Monday, February 23, 2009

Alive in the conflict (Books - Middlemarch by George Eliot)

I am nearly half way through George Eliot's massive social study of country life in Victorian England - Middlemarch - and I thought it a good time to step back and take a longer view, so caught up have I been in characterizations and authorial voice. Larger plot structure is now becoming visible and I see two young women - Dorothea and Rosamund, each desirable in her way. Dorothea is more serious, she cultivates plans for the design of housing on her Uncle's estate and she studies Latin and Greek. She decides to marry Casaubon, an elder clerical scholar, hoping to serve him. Rosamund is more spoiled and is drawn to Lydgate, the handsome young doctor newly come to Middlemarch. She is planning to marry him for love - love of him, love of love, love of the institution of marriage, but most of all out of love for herself.

Likewise we have Casaubon, a severe, impersonal man thought to be researching in order to write a book, although it is beginning to appear that he knows only how to research and hasn't the courage to create a book from his notes any more than he has the courage to consummate his marriage to Dorothea. Lydgate is a gentlemanly, young physician who has studied in Paris and has lived for his scientific work and now has, much to his own surprise, fallen in love with the beauty of Middlemarch. Eliot appears to have set up a tension between those who live from their passion and those who contain it with obligation - an apt contest for the Victorian era.

As Lydgate and Rosamund plan their wedding, order their plate and crystal and hire seamstresses for the trousseau, I am struck by the sheer impracticality of their plan making and can read the disaster that looms. Eliot has made me feel a sense of foreboding without explicitly writing a word about what might happen in their future. This couple behaves only out of I want. Whereas Casaubon and Dorothea act out of I must - preferring to think that they have no hearts at all. At the arrival of Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's young cousin who is very attracted to Dorothea, Casaubon has what we would today call a heart attack. He has never bothered to consider desire or marriage but now finds himself jealous. Dorothea's future is also coming into view. She, who tried to live solely from a sense of duty, finds herself wanting to see her young cousin-in-law. It is Eliot's strength as a writer that, although she makes it clear who her characters are, they are not caricatures but multi-faceted human beings capable of conflict within themselves.

3 comments:

Matt said...

My gosh, you’re almost halfway through Middlemarch I see! I’m so far behind, about a third into it. It will be an ongoing project to be sure. It’s not that bad so far.

The chapters that introduce each of the characters *do* read like social studies book!

verbivore said...

Your posts on Middlemarch are taking me back a few years to when I listened to the book on my commute to Boston...eventually I got to the point when I stopped on the way home at the library, took out the book and read it through to the end that very evening. But I'm thinking about a re-read...

hopeinbrazil said...

For someone who is only halfway through you've certainly gotten a good grasp of the stories central themes (and probable outcomes). It took more than a little effort for me to get through this book, but it was well worth it!