Saturday, February 11, 2012

Middlemarch by George Eliot, Part I

In a small town, egotistical pride blinds people's judgement, leading them to unhappiness

Well, this book took me on a journey. A journey of eventual understanding and education (a bit like the theme of the novel). The other classics I’ve read invaded my imagination quickly, filling my brain with thoughts of the book.  Their stories were all I could think about. Middlemarch was different, very tough going at first, for the first half of the book, actually, as Eliot created this world, family by family, plot point by plot point.  The sentences needed to be savored and intellectually decoded versus the instant rush of emotion in the other classics.  I felt like I was tasked with eating 100 bowls of unsweetened oatmeal.  I was beset by anxiety – oh jeez I have to get through 800 pages! I read only one book at a time and Middlemarch was so offputting that I was reading 3 pages a day which meant 2012 would be devoted to single novel. Uh oh, I thought, you gonna pull the ripcord on Middlemarch? I felt only profound boredom and a cold admiration for the technique – the multiplicity of characters, the plotting, the social analysis, and the variety of scenes and tones. I sensed the message was, They’re all fools every one of them. Dorothea’s a fool, Casaubon’s a fool, Mr. Brooke is a fool, Lydgate is a fool. I got it. THEY ARE ALL FOOLS.

But I gave the book one last shot on a flight from Spokane to Boise to Oakland to Burbank, assisted by Southwest’s terrible red wine. Something happened on that flight. I started to get it. The novel revolved around Dorothea. Her tragedy is the glue holding the scenes together. Because once she realizes she was deluded by her egoism, her foolish idealism, she still tries. She still tries to help. There are no villains here.

It’s a meditation on marriage, of course, and a careful picture of humanity, an observation of society. Dorothea offers Casaubon the beautiful gift of herself, only he’s too afraid and egotistical to accept it. He is afraid of being judged as he is avoiding the fact that his Key to All Mythologies is a folly. Dorothea is the last one to figure that out. Like many stories in the novel, it’s tragic and funny at the same time.

Next week: Marriages in Middlemarch.

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