So, for part of my second portfolio in my Novel class, I have to write a personal response to one of the Novels we’ve read. I wrote my response to Middlemarch. I’m going to post it here, and use it as a kick off to review some of the other books I read. I’m not sure if the reviews will make it up though. This middlemarch review took me forever to write. So here it is, 800 words over the suggested limit…oops (And please ignore the fact that WordPress deletes all the indentations at the beginning of the paragraphs.)
Dr. Collins, I’m going to be turning this in!
As I was reading George Elliot’s Middlemarch I felt as if I was reading a really bad soap opera. Middlemarch is a novel of many themes, and I think that’s where I was getting frustrated. On a very basic level, it is a novel about love, ethics, gossip, misunderstandings, kindness, ambition, intellectual passion, science, religion, social expectations, foolishness, and most obviously, Marriage. This is a novel about life, and I think I may have been frustrated with it, because Elliot’s characters rawly demonstrate the worst qualities in people. The novels strength, in my opinion, lies it its bird’s eye view of a small Victorian town, and on its keen ability to zone in on individual character struggle. The complex, flawed, realistic human beings are just compelling enough to thoroughly irritate the reader while still keeping them interested enough to finish the novel. Elliot doesn’t isolare her characters from their circumstances, and her extraordinary characterization makes them universally human.
One of my favorite parts of reading this novel was Elliot’s incredible talent to write extremely moving moments between characters. In particular, the moment between Mr. and Mrs. Bulstrode when the truth surfaces between them, and several moments between Dorothea and Will. This book was not the type of romantic novel I typically read, instead it’s a romantic story about the depth of human connections and what constrains them- and the moments the thoroughly demonstrate that brought tears to my eyes.
I feel like I could probably write about the general novel for days and still not go over half of the novel, so instead, and because I’m already over the minimum word requirement for the first part of my portfolio, I’m going to talk about some of the main story lines.
First, there’s Dorothea. At first I was sure that she would be the protagonist of this novel. (Now that I’m finished, I’m really not sure WHO the protagonist was…) Dorothea was sometimes absent for 50 or 60 pages at a time, but the prologue says more or less that this story would be about what happens when women are passionate, intellectually curious, and intense while living in a world that disallows all of these traits in females. To me, that sounds much like Dorothea, but there’s probably room for debate. At first, Dorothea is an earnest and trustworthy eighteen-year-old who longs for something “great”. What she really wants is a mind superior to her own in which to learn from. She thinks she’s found this in Mr. Casaubon, to whom she assumes she will submit to with nothing but pleasure. But it was no surprise to me at all when Dorothea is crying less than a month after her wedding when she begins to lose her blind trust in and respect for Casaubon. I was pleased with Elliot here, for how beautifully she wrote of how painful that realization was, and for not making that realization out to be bitterly silly. To be personal about it for a moment, I think what happened to Dorothea is something that plagues most of the younger generation today. So many kids are getting married young with Disney film ideas of marriage and no one really understands the dynamics of it until they’re eight months in and completely miserable. Now, I’m not one to talk on this subject because I’m 19 and about to get married, but I’d like to think that I’m able to look at the subject with maturity beyond my years. And I think maturity has a LOT to do with when you’re ready to be married. In a lot of ways, I feel that Jason and I are just a piece of paper away from being married anyways.
Poor Dorothea seems doomed to be unhappy. Mostly because, “there is hardly any contact more depressing to a young ardent creature than that of a mind in which years of knowledge seem to have issued in a blank absence of interest of sympathy.” In this case, I could accuse her of marrying foolishly or I could say that she should have listened to her friends and family, but I think that she would have been even unhappier if she had followed other people’s advice. She needed to pave her own path, but I wish it wouldn’t have brought her so much pain.
There’s something a little tragic about being the only person in the room who lacks social artfulness, who doesn’t play power games, and who’s trying to have honest, soulful conversations about topics that aren’t deemed fit for polite society. And because I can understand that, I feel like I could understand Dorothea. Her earnest struck me, but because she is a woman, she constantly dismissed and not taken seriously. I loved Dorothea for her generous spirit and for her kindness, and lately, I’ve been trying to instill those qualities in myself. Dorothea said, “I believe that people are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” And I want to be able to honestly say that myself.
To speak of Dorothea’s story in isolation would betray everything I think Elliot set out to do in Middlemarch, but I’m afraid that I’m pushing 900 words, and this Personal Response is supposed to be 250 words. I do want to talk about Lydgate for a moment though.
There are a lot of things I can talk about with Lydgate, but I realy just want to touch on his relationship with Rosamond for a minute. In their relationship there is an incredible portrayal of both the social and the private consequences of unequal partnership between a man and a woman. This passage, that comes toward the end of the novel, just broke my heart. “He could not promise to shield her from the dreaded wretchedness, for he could see no sure means of doing so. When he left her to go out again, he told himself that it was ten times harder for her than for him: he had a life away from home, and constant appeals to his activity on behalf of others. He wished to excuse everything in her if he could—but it was inevitable that in that excusing mood he should think of her as if she were an animal of another and feebler species. Nevertheless she had mastered him.”
In class we talked a lot about egoism (which we defined as seeing the world as if it revolves around ones self) and while this trait is demonstrated in most of the characters, in Rosamond it is the most obvious. But I can’t help but to feel like it’s not at all her fault! She was never raised to see herself as an adult. She never saw herself as a capable human, or as an intellectual equal to men, nor does she behave as one. And the result is misery for her and her husband. But I think that the narrator is more sympathetic to Lydgate, and sometimes Elliot treats Rosamond with ambivalence, and often prevents her less appealing traits from being presented as inherently female.
I feel like just the presence of Dorothea ensures that Rosamond’s personality is explained away with her sex. Even though theres a sense a gratitude for women like Dorothea in the novel, its counterpart could be a reproach of women like Rosamond. I can’t help but to feel like these two characters play foils of each other, and the reader is forced to love one and hate the other.
I don’t know why I was so intimidated when I began to read this novel, I guess the length was the main reason. But it doesn’t feel like an unnecessarily long one. It is a novel of endless scope. It is a bittersweet story about all the rights and wrongs that form a human life, and one of its strength lies in the theme of forgotten individual in the face of defining moments- and in the novels closing lines, I’m reminds me that I own much to the people who have been forgotten. And I feel that Middlemarch successfully recreates lost stories in which the reader can draw their own lessons.