I finally finished George Eliot’s long and marvelous 1872 novel Middlemarch.
When I wrote about reading Middlemarch last month, from not-quite-the-middle of the book, I lamented that I’d rather be rereading the book than reading it. Rich and dense, it’s the kind of big book that clearly offers more on repeat readings. And yes, I will reread Middlemarch, but I’ll give it a year or three to mellow in the back of my consciousness.
Middlemarch is a novel about consciousness, and what the novel does best in my estimation is show how different kinds of consciousness mediate and are mediated by the social forces they inhabit (and are inhabited by).
(The word consciousness appears 90 times in Middlemarch. If we include similar iterations, like conscious, consciously, unconscious, and unconsciously, the count grows to a total of 172 times. In contrast, iterations of the word conscience appear only 38 times).
Dorothea Brooke remained my favorite consciousness throughout the novel, and I missed her when she wasn’t there, when Eliot had us hovering around or even fully inhabiting another consciousness.
I’ll admit that in the final quarter of Middlemarch I found myself a bit weary of the Bulstrode disgrace plot—and yet I appreciate how Eliot inhabited that consciousness as well. Bulstrode provides Eliot a sharp tool to show how consciousness is blind, or even self-blinding—how consciousness massages conscience in order to survive. In a passage that illustrates this process, Eliot writes,
Bulstrode shrank from a direct lie with an intensity disproportionate to the number of his more indirect misdeeds. But many of these misdeeds were like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness, though they bring about the end that we fix our mind on and desire. And it is only what we are vividly conscious of that we can vividly imagine to be seen by Omniscience.
Consciousness cannot lay claim to conceiving of an absolute omniscient conscience, an absolute and ever-present moral consciousness. Too, earlier in the novel, Eliot’s narrator observes,
For the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.
Egoism is a central problem in Middlemarch; indeed, Eliot seems to posit egoism as the greatest threat to how individual consciousnesses navigate social reality. Here is here narrator again:
Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.
I cannot improve upon “no speck so troublesome as self” and will not adventure an attempt.
But back to the consciousness I liked best in Middlemarch: Dorothea.
Dorothea is a kind of genius of intention, and Eliot harnesses that genius—she shows us Dorothea’s consciousness-in-action. Eliot doesn’t just tell us what’s happening in Dorothea’s head; she makes that consciousness live in our own heads.
Dorothea’s life, like all lives, is beset with foiled plans and terrible mistakes. Still, Middlemarch grants Dorothea something of a happy ending in her marriage to Will Ladislaw, and yet refuses the conclusion of a classical comedy. There is no wedding scene. Indeed, the last time Dorothea speaks in the novel it is to reconcile with her sister Celia—a conclusion that confirms their love story the equal to that of Dorothea and Ladislaw’s love story.
Eliot’s novel is too sophisticated and too realistic for a simplistic happy or tragic conclusion, of course. In the novel’s “Finale,” the narrator reminds us that,
Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending…the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web.
The narrator then gives us broad details of the fates of the novel’s principal couples: Lydgate and Rosamond, skewing depressive; Mary and Fred, skewing comic; and finally Ladislaw and Dorothea. We learn of Ladislaw’s success as a reform politician and understand that Dorothea is an instrumental force in this success.
Eliot’s conclusion for this final pair skews neither comic nor tragic, but is something more complex—more realistic. Dorothea becomes a cautionary tale in the town of Middlemarch; her legacy is one of misspent potential in the eyes of society. The novel ends without indicating that any of the grand plans of Dorothea’s youth have been achieved. And yet the novel concludes with an oblique revelation about Dorothea’s misunderstood legacy.
In the second-to-final paragraph of Middlemarch, Eliot writes that,
those determining acts of [Dorothea’s] life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.
Eliot refuses a simple happy ending here; her heroine is still a consciousness subject to the social forces around it. Dorothea’s great utopian ambitions are ultimately tempered by the cultural constraints her consciousness would otherwise seek to transcend.
But then the final paragraph of the novel points towards transcendence:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. … But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Dorothea—and, more significantly, the spirit of Dorothea—did real grand good in the world, an immeasurable good, “incalculably diffusive.” Even if she lived ultimately a “hidden life,” Eliot insists that it is people like Dorothea who have made the world better for “you and me.”
While “hidden life” and “unvisited tombs” may harbor negative connotations, these phrases are ultimately ironic: Eliot’s novel itself is the key to the hidden life of Dorothea Brooke. Middlemarch is a vivid and vivifying tomb for Dorothea, and we readers are the lucky visitors.