Middlemarch by George Eliot

April 11, 2009

middlemarch George Eliot is one of those authors that I know I should read because of all the critical acclaim she has received, but have difficulty with because the books themselves are so boring. Besides the very short — and interesting — Silas Marner, most of Eliot’s works are extremely long and drawn out. It took me several attempts to make it all the way through Daniel Deronda, and I faced the same daunting task of trying to get through Middlemarch, another rather lengthy tome. Unfortunately, all that work yielded little in the way of pleasure, as the novel ultimately fell flat for me.

Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The subtitle of Middlemarch is “A Study of Provincial Life”, and true to her word, Eliot gives the reader an intimate look at the goings on of numerous inhabitants of the fictional English town of Middlemarch. At first everyone’s stories are separate from each other, but they gradually begin to overlap and meld until nearly all of the characters are involved in everyone else’s life.

The most prominent of these characters is the young, idealistic Dorothea Brooke who marries middle-aged Edward Casaubon just because she feels it would be worthwhile to help him research and write a Key to All Mythologies. Of course, this turns out to be a horrific match for Dorothea, who must sacrifice many of her own plans in order to accede to Casaubon’s wishes. To complicate matters, Dorothea finds herself falling in love with Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s cousin. Casaubon suspects the growing attachment, so he makes provisions to keep the two apart even after he dies.

Other characters who get significant coverage in the novel include Tertius Lydgate, a progressive doctor who marries the spoiled, selfish Rosamond Vincy before realizing too late that their personalities are vastly different; Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s brother, who begins as a ne’er-do-well, but turns out to be rather respectable in the end; Celia Brooke, Dorothea’s sister, who ends up marrying Sir James Chettam, whom everyone initially thought of as a match for Dorothea; and Nicholas Bulstrode, the wealthiest man in town, who turns out to be hiding a terrible secret.

Along the way, Eliot provides lots of insight into the social, political, and religious overtones of provincial life, and shows how these conventions affects each of her different characters.

My Reaction: I actually enjoyed the first part of Middlemarch very much, as that was the section that focused most heavily on Dorothea Brooke and her unfortunate marriage to Edward Casaubon. Dorothea was by far the most interesting character in the novel, and I wanted to learn more about this strong-willed woman who had grand ideas for helping the poor and improving social conditions.

But Eliot for some reason decided not to stick with Dorothea’s story, but to expand the novel to encompass the lives of all the other characters I mentioned above. As soon as this happened, my attention started to flag. I didn’t find any of the other characters remotely worthwhile, so I didn’t care what was going on with them. Dorothea was abandoned for the entire middle section of the book, and her story was only perfunctorily picked up at the very end when Eliot was wrapping everything else up.

I have a feeling that I missed much of the literary significance of this novel, because I can’t figure out what makes it stand apart from other books written at the same time. There must be some reason that it has achieved “classic” status and has received so much praise from luminaries like Virginia Woolf. Oh, well, my loss, I guess! I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

One Response to “Middlemarch by George Eliot”

  1. […] that it’s too long.  Jessica promises it is worth the work.  Ubaid Dogar finds it odd.  It fell flat for Julie.  Susan loved it.  It’s one of the best books Mrs Walker has read.  Writing […]

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