Middlemarch

By George Eliot

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

It’s always stressful when you fail to love a Great Book. It’s disappointing – you know something is askew, and the consensus critical opinion suggests that it is you.

I don’t love ‘Middlemarch‘. I know that I’m supposed to love ‘Middlemarch’ – everyone loves ‘Middlemarch’, especially women. Women seem to love ‘Middlemarch’ to an almost uncanny degree – the ubiquity of the appreciation is rivaled, in my opinion, only by love of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

But I’m a woman, and I have never loved ‘Middlemarch’.

I’ve read it three times in the past twenty years. I’ve never liked it, but I keep rereading it, partly because everyone loves it and I’m trying to figure out why, and partly because I can’t ever seem to remember what happened in it.

So it’s time to tackle ‘Middlemarch‘, fresh from this latest rereading and before I forget it again.

Let me begin with the obvious: it is beautifully written. My copy of ‘Middlemarch’ bristles with flags from all the passages that I’ve marked. The language is gorgeous, the insights profound.

“To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.” (p. 266)

“Even much stronger mortals than Fred Vincy hold half their rectitude in the mind of the being they love best.” (p. 229)

“Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.” (p. 349).

That I am in the presence of a great mind as I wade yet again through this book is obvious to me – Eliot is a magnificent writer. With her writing, I have absolutely no quarrel. But, alas, I loathe every single one of her characters, and I don’t care at all about what happens to any of them.

For what it’s worth, I am aware that this is the shallowest possible level of analysis. Characters in novels aren’t your friends – it is not their responsibility to be likable to you. The idea that the merit of a book is how much you root for the characters, or how much you see yourself in them, how much you connect with their situation, is, in my opinion, sophomoric garbage, weak thinking for weak minds.

Partly, this approach to novels offends me because it doesn’t even apply to life. People have many paths to demonstrate worth: they might be brilliant, or funny, or brave, without being at all likable. Plenty of people have accomplished great things, lived interesting lives, without being the sort of person you can relate to, with whom you’d like to grab a beer. Often in the world, the best lives, the most moving or interesting ones, are lived by weak, repellent, or wicked people. Novels, which are essentially just stories about people, shouldn’t be held to a narrower standard than the people themselves.

But, in my defense, I don’t loathe the characters in ‘Middlemarch‘ because they are weak, repellent, or wicked. I loathe them because they are boring. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t loathe them in real life – in all likelihood, I only loathe them because I am being forced by consensus opinion to read an 800-page book about them. Again.

The plain, embarrassing truth is that I don’t really understand why people love this book. But I have a sneaking suspicion that loving ”Middlemarch”, rather like hating ‘Middlemarch’, is really all about Dorothea. I don’t think anyone loves ‘Middlemarch’ for Fred Vincy, or for Will Ladislaw – Dorothea is fulcrum upon which the novel pivots and turns – it is Dorothea, rather like Elizabeth Bennet, upon whom readers pin their attachment.

Certainly, Dorothea is the obstacle which I cannot get past. Much of my irritation with her, I think, stems from my sense that I am supposed to like her, my sense that George Eliot liked her. She is not drawn as a perfect character, but her flaws, stated clearly in Eliot’s beautiful, precise prose, have the aspect of Trojan flaws: putatively added to give realism and depth, but actually draped across a character to flatter them, make them more lovable. The novelistic equivalent of being asked your weaknesses in a job interview and saying, “I care too much about my work.”

George Eliot tells us that Dorothea is idealistic, lofty in aspiration and naive in execution, and earnest to a fault, as befits a person pure of heart. But that is not who I see. The character I see is a fatuous twit: a stupid, pretentious woman who’s virtue is driven as much by her own vanity as anything else. And while I think it is entirely possible to love a stupid, pretentious character, I think it is very difficult to love a stupid pretentious character whose author doesn’t see her the same way.

As I write that out, it suddenly occurs to me that it is obvious. Of course my problem with ‘Middlemarch’ isn’t that I don’t like the characters – very few books are peopled by characters I actually like. The problem is that I don’t like them, but everyone else, most importantly George Eliot, does.

Maybe it’s not possible to really love a book when you substantively disagree with the author about its characters – I don’t know, I need to give it some more thought. But it is the problem here: George Eliot is charmed by her characters, and I am not.

George Eliot, portrait by Samuel Laurence

A story needs something to justify itself to readers. All stories are acts of persuasion: the readers are offering their time; the story must provide a continued justification for that time. Different kinds of stories provide different justifications: action heroes aren’t well-developed characters because they don’t need to be, no one is there to watch them grow and mature. Hero’s journeys are the opposite: if the hero doesn’t justify the story, nothing will. Likewise, when a character is meant to be disliked, the story is built to accommodate that repulsion. Repellent characters are often charming, but they are made to be – effort is made to attract readers to them despite themselves.

In this context, a mismatched justification is no justification at all. George Eliot wrote a hero’s journey: good and lovable, though imperfect, people find happiness through tribulation. The virtuous are rewarded; sinners are punished.

But I don’t find her heroes heroic – I find them pointless. And pointlessness doesn’t work in a hero’s journey; in a hero’s journey, it’s hero or bust. Worse, when the hero is pointless, all the apparatus of their journey becomes burdensome, and you, as a reader, resent it.

Or at least I do. And I know that it’s just me, it’s my problem. Everyone in the world seems to find Dorothea enchanting, worth journeying with – I’m clearly the exception. And I wish it weren’t so; I don’t feel superior when I fail to love something everyone else does. I feel…unsettled, as though I am missing something obvious.

I would love to love ”Middlemarch‘. But if we could choose to love, the world would look very different. And I have read this book three times now, and I don’t like it any better for it. It might be time give up, agree to disagree, and move on from ‘Middlemarch’.

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