Wednesday, April 1, 2009

George Eliot's camera technique (Books - Middlemarch)

Sorry the pickings have been a little sparse here, I've been gobbled up by the great maw that is grad school. I finally had a little time late last night to dip back into the internecine, small town politics, and unexpressed hearts of Middlemarch. As our heroine, Dorothea, is thrown together more and more with Will Ladislaw, her husband's wayward cousin who has fallen in love with her, she displays how ignorant she is of her own heart yet in so many other ways she is the most grown-up female character in a 19th century novel I have ever met.
"Oh, my life is very simple," said Dorothea, her lips curling with an exquisite smile, which irradiated her melancholy. "I am always at Lowick."

"That is a dreadful imprisonment," said Will, impetuously.

"No, don't think that," said Dorothea. "I have no longings."

He did not speak, but she replied to some change in his expression. "I mean, for myself. Except that I should like not to have so much more than my share without doing anything for others. But I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me."

"What is that? said Will, rather jealous of the belief.

"That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what ti is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil - widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

"That is a beautiful mysticism - it is a - "

"Please not to call it by any name," said Dorothea, putting out her hands entreatingly. "You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it..."

I love that Eliot reveals the fact that Dorothea responds to a change in Will's expression and yet doesn't describe the change. It is as though her camera were on Dorothea rather than Will and, for that moment, that you see he has changed by seeing her change so that a) it doesn't interrupt the flow of our moment with Dorothea and our temporary assumption of her inner life with some feeling or other of our own and b) we must imagine that expression ourselves through Dorothea's behavior. It's a very filmic technique, very sophisticated. It is not as if we are deprived of his expression for want of Eliot's descriptive powers, lord knows I have 800 pages here to prove it. Take this one:
When Mrs. Causabon was announced he started up as from an electric shock, and felt a tingling at his finger ends. Any one observing him would have seen a change in his complexion, in the adjustment of his facial muscles, in the vividness of his glance, which might have made them imagine that every molecule in his body had passed the message of a magic touch. And so it had. For effective magic is transcendent nature; and who shall measure the subtlety of those touches which convery the quality of soul as well as body, and make a man's passion for one woman differ form his passion for another as joy in the morning light over valley and river and white mountain-top differs from joy among Chinese lanterns and glass panels?

Interesting that her choice of descriptors is so purposefully technical rather than emotional: we have electric shocks, molecule, and the "adjustment of facial muscles," conveying the depth of his being moved but letting the reader begin the journey ourselves and then adding to it the "magic," the "transcendence" and the "passion." Eliot really knows how to involved her reader by making them do a little work and I like that!

4 comments:

hopeinbrazil said...

I'm glad you are still plowing through the book. I'm enjoying your comments.

Ted said...

Thanks, Hope! It's well worth the plow - not a chore at all, just worth savoring.

C. B. James said...

You're right about how film like Middlemarch is. Eliot herself describes this technique in the book's opening, doesn' she. Passing over the town, focusing in on one particular character or story at a time.....I think it's the best novel in English, myself.

It holds up well over time, too. I read it as an undergrad and again just a year or so ago. Still breaks my heart, but I won't give anything away. I expect it will do so again when I read it next time, in a decade or so.

Ted said...

CB - I remember you said as I began reading it, that you read it once a decade! I'm unlikely to do that but I'm trying for once every two (I read it in 1984 on a long trip in Europe).