Why is Middlemarch so good?

The author’s purpose was to be a generous rural historian, and this very redundancy of touch, born of abundant reminiscence, is one of the greatest charms of her work. It is as if her memory was crowded with antique figures, to whom for every tenderness she must grant an appearance.
Henry James, reviewing Middlemarch

I finished Middlemarch yesterday and I’m still digesting it. It’s a sprawling novel, following three groups and their various shenanigans. As I tweeted the other night, it doesn’t so much have a main character so much as a main ensemble. It took me a bit of digging and secondary reading to put my finger on exactly why I like it so much, but I’m starting to develop a thesis.

Obviously, it’s a multilayered novel: we move from Dorothea’s ambitions in love to Lydgate’s ambitions in work, to Mary’s (nascent) ambitions for Fred to make something of himself, to Bulstrode’s ambitions to, well, not be found out. The town, and forces upon it within and without, truly is the main character. This simultaneously lends the book a gravity and a lack of it. It’s a book of intimate concerns rather than worldly questions: “a tragedy based on unpaid butcher’s bills,” writes Henry James.

Its strong and memorable ensemble would make it a fine, ambitious novel: the subtle layering and drawing-in of these threads is masterful. But Middlemarch goes further, because it breaks out of being a novel “just” about these interpersonal concerns.

Steven Johnson, in Farsighted, notes that novels (and decisions) work on three spectrums. We can take it that what we call the high end of the spectrum (#1) below is the most volatile, and that the lower end (#3) changes most slowly.

  1. Interior monologue,
  2. Friends, family, and town gossip,
  3. What Johnson calls the “invisible churn of technological or moral history.”

Middlemarch, as a novel, is constantly moving between these three bands — internal vacillation to “what will the town think?” to (my favorite question) “what ought one do with one’s life?” and back again. As I said, we have all the central ingredients of a great love story (the will-she-won’t-she with Ladislaw) but it’s almost, almost an afterthought in the novel. Instead, we have Dorothea’s ambitions and the tensions therein, the discussions around the railroad and the latest farming techniques, the broader Reform Question, and so on. “Middlemarch never lets its reader (or its characters) settle too comfortably into those drawing-room conversations,” writes Johnson. “There is always a larger, bustling world banging on the windows.”

This entry was posted in Middlemarch. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply