Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Middlemarch #EliotAlong Week 4

The Middlemarch #EliotAlong is hosted by Bex at An Armchair by the Sea
Week Four: Chapters 43-56

The idea of summarizing or discussing all that takes place in this section of Middlemarch is daunting. At this point I absolutely didn't want to put this book down, and was completely captivated by the intelligence, depth, and compassion of the author.

My copy of Middlemarch is filled with underlined sections, scribbled marginalia, and long statements like this one: This is one of my favorite chapters. Eliot enters into each of her characters so completely. Casaubon is monstrous without knowing it, wanting to imprison Dorothea even after his death...And the chapter is gripped with morbidity.

I scrawled that note at the top of chapter 48.With Casaubon and Bulstrode, Eliot creates characters who are hiding weaknesses, and deep, dark sins against others. But the author avoids an overly simplistic, externalized version of her characters. Instead she delves deeply into their souls, and the reader enters into the most private thoughts of Casaubon and Bulstrode (not always pleasant). Eliot delicately articulates the rationalization and extensive self-deceit that allows these characters to continue to sin against others, while trying to appear virtuous.

Characters such as Dorothea, Lydgate,  Farebrother, Caleb Garth, Mary Garth, and even Fred Vincy, are to some degree unselfish, caring more for the happiness (and goodness) of others than for their own happiness. Eliot makes it clear that such virtue is not necessarily rewarded by happiness.

I'm making that sound so much more boring and moralistic than it is. The experience of reading Middlemarch is intense. The reader is in the hands of a brilliant writer, and is carried away by intensity of emotion and identification with the characters.

At the same time, Eliot is giving the reader an entertaining lesson in: village life, social climbing and elitism, the caustic power of gossip, and the reluctance of most people to adjust to change and progress. I'm struck by how relevant some of this is: in Victorian England rising industrialism was changing people's lives, and for some that change was devastating. It's not that different from the rise of technology and the loss of manufacturing jobs here in the United States. There was political upheaval going on too, and Eliot manages to get it all into this panoramic novel.

There are so many themes to talk about in this novel, but one that I think is really interesting is the idea of the importance of work or vocation. Dorothea is searching for something to do, something to give some purpose to her life. Fred Vincy needs to find a respectable profession so he can live a life of purpose (and marry Mary). Will keeps casting about for something useful to do. And Caleb Garth seems to epitomize the perfect balance, as someone who has found true happiness in his work. He wants nothing more than to be useful, and his most perfect happiness is found in his family and his work.  One of my very favorite passages in Middlemarch is one where Caleb speaks to Fred Vincy about his reverence and respect for work:
"You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think that it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying , There's this and there's that -- if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is -- I wouldn't give twopence for him" -- here Caleb's mouth looked bitter , and he snapped his fingers -- "whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn't do well what he undertook to do." Chapter 56 (562)
That's just one example of Eliot's ability to articulate her characters' deepest and most profound feelings (whether those feelings are shameful or beautiful). Middlemarch is a book that a reader can go back to again and again, it is such a deeply human story.

Feedback please! Are you reading Middlemarch now, or have you read it in the past? What are your thoughts on this incredible novel?

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