After reading Silas Marner
a few months ago and finding it quite beautiful and poignant I was quite looking forward to reading Middlemarch
. However, after reading the first couple of chapters I felt confused and disappointed. The trouble was that after reading a few chapters I still had no idea what the novel is about. Certainly I could read the book’s synopsis which is easy to find but I really did not want to do that as I wanted to discover the story for myself. The impression I had was that the book is not really about anything
George Eliot is just introducing us to a number of characters going about their daily lives and I was thinking why the hell would I want to read this? Still, I persevered as I usually do unless the book becomes unbearable. Fortunately this did not happen.
I think the difficulty stems from the large cast of characters introduced early on in the book. It took me a while to familiarize myself with them and to understand their significance in the scheme of things. I was not even sure who the protagonists or central characters are. Gradually my persistence paid off and I managed to settle into the groove of the book and began to see the point of it.
What the book is actually about is actually indicated in the book's full title Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
. The point
is to experience the lives of several characters in the small town of Middlemarch. Once you know whose lives you are supposed to be focusing on that is. There are actually only a handful of characters of real significance. The foremost central character is Dorothea Brooke, the intelligent, kindly and somewhat naïve lady who made a hasty decision to marry the intellectual Edward Casaubon who happens to be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. Then we have Will Ladislaw, an idle young gentleman who finds his purpose in life through the love of a good woman. Tertius Lydgate, a well meaning and ambitious country doctor who marries the rather silly airhead Rosamond Vincy and falls into more debts than he can manage.
All these characters became quite vivid once I settled into the book, and the secondary characters became meaningful through their interactions with these few protagonists. The most salient theme of this book seems to be about bad marriages, hasty selection of a spouse on the basis of looks or qualifications. The mismatched marriages in this book quickly become dysfunctional and a lot of the drama ensues from these. Honor, dishonor and redemption are also major themes but I don’t want to elaborate on these because it would require many more paragraphs. By the end of the book I came to quite enjoy the character studies, though the book never quite moved me like Silas Marner
One thing that I really appreciate through out the book, even from the beginning is the prose. Eliot’s prose is a thing of beauty and the dialogue often sparkles. Case in point, you know that old cliché “Be careful what you wish for”
? Eliot expresses it here as "The thing one most longs for may be surrounded with conditions that would be intolerable."
It’s like the tired old cliché has been turbo-charged.
Sometime the author suddenly dispenses a bit of wisdom that made me stop and think. Like "It was a question whether gratitude which refers to what is done for one's self ought not to give way to indignation at what is done against another."
Sometime she* beautifully expresses exactly what I often feel but lack the skill to articulate: "It must be my own dullness. I am seeing so much all at once, and not understanding half of it. That always makes one feel stupid. It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky."
In my case that is particularly true of books like Cryptonomicon
, they are admirable books but I just do not like them, much to my chagrin.
So by the end of Middlemarch
I too managed to redeem myself and I can honestly say that this is a book well worth the effort of reading (a little patience may be required to begin with).
* George Eliot is the "nom de plume" for Ms. Mary Anne Evans.