I’ve fallen behind in my blogs on “Middlemarch” because of my own novel. I hit one of those bumps in the road while writing, took a little bounce, stopped to catch my breath and look around, backed up, checked my map (rewrote my map!), and now I’m back on track, reading and writing.
I’ve now finished Book VII of “Middlemarch” and alas, I’ve got just one left to go. This is a long novel, but it’s so full of life and incident and ideas that it never seems long to me, just rich and layered and sustaining. It’s so beautifully constructed that the pace never slackens, and the narrative moves beautifully, marching forward. It’s very much a book of change, motion, and transformation, both on a personal and political level. We see Dorothea transformed from a naive idealist to an innocent realist. We see Fred change from a cut up to a more serious man. We see Will change from dilettante to adult. We see Middlemarch itself change with the advent of the railroad and the reform bills. These are just a few of the transformations Eliot traces. We watch Lydgate’s disillusionment. We see Bulstrode’s downfall.
The novel is uniquely suited to detailing change. This is because the novel follows characters and events over time. In a long narrative there’s time for the old to die and the young to grow, for marriages to decay, for the foolish to fail–or profit, for the other shoe to drop. Novels allow for outcomes more than any other tighter, shorter genre. The reader swallows a short story, but follows a novel. Following a narrative over days or weeks or even months, we journey along with the characters, and trace their moral development, or dissolution. We have time to pass judgment, and we have time to revise our judgments as well. This revision of judgement, this gradual dilation of point of view from prejudice to pity or from easy decision to complex consideration is Eliot’s great gift. Consider her analysis of Dorothea’s marriage, and her discussion of Lydgate’s entrapment, personally and professionally. Bulstrode’s drama, and Eliot’s use of his point of view, are stunning as well. He’s unlikeable and at the same time we feel for him.
On this reading, I’m struck by Eliot’s subtle critique of the position of women. Dorothea is the obvious locus, with her desire to do more and be more than opportunity permits. But Lydgate provides the male context. His romantic view of women leads to his disastrous marriage and the ruin of his hopes. He looks for beauty instead of intellect, judgement, substance, goodness. What he gets is Rosamund–the lovely embodiment of his failure in imagination. Needless to say, Lydgate is trapped by his limited perspective. His ruin is one of the triumphs of this amazing novel, and, to me, Eliot’s finest piece of social and political commentary–for she is suggesting that the men in her world are trapped as well.