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Middlemarch by George Elliot

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I finally finished this book. I think it took me upwards of 6 months. It’s long. And it’s not really that fast-moving.

I did care about the characters though.

But the real reason I persevered is because my Victorian lit teacher said that Middlemarch is Elliot’s quintessential book. I had read Mill On the Floss in his class and truly enjoyed it. He said he would have liked to have us read Middlemarch, but it was too long to read for the class. We were already reading a lot of other books.

When I finished Middlemarch, I really wished that I had read in it a class. It seems to me that there was a lot going on, and that I would have been better able to understand it if I’d had some people to talk it out with.

I especially thought that the ladies in the book were interesting archetypes. This was not a book about one female heroine. Or even one male hero. There were a lot of stories of different people who chose to live their lives in different ways.

Dorothea is the most interesting character. But Mary Garth is very sympathetic, and Rosamond had promise. Celia, Dorothea’s sister, could have gone either way. She ended up being a little too good a fit for the mold of society. That made her much less interesting.

But she had no desire to be interesting.

Well, in the absence of a class discussion, I looked up some websites to see what others had to say. Here is one website’s list of major themes.

But the specific treatment of the women on the book was lacking.

Too bad. I guess nothing really takes the place of free discussion.

I think, right now, that I liked Mill on the Floss much better. But maybe Middlemarch will grow on me with time.

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  • Holly

    I read the first chapter of Middlemarch in college 15 years ago – and I never read another word, either of that book or any of Eliot’s others. I was siezed with a hatred for the author and all her works, and that hatred burns as brightly in me today as it did the day I threw the damn book against my bedroom wall and shouted, loudly enough for the UH English faculty to hear me 20 miles away “Enough! They can’t make me read this crap!!!!” I won’t even watch TV programs based on her books. I accidentally, while channel surfing some years ago, saw a few seconds of Middlemarch when Masterpiece Theater did it (oh God), but I shut my eyes before it could burn them. Of course, like all great hatreds, it’s unthinking, wholly emotional, but I can’t help it. And in my defense, she was an awful woman; read about her here: http://www.tales.ndirect.co.uk/GEORGEELIOT.HTML, and note two things. First, at the age of 19 she announced to her father that she could no longer accompany him to church because she did not share his beliefs. When he asked his friends to help him pursuade her of her error, they found her knowledge of theology to be superior to theirs, even the vicar’s. Well of course it was – figures. We’ve all been 19, and most of us at 19 were quite certain that our parents’ beliefs were hopelessly and embarrasingly wrong, and now that we’re not 19 anymore we blush with shame when we recall the silly shit we spouted off to our patient parents back then, who nodded kindly and waited till we had left the room before they burst out laughing and spent the rest of the evening cracking themselves up by imitating what we said. But not George. Twenty years later, at 39, George was just as convinced of her own righteousness as she had been at 19 (few can be as selfrighteous as the truly devout nonbeliever). And I bet you young George knew her knowledge of theology was impressive, and made damn sure everyone else knew it too – that’s just one of the reasons the sanctimonious, moralizing, po faced little twit is so annoying. Want another? Her quote when her father died: “Where shall I be without my Father? It will seem as if a part of my moral nature were gone. I had a horrid vision of myself last night becoming earthly sensual and devilish for want of that purifying restraining influence.” In order to truly appreciate that sentence, you’d have to see a picture of Mary Ann. Years later, after her longtime lover died, Mary Ann ran off with a guy more than 20 years her junior. Several months later, he killed himself. Why? Cos he realized he was married to freaking GEORGE ELIOT! (Again, you’d have to see the picture – or read more of her pompous gassy moralizing Victorian prose).

    It wasn’t easy maintaining my Eliot-free principles – especially considering that I was an honor student majoring in English Lit. My favorite professor – darling Samual Southwell, at the University of Houston (he bore a striking resemblence to Burl Ives’ snowman in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) assigned Middlemarch and said it might appear as an essay question on our final exam. I explained to Dr. Southwell that I could not, in good conscience, read that crap, and I wouldn’t. He sympathized with me, but reminded me that in order to successfully avoid an Eliot question I’d have to make sure I knew all the other assigned works very well. I said I did. And when the final exam came round, there were in fact several short (non-essay) questions about Middlemarch, and I answered them beautifully, cos I had CLIFFS NOTES and when they tell you Cliffs Notes can’t get you through a final exam – huh. They can if you write well and bullshit brightly, and especially if the book sucked to begin with.

    All of this has nothing to do with your review of Middlemarch, and I apologize for taking your bandwidth, but it felt good to get this out. It’s been years since I did a good Eliot rant. Thanks.

  • Hmm…Well, okay. Seeing as you haven’t really read any Eliot, I’m not offended at all.

    I had no preconceptions of her (other than knowing she was female) when I encountered _Mill on the Floss_. I was arrested by the passion of the heroine in the story, a less-than-perfect little girl. But I completely identified with her battle for herself, to maintain her own ideas and sense of self and what’s was what.

    When I found out more about Eliot, I thought it was remarkable that she not only questioned the Victorian morality in her novels, but she lived her beliefs.

    I am not sure I agree with her choices, but I admire her integrity.

    And i think that is why her portrayal in _Mill on the Floss_ rings so true.

    But it’s not easy reading. And there are SO many books out there worth reading, you don’t have to read the ones that you want to heave across the room.

    I’m very interested in Victorian literature, which is why I persevered through this one.

  • Rick Mills

    Middlemrch is a fascinating work of Eliot’s that explores the various contradictions and vague hypocracies of the Victorian era. Eliot’s lack of faith in religion and Dorothea is obviosly a sort of autobiographical character of Eliot’s. The book explores the ‘Crisis of Faith’ through Dorothea in a profound way and allows one to consoder the consequences of Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. It is a delightful work, that critics who have any intelligence, that should be examined for its virtues.

  • Since I just finished defended reading the unfinishable Ulysses elsewhere on this site, I may as well confess: I’ve tried Middlemarch several times, and can’t get past page 98. Even took it with me on a family vacation once, as a way of forcing the issue. No dice. All that free pay-cable in the hotel just looked better and better.

  • Allen Conway

    Well GE’s style is quite tough and I can understand how one can give up, but the book has such ambition… society in England changing as the Industrial Revolution, social reform, science, rational thinking, get under way. It is indeed her voice we hear and some of the characters exist mainly to let us know what she thinks, but there is a great deal of life there. A great deal more life than in most of the “easy reads” put together.
    As to taking exception to the fact that she rejected religion at the age of 19! How can one be so short-sighted as to take exception to that? In Middlemarch we see what replaced religion in her life (and, thankfully – or hopefully – in our society) – humanism!
    School is not, of course, about forcing people to read boring books, but about providing them with opportunities that they may not have afterwards. It is certainly easier to throw a book against the wall than a TV set, but the latter act would have shown more character.
    In a way, by limiting her analysis of the book to a single 4-letter word and an arm jerk one gets a good idea of how excellent this book really is.

  • I have read Middlemarch, and it was very difficult to get through. However, I enjoyed the book immensely. Dorothea is someone who’s goodness towards people I admire, and Rosamond’s thrashing from Will is a perfect example of lessons that are difficult. I wish Lydgate hadn’t died and had been able to harness her… Anyway, George Elliot has a gripping power of description and an excellent insight of the human nature. I’m going to go look up her real name now.