Friday, July 22, 2011

Books were of no use. Thinking was of no use. - not writing about Middlemarch

If I were not going on vacation next week, I would likely spend it writing about Middlemarch (1871-2), puzzling over it, whining about it.  Perhaps I would be wise enough to minimize the whining, but a week of posts would be a struggle, and a good challenge.  Middlemarch is a complex book, the most complex Victorian novel I have read.

I keep comparing it, for better and worse, with a couple of its peers, Madame Bovary (1856) and Anna Karenina (1877).  The novels of Flaubert and Eliot are like theatrical foils – Flaubert’s exquisitely worked surface makes Eliot’s sentences look plain; Eliot’s moral sensibility makes Flaubert look as hollow as I fear he is.  Anna Karenina serves as a nice fusion – rich in sensory detail, yet ethically serious.

Middlemarch and Madame Bovary are complex in such different ways.  Speaking roughly, Flaubert works from the outside in – the rich and surprising descriptions of objects and places create a set of images around the characters which become part of the structure of the novel.  Eliot moves from the inside out, not just thoroughly describing the thoughts and feelings of her characters but employing recurring images and metaphors that are associated with the characters but are not part of the physical world of the novel.

For example, Eliot’s varied water metaphor:

In this way, the early months of marriage often are times of critical tumult – whether that of a shrimp-pool or of deeper waters – which afterwards subsides into cheerful peace. (Ch. 20)

Eliot is describing the early days of Dorothea Brooke’s marriage to Casaubon.  The character is in an apartment in Rome; the startling shrimp-pool is not something Dorothea has seen or thought of.  It belongs entirely to the narrator, who repeatedly returns to water when she is spending time with Dorothea, and who uses water to link scenes that are scattered throughout the novel.  Or so it appears to me – as if I have tracked through them!

In Madame Bovary, the shrimp-pool would be forbidden – the metaphors have to come from the outside, from something the characters experience.  Thus, the recurring horse theme in Madame Bovary, which, like Eliot’s water theme, creates surprising correspondences among otherwise disconnected scenes.  But Flaubert’s horses are external, “real,” while the water is all in the imagination of Eliot the narrator.

Both devices for converting imagery into structure are artful, and both can be as complex as the writer can make them.  Somehow, though, I am more comfortable with the sensory images, with Flaubert.  More experience with that kind of fiction, I guess.  I do not understand the supposedly intrusive Eliot narrator so well, how she functions.

That narrator, the wise and serious aphoristic Eliot, also violates every Flaubertian principle, and thank goodness.  The last thing I want to read is the wisdom of Gustave Flaubert.  How appalling!  George Eliot, unlike almost every other writer in the history of written thought, actually seems to be wise, to possess not just insights and intelligence but wisdom.  I have to reach back to Goethe or Montaigne or someone like that.  The incessantly ironic intrusions of Thackeray are no help.  Strike ironic – Eliot can be ironic.  The outrageous lies and false humility of Thackeray’s intrusions are not the right model.

What else might I write about?  I would complain about the dialogue, that there is too much of it.  This should be a week on its own, my indictment of dialogue, which is hardly a problem limited to George Eliot.  But (every complaint would be followed by “but”) Eliot constructs a series of scenes that are almost choral, minor characters discussing the events of the novel, that looks new to me.  I saw hints of it in earlier Eliot novels.  How are they used?  That would be something to think about.

Wisdom, narrator, imagery, dialogue, choral scenes, structure.  What else?  The unusual branching plots, maybe.  These are the topics I might have written about, or perhaps will write about when I re-read Middlemarch, whenever that might be.

My title is wrenched from Chapter 48.


  1. Lately it seems I have been remembering quote from the Frasier Crane TV show-shown twice daily here in Manila-I thought of this one as I read your post

    "Niles: (while counselling Reggie McLemore) Take a moment - think of something comforting from childhood - a stuffed animal... a dog-eared copy of Middlemarch."

    Reggie is a professional basketball player who looks very confused at the mention of Middlemarch

  2. Yes, Eliot and/or Middlemarch is certainly wise, I remember thinking so when I read it. That was at an age when I was not nearly wise enough; it's toward the top of the re-read pile on that account. I don't remember a whole lot specific about it, but I do think Middlemarch has infected so much of my other Victorian-era reading since then. In my mind, it's all like Middlemarch—or all trying to be, and failing.

  3. I try to read Middlemarch once a decade or so. I hope it will stay with you long enough to warrant a post after your vacation. I'd love to hear what you have to say about it.

    Next time I read it, I will pay much more attention to the use of metaphors, water in particular.

  4. The wisdom idea could fill the week, too. I am still unconvinced of the wisdom of wisdom, so to speak. Middlemarch seems like a special case, an example that cannot be useful to many writers. I feel a bit handicapped, unable to follow this idea, by knowing Henry James so poorly. Anyway, I see the argument against more clearly than the argument for, even with this example in front of me.

    Thackeray, in Vanity Fair - forgive the chronology - was not trying to be Middlemarch and failing, but doing everything he could to avoid being Middlemarch.

    I doubt I will write more any time soon - the novel is too complex. It demands another attempt first. Those metaphors, for example - the problem is that they are in the wrong place, not where I expect them to be, so I have trouble seeing them. I need for training (which is a metaphor for more reading).

    Ah, Frasier was a good shows. Niles, I am sure, had a close identification with Dorothea Brooke.

  5. this is an in-depth analysis and comparison of Middlemarch, a book I am yet to read, to others. My reading of Eliot is limited to only a few pages of Silas Marner, if I am correct on its authorship.

  6. I actually found reading your post quite intriguing. I've reread Middlemarch pretty much every summer since I first read it when I was 17 and I loved that you started by saying that not only do you feel the need to puzzle but also 'whine' over it. I definitely remember that feeling. However, this has also spurred me into action as I've been procrastinating instead of trying to read Madame Bovary all Summer and now I feel like I have a frame of reference from which to start. So massive thank you and happy reading.

    And to Nana: you're right, Silas Marner is also Eliot and well-worth a full reading if you're at all interested in the concept of English myth and history particularly.

  7. AR- If you are not fully on vacation yet (or, for that matter, even if you are), I wanted to let you know of your "enhanced" (???) unclehood status.

  8. Yes, I also think Eliot was actually wise--and I haven't even read Middlemarch yet! My last foray into her fiction was Romola which is laden with earth-changing wisdom and very strange plot choices. If you haven't, I really hope you'll read it!

  9. I guess I'm more enthused about Daniel Deronda, about seeing where Eliot takes the techniques of Middlemarch, rather than learning more about how she got there. I skipped Felix Holt as well as Romola so I am missing some intermediate steps. Someday, someday.

    Silas Marner is wonderful, but it is an altogether smaller book. I was amazed by the imaginative size of Middlemarch. I wonder if Eliot saw Silas Marner as a dead end.

    Ah, Scribbler, I hope the hints or notes about Madame Bovary are helpful. I should test them out myself, see how badly I am mangling or exaggerating what Flaubert is doing.

    Welcome to blog land, by the way!

  10. I challenge you to your week of posts when you return from vacation. No excuses. Silas Marner as a dead end, in what sense?


  11. That week ain't gonna happen. The reset button will have been hit. I hope. Middlemarch will be like Vanity Fair, another big book I never wrote about - its essence will have to permeate the blog.

    That's just a guess about Silas Marner. Its an elegantly written book, focused and balanced with none of the clumsiness or patchwork of certain parts of Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, formally close to perfect.

    Eliot never tried to repeat it. Either the fictional world of SM was too small, or there was not enough room for Wise Eliot. Or something else. I don't know. She preferred to write new but imperfect books rather than repeat something she had already mastered.

  12. "Middlemarch will be like Vanity Fair, another big book I never wrote about - its essence will have to permeate the blog."

    Yes, I get it. I do.

    Permeate away!


  13. And then when I re-read, look out! Call the kids and wake the neighbors!

    Middlemarch turned out to be not just a particularly good Victorian novel, or particularly good novel, but an alternative way of writing a novel, sort of disguised as a Victorian novel (plots about duel wills and so on). It will take some time to absorb.

  14. Back when the book catalog THe Common Reader still was around, I used to read the blurbs and reviews for fun because they were well-written and interesting, and the blurb writer (catalog business owner I presume) labeled Middlemarch the wisest book he'd ever read. I thought it interesting that you saw wisdom in Eliot's narrator as well. I find the narrator not only wise, but just, compassionate, and forgiving as well. Despite the foolishness of so many of her characters, she never really scorns them but seeks to help us readers understand them.

  15. Middlemarch is one of those books that is nearly impossible if you read it five pages at a time and an absolute joy if you read fifty pages. It's probably the pace, and the numerous character.

    It's also impeccably researched, though at times I felt that Eliot's naivete began to show. She writes good characters, they're varied and honest, but some of the good ones are a little too good and you begin to resent them for it.

    It ends really, really fast. All of a sudden. Bam, epilogue.


  16. Oh, gosh, I don't think Eliot was naive. No way. A look at her biography wipes some of that idea out.

  17. As far as "naive" goes, I believe we will have to define some terms. I do not resent the good characters, who are fictions, meant to be "real" within the novel, not necessarily in our world.

    Des Oeufs, thanks for visiting - what a nice post on Scoop, that cracked masterpiece. "The plashy fen" etc.