Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Middlemarch (Conversations from September/October 2008)

Middlemarch, George Eliot (18??)[*****] No formal review, but my end of an on-line conversation as I read this with some friends:

I am still woefully behind you in my reading of Middlemarch, and today I should be making great progress, as Trixie is home with a cold which means I am not volunteering at Obama HQ as scheduled. Unfortunately, I find myself obsessively checking the Huff Post and Americablog to learn the latest details in the drama unfolding in DC and Mississippi ... in much the same way, it occurs to me, that I used to check daily to read up on the Brittany Spears trainwreck. The McCain drama feels about that dignified.

I really do plan to share some thoughts in the next few days. In the meantime, "ardent" may be Victorian code for sexually passionate, but "her blooming, full-pulsed youth" seems less oblique, and the following description of Dorothea caught my eye as needing little decoding at all:

"She was glowing from her morning toilette as only healthful youth can glow; there was gem-like brightness on her coiled hair and in her hazel eyes; there was warm red life in her lips; her throat had a breathing whiteness above the differing white of the fur which itself seemed to wind about her neck and cling down her blue-grey pelisse with the tenderness gathered from her own, a sentient commingled innocence which kept its loveliness against the cyrstalline purity of the out-door snow." (beginning of Chapter 28)


I am a little more than half way through now. This is an awesomely long book! Especially for an inveterate page-counter like me.

I just love love love the Garths. That is the sort of family I aspire to be -- simple, honest, loving, content. Caleb Garth reminds me very much of my own father in some ways, although my dad is much more learned and intellectual than Caleb is. Still, he's never as happy as when he's working on the land. Just like Caleb he has no head for finance, but it doesn't matter because his needs are so simple (I like to say that my dad the born-again atheist lives the most Christ-like life of any Christian I know).

I have to admit that so far, I just don't really like Lydgate so much. I think he's kind of stupid about relationships, and what Gordon has called his idealism looks more like ambition to me. Give me an idealist like Dorothea any day, who has a kind heart. Of course it's wrong that Dorothea can't do the sorts of "great things" men can do simply because she's a woman, but at the end of the day, I'm not so sure that men's "great things" are what make the world a better place -- or at least they are no more important than the small things all of us can do, with great love. Dorothea is certainly not limited in that regard, and as I consider "doing small things with great love" (I think Mother Theresa said that, and probably others as well) every bit as important as "assuming a position of responsibility in society" (as Gordon put it), I can't really pity Dorothea. Of course she should have a wide range of choice (and I suppose it's easy for me to say this, given that I have had such choices), but in the end, if she chose the "limited" path of smaller kindnesses that is in fact open to her, I for one would not criticize that choice (having made it myself!) I think she -- and the Garths too for that matter -- have every bit the opportunity to be part of transforming society for the better as Lydgate does.

I agree that Lygate may infantalize Rosamond, but I find her so unlikable that it's hard to care. I will admit to being impatient with both of them right now.

What I have always remembered and loved most about Eliot is how she is unblinking yet kind, unrelenting yet sympathetic, in pulling apart her characters' self-delusions. (I am sure she is kinder and more patient with them than I am!) I see this especially with Fred, whom I actually really like -- much more than Lydgate. As Gordon points out, he at least has the good sense to love a good woman for the right reasons. The chapters in which Fred attempts -- with increasing anxiety, desperation and self-delusion -- to figure out a way to make good his debt that Caleb Garth has vouched for were *painful* to read. Being the most risk-averse person you've ever met, gambling and bad debt is not something I can relate to (and I just wanted to leap into the pages and shake Fred hard: "Give Caleb the hundred pounds NOW; it will be better than nothing!"). But I can very much relate to that tendency nearly all of Eliot's characters have to convince themselves that their hoped-for version of their world is reality, and to keep convincing themselves of that even against ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, until reality finally pushes through and refuses to be denied.

It seems that for Eliot, being kind is of supreme importance, but in order to be happy, one must first be clear-sighted -- about one's self and others -- and then somehow manage to still be kind. Eliot illustrates this not only through her characters, but also in her own treatment of them. If I am to be judged for my many foibles and self-delusions, I hope it will be by someone as kind and sympathetic as Eliot.

GT says that Mary Garth is perhaps a self-portrait, but I also see in Mrs. Garth an Eliotesque treatment of characters such as Fred, and even her own husband -- supremely kind, but unsentimental, not lacking a certain critical edge and sense of irony. If I had to pick a character to emulate in Middlemarch, I think it would be Mrs. Garth.


I've just finished The Dead Hand and started The Widow and The Wife. Three hundred pages to go. Whew! but this is a long book! A few more thoughts:

1. Is this the very best book that has ever been written, or what? I love it so much.

2. If I am being honest with myself (and if Eliot asks anything of us, it is that), I have to confess that I am impatient with Lydgate because he reminds me of myself too much. Like him, my mind easily goes to big, idealistic schemes; like him, I can quite easily see the way to achieving those goals and am willing to work hard to do it; and like him, I am often quite tone-deaf to and therefore stymied by the inter-personal and community politics required to get there. Julie charitably says that I don't suffer fools gladly, but really what that means is I'm just frustrated a lot. Fortunately, unlike Lydgate, I am not also tone-deaf when it comes to my family. Also unlike Lygate (I suspect, I'm not done), focusing on the narrower world of my family and immediate community, rather than the big schemes my mind likes to run to, feels like a gift, not a failure.

3. The enduring nature of pettiness and corruption in politics seems to be timely theme, yes?

4. One of my very favorite professors in law school, Jane Baron, taught classes that are traditionally deadly dry and boring: Property, Trusts and Estates, Land Use Planning. She was so good I took them all, often quite literally on the edge of my seat. In Trusts and Estates one of the major themes was the corrosive effects of a testator's dead hand reaching back into the world of the living and continuing to manipulate things. Case after case saw families torn apart because of mean-spirited testators and/or family members who thought they were somehow owed something fighting over what the testator actually intended. I plan to write Jane and recommend she read Middlemarch, if she hasn't already!


I finished Middlemarch yesterday and it's left me feeling a little wistful and melancholy. A lot of nice things happen, but there's an awful lot of sadness too. Life, huh? Despite all my page-counting, I'm also a little sad it's done, although I'm committed to re-reading it before another 20+ years go by.

The last paragraph ... is what I was fairly inartfully trying to say in my first post about the possibilities for Dorothea to make her mark on the world.

What did you think of the scene where Will and Dorothea finally express their love for one another, and figure out that they can in fact be married? With the storm outside and the lightning and thunder?

Two themes that had not stood out for me so much when I read this at Earlham (not for a class, but just because I fell in love with GE when we read Adam Bede in Intro to Lit) were 1) the role of Christianity in these people's lives and 2) the role of money. And in Bulstrode and Farebrother, the intersection of the two. Bulstrode is a cautionary tale of how Christianity can be twisted to serve our self-delusion and greed; Farebrother's story is the flip-side: how escaping poverty can free us to live the best of our faith even more fully. I was just so struck by what a destructive force money is in this book -- having too much of it, having not enough of it, loving it too much. Everyone who is happy in Middlemarch has enough money to take care of their basic needs and some comforts as well, but not too much more than that, and they are clear that material comforts must serve relationships, not the other way around. So, as I see it, to be happy according to GE, one must:

1. Be clear-eyed about one's self and others;
2. Be as kind as one possibly can be in that clarity;
3. Be free enough from "money-craving" to "escape from sordidness";
4. But care less for money and things than for human relationships; and
5. Practice a faith that is not abstract, but rooted in relationship ("There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.") and that is open-hearted and inclusive ("I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest -- I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it. It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much.")

Now that's a philosophy I can subscribe to!

On the political front, a couple of points:

1. Substitute John McCain for Mr Brooke and Rick Davis for Will Ladislaw:
"This prospect of converting votes was a dangerous distraction to Mr Brooke: his impression that waverers were likely to be allured by wavering statements, and also the liability of his mind to stick afresh at opposing arguments as they turned up in his memory, gave Will Ladislaw much trouble."

Tee hee hee!

2. I don't know if you check the polls as obsessively as I do, but I was cheered by this one.

The most noteworthy result for Obama is in Indiana, where PPP has him two points ahead. One noteworthy feature of Indiana is that it has had rather low turnout in recent elections, perhaps because neither party has really bothered to campaign there. As such, likely voter models which are rooted in past voting history may be unreliable. And according to Tom Jensen, Obama has a 68-24 lead among voters who did not cast a ballot in 2004. These are the sorts of statistics that the Obama campaign is looking at, and they're why they remain very engaged in the Hoosier State.

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