Thursday, October 13, 2011
Middlemarch by George Eliot
I just finished re-reading Middlemarch. I think this must have been my third reading of the book, not including the innumerable times I've watched the entirety of the BBC mini-series production. But as is true with any classic, with our years of maturity we are better equipped to absorb the intricate layers of beauty a great book has to offer. When speaking about Middlemarch to a casual or first time reader the usual comment is that the book tends towards the preachy, or drags on about a character's intentions and motivations for too long. But the genius of George Eliot's masterpiece is her impeccable ability to capture so much of the human experience of the inner life. The moral issues, dilemmas, and personal goals of the characters of Middlemarch are the goals of people today. The problems which our frail societies inflict upon our good intentions were the same in rural nineteenth century England as contemporary society.
Eliot works wonders describing the beautiful and gripping thoughts of Dorothea Brooke. She is the central heroine who has a strong passion to live her life for the sake of helping others. Dorothea's lofty ambitions seem stifled while living with her upper class uncle and she believes she has found a man both inspiring and with the same selfless goals. But Mr. Causabon turns out to be the anti Mr Darcy if you will. His age has made him inflexible to any life of love and mutual affection, Dorothea tries to give her bursting energies in helping him with his life work which she had earlier believed to be an important and worthwhile history, but the work turns out to be inconsequential and unending. Once again her good intentions are stifled. When Mr Causabon falls ill and eventually dies, his wealth and estate continue to hold Dorothea back. Her strong intentions to do good repeatedly come up against life situations that make it anything but easy to put into practice, but it also makes for a relatable character especially in regards to plugging away at the spiritual life. Dorothea gradually learns that it is the small daily efforts worked within her community that can make the greatest difference in others lives.
Eliot's other main character, Dr. Lydgate, aspires to become a leading and forward thinking medical man through research and the introduction of innovative ideas within his practice in the town of Middlemarch. However, his hard work begins to suffer after his marriage. His marriage pulls him into significant debt and as the community is weary of his new techniques his practice has not thrived. He becomes miserable as he comes to grips that he too is not compatible to his wife and may only make her unhappy in their marriage, and also through the loss of his dream to improve the science of medicine. It is through the kindness of Dorothea that he is given another chance to succeed, although not to the heights which he anticipated. The characters of Dorothea and Lydgate run parallel to each other, both make impetuous decisions in their marriages only to have their goals thwarted. Dorothea however, takes a humble approach to her situation while Lydgate continues to make choices out of pride that drive him in to more hopeless straits only to be finally saved through Dorothea.
Eliot weaves together the theme of the importance of marriage its effect on one's personal goals and passions. She also shows a whole community surrounding these two main characters and the choices and mistakes they make in their own life paths as well. Its interesting to see Eliot bring together this important sense of vocation within the context of Middlemarch the town. Every life is effected by others, and each individual's choice effects the greater community in part. Eliot thus brings about in a real way a strong sense of the Church. We are all members, yet our good or not so good actions impact the whole, also if the Church had more people willing to help those around us everyone would benefit.
George Eliot was not a Catholic, but was heavily influenced in the evangelical movement in Britain at the time. Her novels however, have a sophisticated view towards vocation, marriage, and the Church that can only be seen as very catholic. It makes me curious to hear what her personal views may have been on religion which clearly evolved over her lifetime. The preface to Middlemarch is a beautiful description of St Teresa of Avila's intense passion to change the world and how this passion isn't only present in people once every couple hundred years but in many at every time. The desire to become a saint is universal.