George Eliot began writing her masterpiece, Middlemarch, in August 1869. To commemorate the occasion, Nancy Carr, a senior editor at Great Books, discusses the novel’s lasting significance. Nancy earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and has led a number of week-long discussion seminars on Middlemarch. She would like to give particular thanks to the participants in this summer’s Classical Pursuits seminar in Toronto, whose insights into the book helped her see it in a new way.
Few books speak across the centuries with the emotional and intellectual power of Middlemarch. While the novel immerses us deeply in the life of its characters, the narrator’s voice is always pointing beyond them to our own lives. Of Eliot’s many great achievements in Middlemarch, the narrator’s voice is incomparably the greatest.
Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” meaning in part that it resists the neatness of the end-with-a-wedding plot and explores the complexities of adult life. And if Middlemarch were nothing but its characters and plot, it would still be a riveting tale and a vivid portrait of provincial life in 1830s England. Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate, Mary Garth, Camden Farebrother, Rosamund Vincy Edward Casaubon—rarely has a novel had such an array of compelling characters. Only Dickens rivals Eliot’s ability to craft multiple plots that comment on each other and build up a portrait of a whole world. But it is Eliot’s narrator who elevates character and plot, requiring that readers become more than spectators. Middlemarch’s narrator compels us to consider what the characters and their fates reveal about our own lives and responsibilities.
Eliot’s narrator continuously pulls us back from easy judgments about the characters and their actions. For example, when the young, idealistic Dorothea falls for the dry and self-involved scholar Casuabon, most readers feel with the residents of Middlemarch that Causabon is to be condemned for pursuing such a match. But after giving us the town’s reaction, the narrator invites us to pause and look at the situation from Casuabon’s perspective:
Suppose we turn from the outside estimates of a man, to wonder, with keener interest, what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings or capacity; with what hindrances he is carrying on his daily labours; what fading of hopes, or what deeper fixity of self-delusion the years are marking off within him; and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which will one day be too heavy for him, and bring his heart to its final pause . . . . Mr. Casaubon, too, was the center of his own world; if he was liable to think that others were providentially made for him, and especially to consider them in the light of their fitness for the author of a “Key to All Mythologies,” this trait is not quite alien to us, and, like the other mendicant hopes of mortals, claims some of our pity. (54)
That mention of “us” is the key moment in the passage. Just when we think we can sum up or condemn Casaubon, the narrator uses the plural first person to implicate us in the same limitation. Eliot’s narrator uses the first person infrequently, and when “us,” “we,” or “I” are used, the point at issue is always the way readers react to people in our own lives.
Here is another example of the narrator’s use of first person, this one from a chapter detailing the young doctor Lydgate’s ambitions to change medical practice:
We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her. Is it due to an excess of poetry or of stupidity that we are never weary of describing what King James called a woman’s “makdom and her fairness,” never weary of listening to the twanging of the old Troubadour strings, and are comparatively uninterested in that other kind of “makdom and fairnesse” which must be wooed with industruious thought and patient renunciation of small desires? In the story of this passion, too, the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting. And not seldom the catastrophe is bound up with that other passion, sung by the Troubadours. For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there are always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly; you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions . . . .
Eliot is doing several things in this passage. First, the narrator argues that the story of vocation is as important as that of romance, even though the progress of work is often ignored in novels. The narrator also foreshadows Lydgate’s eventual failure by speaking of the “catastrophe” that often attends such ambitions and links that failure to that of a whole category of men who once meant to do good in the world. Finally, the narrator requires us to consider how “you and I” may have contributed toward such downfalls.
It is through the character of Dorothea that Eliot most fully explores the question of how we might affect others’ lives for good. Again and again the narrator describes Dorothea’s inner struggles as she progresses from a naïve girl to a mature woman who is able to put her own sorrows into perspective and extend sympathy and help to others. Towards the end of the novel, Dorothea spends a long night crying for her lost hopes, but the morning finds her doing the kind of strenuous inner work Eliot shows us is needed if we are to be fully realized people:
She began to live through that yesterday morning deliberately again, forcing herself to dwell on every detail and its possible meaning. Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only? She forced herself to think of it as bound up with another woman’s life . . . . All the active thought with which she had been before representing to herself the trials of Lydgate’s lot, and this young marriage union which, like her own, seemed to have its hidden as well as evident troubles—all this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance. She said to her own irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful, instead of driving her back from effort.
And what sort of crisis might not this be in three lives whose contact with hers laid an obligation on her as if they had been suppliants bearing the sacred branch? The objects of her rescue were not to be sought out by her fancy: they were chosen for her. She yearned toward the perfect Right, that it might make a throne within her, and rule her errant will. “What should I do—how should I act now, this very day, if I could clutch my own pain, and compel it to silence, and think of those three?” (486)
In some respects Dorothea’s struggle resembles a secular prayer, but Eliot’s emphasis is on the effort Dorothea must make. “Force” is the operative word. Dorothea compels herself to think through recent events and go beyond her own emotions to consider the plight of others and her potential to help them. Sympathy here is not a soft, easy attitude—it is a “power” that vanquishes ignorance and allows Dorothea to decide what she will do with her grief.
What brings me back to Middlemarch again and again is such penetrating depictions of the inner life. The action in the novel often stops while the narrator describes a character’s internal struggle, a struggle that usually has no witnesses. But it is here, the narrator reminds us, that the springs of action lie. It is here that our decisions are incubated. And it is here that we can begin to shape our characters anew, if we will.
Much as I love Tolstoy, Proust, and Woolf, for me Eliot is the premier psychological novelist. Her breadth of knowledge, her grasp of character, and her own effort to live by her best insights never cease to inspire me. Eliot’s narrator says of one of Dorothea’s encounters with Lydgate that “the presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us” (470). There is no better description of what Eliot does for her readers in Middlemarch.