Middlemarch by George Eliot was one of the first works of fiction that I have read where I focused on appreciating the writing rather than simply the story. When I decided to read with a pen in hand, I hadn’t realized I would be underlining every other sentence.
There is something great about consuming excellent language. Every sentence is well-crafted and brings the mundane actions of the characters and everyday situations of the plot to the level of art. I spent the entire reading marveling at Eliot’s skill as a writer. Middlemarch is crafted to be true to the way people are and the way these characters would be in their world.
Eliot shows how circumstances can change our identity: the intersection of who we are, who we think we are, and who we want to be. She tells the story of why most of us aren’t great, even when many of us want to be. A few different characters begin the story on a path of wanting to be great. For example, Lydgate wants to be the best doctor, to make advances in medical research, and to start a school that teaches his new ideas. Between marrying a woman with expensive taste and becoming involved in the local politics that he initially disdained, he gets into debt and becomes like the people he so despised at the beginning, people he saw as pandering to those in power. His failing shows the fallibility of our own ambitions.
Another example of how the best intentions can fail is shown through Dorothea and her husband Casaubon. Casaubon dreams of writing “The Key to All Mythologies,” but he is impractical and keeps getting lost in the details. He has been researching for twenty years and is not any closer to having the book ready. Dorothea dreams of serving him and aiding him in his great work, but their marriage hardly exists before it falls apart. He feels violated by her wanting to make his process more practical, and she feels useless and hurt. But even while she shows the disenchantment period for some couples, Eliot acknowledges that, in real life, not every marriage is unhappy or ill-matched, by including the stories of a few couples who have been more or less happily married for decades.
Middlemarch has the romance of life without being a romanticized book. The characters experience love and romance, but the world they live in is not a fairytale world. Books need to be good, true, or beautiful to be great. In Jane Austen’s books, characters do live in a romantic world, where morality always pays off; in her worlds, goodness and beauty are more central than truth. Middlemarch, on the other hand, has its beauty and goodness, but it focuses on truth. Eliot doesn’t idealize her characters. Even Dorothea Brooke, an extraordinary character who could have been a saint had she been born in a different time and place, is still obviously human and is virtuous in a way that is within the reach of a real person.
The tangible effect of a great book is greater understanding. I can view the relationships and characters and politics of my life more clearly after reading this book. Every little thing that the characters do says some sort of truth or fact or insight into the way humans are. As Eliot describes a character’s thought process, I think to myself, “That is a real person. I’ve never heard anyone describe that this way, but that’s the way that I feel.” Or I think, “I know someone who is just like that.” She exposes human character in each jam-packed sentence, and shows truth through fiction.
Eliot builds a world that makes it easier to see what our world looks like and characters that can show us ourselves and others. She explores virtue and vice, demonstrates how circumstances can change people, and balances the influences of nature and nurturing. I think that by reading Middlemarch, I understand humans a little better.