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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Still the best novel in the English language. In my fourth reading, I still found myself fascinated with Mr. Lydgate, Mr. Farebrother, Dorothea Brooke, and Caleb Garth. Rosamund Vincy and Edward Casaubon remain deliciously hateful. Though the book is set in the early 1830s in Britain, the characters are alive and nuanced in a way that grips me today. All the residents of this country town do their part to "make sport for their neighbors," but their lives also have something timeless to teach about honor, ambition, and diligence.

The book opens and closes with Dorothea Brooke, a young woman of independent means and a keen sense of duty. She feels called to do some great humanitarian work, but propriety dictates that she refrain from working, or participating in unwomanly activities, or spending her money in ways inconvenient to her family. In short, no one expects her to accomplish anything in particular, and she has no one to guide or direct her ardor. Dorothea leaps at the chance to marry a learned clergyman twice her age, thinking that his intellect and spiritual wisdom will allow her to labor in a great work within her reach, namely, assist Mr. Casaubon in writing a comprehensive book on religion. Too late, she finds that Mr. Casubon is not an intellectual and spiritual giant, but full of self-doubt and vain ambition - his efforts at writing are fumblings in the dark. Moreover, he seems incapable of true affection - he accuses Dorothea of base desires and freezes her tenderness with icy mistrust. It is sobering to watch her youthful idealism erode under the influence of her husband's suspicion, her family's worry, and society's opinion. Her lack of direction and her own blind spots prevent her from being other than ordinary.

Mr. Lydgate resembles Dorothea in his longing to accomplish a lasting good. He arrives in Middlemarch bent on medical reform. Unlike Dorothea, he has concrete tasks and goals before him, and is confident in his fitness for the work. He is an honorable and masterful man, who enjoys fellowship with the strong but has compassion for the weak. He errs in supposing Rosamund Vincy's beautiful exterior is an extension of her inner character. In fact, she is cunning, secretive, and obstinate, not to mention wholly self-centered. After they marry, Rosamund's strategems and Lydgate's entrenched pride subvert his career and all his lofty goals. He, too, fails to achieve what he set out to do. Lydgate's story is tragic, all the more so because of the several ways his misfortunes might have been prevented, if Rosamund had been different, or he himself had been different.

Mr. Farebrother, Fred Vincy, Mr. Bulstrode, Mary Garth, Will Ladislaw, and Caleb Garth all their stories told as well. What strikes me again and again about Middlemarch is its intelligence and depth. Each individual is drawn with sympathy and accuracy, to map a human landscape full of suspense, truth, and sometimes beauty. I hope to read this book many, many more times.

Author:George Eliot
Date published:1871-1872
Number of pages:766


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