Notes on “Middlemarch”

On Monday I finished reading George Eliot’s great Victorian novel Middlemarch for the first time. I have tried and failed to finish it several times; it’s not easy reading. At a few points it is, briefly, a slog. Although the ending of the novel remains a subject of debate, I believe it is not happy. Nevertheless, for me the novel had a happy ending. I finished the book.

What did it take? I sought permission to audit an undergraduate class in the Victorian novel at a local college and paid for the privilege. I needed a structure within which to read the book. Like paying for a smoking cessation program, it gave me the incentive for success. Despite my limitations I would like to urge you to give it a shot on your own if you enjoy long novels of serious literary merit. I hope to post a few short notes to share my enjoyment of the novel and perhaps interest you in giving it a shot if you haven’t yet.

George Eliot operated at the height of her powers in the book and must have been deeply conscious of her mastery. She gives us the interconnected lives of a British provincial city in acute psychological detail. Her narrator, who is an intriguing character in his own right, enters the minds of a vast array of characters with sympathy and insight. We come to know them intimately from the inside. We come to understand their mistakes. Struggling with the Victorian loss of faith, Eliot means for us to extend the range of our sympathy for our fellow man (and woman).

There are passages in the novel that transport the reader to the edge of what language can express. I find great humor in the book. The narrator, however, is someone who has reflected profoundly on the common tragedies of our lives. He observes in the ornate diction that is characteristic of the narrative:

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

Virginia Woolf famously described Middlemarch as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” This passage gives us a small sample of the evidence supporting her judgment.