September 11, 2011

Review: "Middlemarch--A Study of Provincial Life" By George Eliot

I have just finished reading Middlemarch, and this pretty much completes my reading of George Eliot's major works.  Middlemarch truly is quite the sublime novel from start to finish.  At first blush one has this sense of simply being immersed in a rather quiet and pastoral story, but there's really very much more going on here as one turns the pages.It is a story of rural England during the period of great reforms in politics, religion, agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, and even transportation.  Mostly though, it is the story of human beings, and what it means to be human.

Eliot gives us a wonderful cast of characters in Middlemarch, and they cut across all class lines from the landed gentry, tradesmen and women, and the simple country rustics that work the land and work in the manor houses.  While perhaps Dickensian in cast, the peoples that populate the novel are not laden with the satire or comedy of a Dickens or Thackeray novel.  No, these are all people that we can relate to even in this modern age.  These are your neighbors, some rich, some poor; these are your physicians; your pastors; your shopkeepers, and so forth.  The people of Middlemarch are your family, friends, and acquaintances and become even more so as the novel moves along.

As much as I truly enjoyed the plots in Eliot's Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner, I'd have to say that Eliot "kicked it up a notch" in Middlemarch.  This is a stately, sedate, sophisticated, and complexly elegant novel.  It really does demand the reader's full dedication and attention as it is read too, much like I found when I read her last novel Daniel Deronda.  Boy, is it worth the extra effort, and one can't help but find oneself savoring the pacing and structure of the novel as Eliot lays out the tale.

Eliot herself compares one of her primary characters, Dorothea Brooke, to St. Theresa de Avila.  She is a genuinely decent human being who very much cares for the welfare of all of those around her, including even the man she marries early in the novel--Edward Casaubon. Interestingly, at least to me, that through the novel there was an almost tidal 'ebb and flow' of how the reader viewed many of the characters.  The one exception was Dorothea, as she always stayed above the fray and maintains her 'saintliness'.  I suppose that some could say that maybe Dorothea's saintliness was laid on a bit thick, but I think the character of Dorothea and her actions are important in helping to bring home the novel's overall message and moral impact.  I think that this was also true in different degrees with some of the other characters, such as Tertius Lydgate, Rev. Farebrother, Caleb Garth, his wife, and their daughter Mary Garth.  Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the novel though is Eliot's ability to make her readers empathize and even sympathize with the characters that are not so likeable, e.g., Bulstrode or Casaubon.

Finally, I have to again say that somehow I really think that George Eliot had to have been some sort of inspiration for, or influence upon, the later works of Thomas Hardy.  I really do see a somewhat similar approach to realism and naturalism in the works of these two important authors.  While Eliot's novels don't showcase the impact of Fate or Chance perhaps as prominently as Hardy, they both inject a big dose of reality in the day-to-day lives of their characters.  Bad things do happen to good and bad people alike, just like Life.  The beauty of Middlemarch is that it depicts the indomitable Human spirit at its finest (and, dare I say, at its worst at times too).  Those who wish to do good can; and for those who don't, well they get caught out.

Great book!  I highly recommend reading this novel.  I have to be honest and fess up that I tried to read this book off and on for 20+ years, and it just never took with me.  I was finally able to sink my teeth (and brain) into it and just let myself become immersed in the peoples and landscape of Middlemarch, and what a profoundly satisfying and enriching experience it has been.  In all reality, I think that I am at a point in my reading and comprehension these days that I was finally ready for what Virginia Woolf described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."  I do look forward to re-reading it again at some point and thinking about the messages and lessons of this rich novel that George Eliot has crafted and left us.

For me, now it is on to a new translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (translation by Ms. Julie Rose, 2008).  I'm also reading a new translation of the plays of the 5th century B.C. ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles.  This 2011 translation and adaptation has been done by Robert Bagg and James Scully.  Too much good stuff!


  1. Hi! I read (or rather, listened to) Middlemarch a couple of years ago and what struck me most was how it ennobled work, whether skilled labour or the sort of reform work that Tertius and Dorothea did (or wanted to do). While the wealthy and powerful made a mess of their (and others') lives, it was the workers who kept things together and moving forward. I consider Middlemarch to be a tribute to the middle class, which is perhaps as much needed now as then.

  2. I have only read The Mill on the Floss and loved it. Middlemarch will be the be the next Eliot book I try after your recommendation, cheers

  3. Thanks, Sylvia and Becky, for dropping by and leaving your thoughts, it is very much appreciated. This really was a very special novel to read, and I'm so glad that I finally took the time to make it happen. Like so many of the world's very best books, I believe that there's ever so much more to find within the pages of "Middlemarch" with each reread. Cheers! Chris

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  5. I just finished this one and I agree it was "kicked up a notch" from Silas Marner. That was my only Eliot before now and I was so impressed with the sheer scope of this one.