
2) Everyone has free will, but they are bound by the laws of inheritance. See answer above.
3) I think she does an excellent job of their freedom to choose believable. What hard moral choices! Was Jean Valjean in Les Miserables wrong in stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's family when they were starving? What is the bigger "moral" injustice? Do two wrongs necessarily make a right though? Did Rosamund really have the freedom to choose whomever she wanted as a life partner, or was she truly limited. She made a wiser choice for her social situation after Lydgate died at age 50.
4) Such a good question! I love how this makes me think. Hmmm. YES, we do have the power to consciously and rationally choose to nurture feelings of sympathy rather than selfishness! We are not animals. We have the potential for higher feelings of love. I also believe we have a God that through His Son gives us the Holy Spirit that infuses God's goodness in us SUPERNATURALLY so that we are capable of great love that causes us to perform "unhistoric acts" of good in the world!
5) No, they are not too remote. I believe that we are made in the image of God. Therefore, humans can reflect that image at times!