Thanks to Rebecca Mead and her memoir, My Life in Middlemarch, 2014 looks to be “The Year of Middlemarch.” This has created a cultural moment both wonderful and surreal—seeing commentary on Middlemarch at Vulture, reading comments about it on Twitter, and watching friends and acquaintances pick up the book and read it feels like a dream come true. That’s because George Eliot’s most famous novel has a hold on me so strong that whenever I encounter someone who didn’t care for the book, I feel as if they’ve revealed something inhuman. “Oh,” my instinct is to say. “I’m so sorry for you.”
All told, I’ve read Middlemarch three times in full, often flipped through it for comfort and for guidance, owned four copies (my favorite, the first copy, being sliced in half by a bookmark that a friend had given me), and recommended it to everyone I know repeatedly. But as I know all too well, getting people to read Middlemarch can be a difficult task. So here is my invitation and encouragement for you to let it get into your bones, too.
Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life,” and that’s about as accurate a summary of the contents as anybody is ever likely to give. Focusing on the inhabitants of Middlemarch, an English town, the book follows them as they struggle through their lives. While certain characters have greater importance than others, none are really the main character. Middlemarch doesn’t build toward a central plot or climax that involves its entire cast. Instead, every character in the book is given at least one chance to show how the world appears to them and to make a case for their actions, presenting a new center around which the novel can arrange itself. (In that sense, it is a novel that particularly rewards re-reading.)
There is no character in all of Middlemarch present in every storyline, and many of the characters never meet. What keeps Middlemarch together—what makes it a whole—is Eliot’s authorial commentary throughout on the events that occur, as she hovers over the story and draws out the shared questions and ambitions of the characters. Call it a shared condition, rather than a shared plot. The characters in the novel are driven by their need to discern how to do good and find their way to happiness—two goals Eliot seems to view both as equally important to human life and quite possibly mutually exclusive.
Middlemarch showcases the frightening and seeming-arbitrary side of human life: how difficult it is to judge a choice before it’s made, how the most important choices may be the ones you least expect, how getting any chance at all at what you want is pure luck, and how second chances are dispensed with no regard for your worthiness. If the book is frightening in its justice, it’s also frustrating in its mercies.
In fact, what seems to determine whether or not people get any mercy, for Eliot, is not something straightforward, like how well you bore up under your misfortune or the good you might do with a second chance or even your own particular virtue as a person. It’s whether or not someone else loves you enough to pull you through. And that’s a thought both comforting (if you have such a person) and devastating (if you don’t).
But what sets Middlemarch apart is its tense mixing of empathy—even, it has to be said, for extraordinarily awful people—with a moral clear-sightedness that lends the empathy greater depth because it comes with moral judgment. Middlemarch says that to understand another person isn’t to excuse them, and it places upon the reader an obligation to see others as they are and as they ought to be. With this obligation to see others clearly, however, come the twin possibilities of forgiveness and of love, something that can only exist when this kind of clarity is present. And with these come something else—a kind of transformative power with no clear name. You could call it grace, though if it is, it takes place only horizontally, between two people.
Before you can get a better sense of how that “grace” works in the novel, a little background on the characters is important. The book opens and closes with St. Theresa of Avila and her modern-day successor, Dorothea Brooke, an intense and intellectual woman who marries a man twice her age because she discerns in him a Milton-like greatness. Edward Casaubon, her husband, is dimly aware that he possesses no such greatness. He marries her anyway, vaguely hoping to find in her a new life, but instead finds himself unable to bear her affection.
The Dorothea plotline is often presented as Middlemarch’s main storyline, because of its prominent placement at the beginning and end of the book; and also because Dorothea is a compelling figure, good through and through and with a moral insight that leaves her figure lingering even over the pages where he is absent. But it doesn’t account for most of the novel, and doesn’t even interact with large portions of it. The book is also the story of a young, up-and-coming doctor named Lydgate, who establishes a practice in Middlemarch. Lydgate attracts—and is attracted by—the local beauty, an angelic blonde named Rosamund Vincy. Rosamund’s brother Fred pines for a woman named Mary Garth, his childhood friend, who is below his class but his moral superior. And also living in Middlemarch, almost unwillingly, is a young ne’er-do-well named Will Ladislaw, the disreputable nephew of Casaubon, who is so stricken by Dorothea he cannot bring himself to leave town. And even this rather tedious overview leaves out at least four major characters and a good chunk of the novel.
Will’s rejection of Rosamund is, well, harsh (he accuses her of having “dropped [him] into hell,” among other things). But Dorothea, heartbroken and startled by this encounter into admitting her own love for Will, doesn’t seek revenge or even an explanation. Instead, she returns again to Rosamund, still determined to reconcile her with her husband. This act of kindness, done without a hint of reproach, opens up something within Rosamund, and for the first time in her life she does something unselfishly good. She vindicates Will at the expense of herself.
Eliot’s depiction of Rosamund is delicate enough that the reader can understand many of her flaws are the results of her education and upbringing. Taught all her life to be a decorative object, and treated that way at home, Rosamund has never really been asked to be anything but beautiful. Nothing has ever been asked of her; she has never been treated as capable of it. Even Lydgate’s attempts to get her to behave differently take the form of reproaches and orders more than anything else. So Rosamund’s sudden rising to the occasion is almost miraculous. In the presence of Dorothea, who she only barely knows, Rosamund is transformed, and for a moment she and Dorothea understand each other perfectly.
It doesn’t last forever. It doesn’t even last all that long. But the suggestion is that that it ever happened may be enough; that to step beyond oneself, to be transformed in that way, even once in a life may itself be as much as we can expect. For people with a more clarity of vision and greatness of soul, more may be demanded; but just because Rosamund, shallow as she is, is not really capable of Dorothea’s depth does not mean this moment was in vain. And at any rate, as Eliot notes, even “the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
Middlemarch ends on a bittersweet note. It suggests that though the greatest life might be that dedicated to a higher cause, this life is not possible even for those well-suited to it. Almost every character who attempts a notable life in Middlemarch fails, some of them spectacularly. Instead, the best we may be able to achieve in life is to do good and find love within our small private spheres, even if we remain dimly conscious that we could have lived a life on some greater scale.
If, in the end, that is all we can really hope for from life—the opportunity to love somebody and be loved by them—Eliot leaves us with the understanding of how grateful we should be for even that opportunity, just as we should be grateful for the opportunity to be transformed, even if we can’t sustain that transformation forever.
To read Middlemarch is itself to be offered a kind of transformative experience. That is not to say reading Middlemarch will make you a better person. But it still extends to the reader its peculiar vision of human life, and therefore its own kind of judgment and forgiveness. Clear-sightedness means looking deep into the bitter side of human life, and resignation to the limited scope of even the best-lived life does not come easy. But without this vision, anything worthwhile becomes impossible.
The first time I read it, Middlemarch was like getting punched in the gut. Today, it’s still like getting punched in the gut, albeit for different reasons. It still hasn’t told me how my life is going to end. Back at that first reading, I assumed that Dorothea and I were both destined for a bad end. But one of us is doing all right, I think; and I guess I’ll continue reading Middlemarch until I find out about the other one. There are probably more elevated reasons to love a book; but if there are, I don’t care about them.