Review: George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”

by Miles Raymer


“The right word is always a power, and communicates its definiteness to our action.”

From time to time, I stumble across a novel that invites me to completely rediscover the inexhaustible elegance of the English language. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is one of those rare works. This exceptional story made me laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously, and rejuvenated my conviction that humanity’s creative abilities are worth all the anguish that comes along with them.

This was my first encounter with Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), so I didn’t really know what to expect. But I was hardly twenty pages into this book before I began wishing it would never end, and desperate for more even as I devoured the final chapter. Nearly the entire novel takes place in the fictional, early-19th century English town of Middlemarch. The residents of this town are indeed “middling”––neither rich nor impoverished, neither angelic nor demonic; they live and die amidst mundane circumstances that are transformed into glittering wonders by Eliot’s superb prose.

Eliot is a one-of-a-kind narrator who injects her personal opinions into the text, communing with characters and events like some omniscient and benevolent goddess. There seems to be no observation too witty or profound to escape her pen. Here are some delectable examples:

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 which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about wadded with stupidity. (194)

There are many wonderful mixtures in the world which are all alike called love, and claim the privileges of a sublime rage which is an apology for everything (in literature and the drama). (299-300)

Here was a man who now for the first time found himself looking into the eyes of death––who was passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace ‘We all must die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die––and soon’, then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first. (424)

There are natures in which, if they love us, we are conscious of having a sort of baptism and consecration: they bind us over to rectitude and purity by their pure belief about us; and our sins become that worst kind of sacrilege which tears down the invisible altar of trust. ‘If you are not good, none is good’––those little words may give a terrific meaning to responsibility, may hold a vitriolic intensity for remorse. (771-2)

Even when I had no idea what Eliot was trying to say, I basked in the whimsical and intense glow of each new clause and paragraph. One would be hard-pressed to find another 800+ page novel so replete with perfectly-crafted sentences.

Middlemarch offers a lot more than just pretty turns of phrase. Eliot’s characters are among the best I’ve met in any fictional world––deeply complex and fiercely alive in their all-too-human struggles. In many ways, Eliot’s obvious affection for her creations reminds me of Tolstoy’s Anna Kareninaalthough she fully avoids the romantic pitfalls of that literary train-wreck. My two favorites are Tertius Lydgate and Dorothea Brooke.

Lydgate is a young doctor who longs to make his mark on the world of medicine, which is still in its scientific infancy (i.e. prior to the common acceptance of the germ theory of disease). Lydgate’s self-sacrificing passion for his vocation brought warm feelings to the heart of this little reader, whose beloved father is also an oft-overworked physician:

If I believe that I can set going a better method of treatment––if I believe that I can pursue certain observations and inquiries which may be a lasting benefit to medical practice, I should be a base truckler if I allowed any consideration of personal comfort to hinder me. (440)

Many of us looking back through life would say that the kindest man we have ever known has been a medical man, or perhaps that surgeon whose fine tact, directed by deeply-informed perception, has come to us in our need with a more sublime beneficence than that of miracle-workers. Some of that twice-blessed mercy was always with Lydgate in his work at the Hospital or in private houses, serving better than any opiate to quiet and sustain him under anxieties and his sense of mental degeneracy. (668)

Though noble at heart, Lydgate is weakened by the burdens of finance and a strained marriage, both of which are made worse by his tendency to favor the well-being and bodily needs of others over personal gain. His trials are laden with lessons about the difficulty of providing for one’s family, the value of perseverance, and the role of luck in determining one’s successes and failures.

Lydgate is lovely, but it’s nigh impossible to think of any literary figure who compares to Dorothea. This sprightly and earnest young woman would tempt even the most jaded reader to seek out their best self. Despite being somewhat tethered by the gender roles of her time, Dorothea exudes an indomitable feminine spirit:

She did not want to deck herself with knowledge––to wear it loose from the nerves and blood that fed her action; and if she had written a book she must have done it as Saint Theresa did, under the command of an authority that constrained her conscience. But something she yearned for by which her life might be filled with action at once rational and ardent; and since the time was gone by for guiding visions and spiritual directors, since prayer heightened yearning but not instruction, what lamp was there but knowledge? (86)

As Dorothea finds herself transformed from youthful naivety into dignified womanhood by a sour marriage, she learns that ideas and values are of little use without actions to bear them out. Out of the chaos of gossip-driven drama that makes the denizens of Middlemarch both endearing and obnoxious, Dorothea rises to a higher plane of social and emotional consciousness in which honesty and communitarian virtue prevail: “People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors” (735).

Many other lovable characters inhabit Middlemarch––too many to note here. Thematically, the novel presents a lifetime of insights stitched into a single story, all with a sense of deep-rootedness that is suffused with progressive alacrity. The two themes that resonated most strongly with me were the elations and hardships of marriage, and the notion that human life proceeds––and can at times be improved––through intergenerational acts of sin and redemption.

Eliot appears to be neither a champion of marriage nor too harsh a critic. There are many couples in Middlemarch––young and old, functional and dysfunctional. By depicting many similarly-structured bonds lived out by different individuals, Eliot demonstrates how people either grow into the kind of husband or wife they are expected to be, or become increasingly restive as they realize their natural affinities do not align with prevailing social mores. Most keenly, Eliot prods the tender space in which all couples––even ones who are very much in love––are forced by the intimacy of domestic life to give up their idealized versions of their partner and of marriage itself:

Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. (194)

Poor Rosamond for months had begun to associate her husband with feelings of disappointment, and the terribly inflexible relation of marriage had lost its charm of encouraging delightful dreams. It had freed her from the disagreeables of her father’s house, but it had not given her everything that she had wished and hoped. (661)

This type of disillusionment pervades Middlemarch, and is one of the primary mechanisms by which Eliot explores and critiques 19th-century British culture. Another mode of critique is Eliot’s suggestion that older and younger generations are always a mixed bag to one another––equal parts hindrance and support system, depending on the moment and context. Eliot’s talent shines perhaps most brightly when she dives into the nuanced relationships between parents and their children, extended family, and community members:

Many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to ‘find their feet’ among them, while their elders go about their business. (194)

As the narrative unfolds, characters who seem to have little or no connection find themselves swept together or pushed apart, sometimes by revelations about events long past, and sometimes by brand new developments. Eliot invites the reader to question whether past wrongdoings can be truly rectified, or if a soul is forever mangled once compromised by cowardice and greed. For her part, Eliot employs Dorothea to convey a humble and understated theory of progress in which “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” (838).

Middlemarch is a novel that is hard to leave behind; I would have joyfully spent another few weeks inhabiting the inner lives of these marvelous made up people and their marvelous made up town. The book is an incontestably brilliant achievement––a compassionate portrait of the inescapable fragility of human nature, as well as a testament to our capacities for kindness, courage, and right action.

Rating: 10/10