Middlemarch 2

A work of art needs an artist so that every curve, sentence, and brush stroke is made with artistic intent, artistic pursuit. George Eliot was hyper-sensitive of this fact, and thus we can see her hand in every layer of Middlemarch, from the framework of the story, to the particulars of the story, to the writing of the story.

The framework of Middlemarch is massive, and massively complex. There is no simple storyline from which one can step back and see a timeline, and this is intentional. Eliot has true command over the telling of her novel. She is not afraid to leave the story line to bring in something seemingly distant to heighten the effect of her immediate narrative: she often steps backward in her narrative to bring in events of the past, or jumps from one story or point-of-view to another at important moments – artistically building the framework of her novel. It is very intentional that the novel begins with an explication of Dodo’s character and life, and then once her lot is set by her early marriage, moves away from her and allows the rest of Middlemarch to enter. This tactic is used to set Dodo up as a foil to the other characters and actions of the book. In Dodo we have a character that is so firmly herself, that every other character can be gauged as various degrees away from her, and situations similar to the one that betook her – a foolish marriage – are central to the novel and the decisions the other characters must make. Thus by reflecting on Dodo, we see deeper truth about other characters and their actions, like when Mrs. Bulstrode becomes subserviently loyal to her husband – because of Dodo’s similar action with Casaubon, we do not see this as simple piousness, instead we are slightly off-put and disquieted – or when Mary does not fall for Farebrother, though it seems like a good marriage, because of Dodo’s story, we see that the better option would be Fred, the parallel to Will, who would have been a better husband for Dodo.

After book one, which primarily deals with Dodo, only including the other half of the cast at the very end, as parallels to the characters surrounding Dodo, we get Book Two from an entirely different POV, that of Mr Lydgate. As he goes about learning about the people of Middlemarch and its politics, we learn with him, all the while thinking of Dodo. Eliot gives us these POV shifts throughout the novel, moving away from a simple, linear narrative, but opening up deeper levels to her characters and their actions for us, like those of Mrs Bulstrode and Mary.

In Chapter 64, we see several impassioned arguments between Rosamond and Lydgate, powerful in their own right as we sympathize with Lydgate’s inner-turmoil, but even more powerful because of the preceding chapter, in which we saw ahead in time, to Farebrother offering to help Lydgate. In that scene, we saw the mortification of Lydgate at the possibility that the whole town was aware of his troubles, gossiping about him, and pitying him. By showing us his coming mortification before we see the marriage problems, Eliot lends extra weight to the marriage problems themselves as they unfold before us, deepening our sympathy for Lydgate.

In the particulars of the story we see similar artistic intent. We see it within every chapter, as Eliot winds through several stories and then pauses on one, staggering the speed of her narration to give importance to these pauses, and to show us the fullness and richness of the web that is Middlemarch. Chapter 37 begins with Vincy hearing about Will, then moves to the action just discussed, as Will and Dodo converse against Casaubon’s wishes, then moves to Casaubon chastising Dodo for their conversation, then to a correspondence between Casaubon and Will. Each of these scenes is heated with its own tension, but the way they are woven together heightens all of them. By immediately taking us to the action described in the opening conversation, the importance of the action precedes it, then by giving us the bitter consequences of the action, the initial conversation is confirmed, and the web of these people’s lives becomes clear: the effects of each character’s actions on every other character is entangling them all, and suffocating Casaubon, who moves deeper and deeper into his bitter silence.

Though the scenes in paragraphs like these involve different characters at different times, in different places, Eliot moves between them seamlessly, quickly making the connections she needs to, in short, quick paragraphs, then she dwells on the important action for pages, often pausing that action to show just how important it is. In the pivotal chapter 35, when both of Featherstone’s wills are read, the history of his family is quickly documented for us, then the action and tensions between them takes up the rest of the chapter, and just before the reading of the will, we get one of the most dramatic silences in the novel, as the action stops, and Eliot takes us around the room, explaining the way everyone looks, and how their looks reflect their feelings and expectations. She uses this silence for suspense, and also to tie together the various strands of information that were given before about Featherstone’s family to get us to this point. The affect is truly dramatic, as we swoon and then drop with the characters in a way we never could without the guiding hand of the author.

She constantly uses silences like this, at the appropriate moments to lend weight to the important inner-dramas of her characters. Before Casaubon’s death, he is constantly silent on the difficult issues, until he finally “remained proudly, bitterly, silent,” just before he died. Dodo and Will, while battling their emotions for each other, are constantly silent, starring into nothing, seeing metaphors of each other, “she stared out of the window on the rose-bushes, which seemed to have in them the summers of all the years when Will would be away,” until Will finally says, “trouble comes, and ties our hands, and makes us silent when we long to speak.” After this, they finally begin to open up to each other and come to grips with their bettering emotions. And Lydgate is constantly lulled into silence by Rosamond, for, as he thinks at the end of chapter 56, “What is there to say…She had mastered him.”

We also see the author’s intentional hand in the writing itself. We see it here most of all, actually, as Eliot departs from reality entirely to give us a truly artistic world in her beautiful sentences, and a truly artistic perspective in her authorial interjections. In a paragraph where she is discussing a character’s thoughts, Eliot will depart from her character entirely and hit us with a generalized pithy statement that sinks us well deep, or she will wind all the essences of the scene or person we are viewing into one luscious sentence. In one of the first arguments between Bulstrode and Vincy, we see how Bulstrode feels about admonishing Vincy, “Mr Bulstrode had begun by admonishing Mr Vincy, and had ended by seeing a very unsatisfactory reflection of himself in the coarse unflattering mirror which that manufacturer’s mind presented to the subtler lights and shadows of his fellow-men.” Then Eliot departs from the scene, and reflects on the natural truth – the generalized human experience of Bulstord’s realization – “But a full-fed fountain will be generous with its waters even in the rain, when they are worse than useless; and a fine fount of admonition is apt to be equally irrepressible.”

And in a paragraph in a scene of Dodo alone, anguished about her marriage, we get a sentence that strikes to the core of the moment, and the novel, “Was it only her friends who thought her marriage unfortunate? or did she herself find it out to be a mistake, and taste the salt bitterness of her tears in the merciful silence of the night?” In this one sentence, she brings up one of the central conflicts to the novel – whether Dodo wishes she would not have married, and then solves it with a beautiful image from the scene she has set up – Dodo’s tears – her bitter tears! – answer the question of Dodo’s happiness more thoroughly than it could be answered any other way. With her clear hand in her writing, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, creating characters with metaphors as they create themselves with actions, we see George Eliot subtly working the curves of her novel inside the carefully formed chapters, within the carefully formed whole, on every level artistically heightening the affect of her work.

It is not a fault in the work of art or a fault of the artist’s that we can see her artistic hand in every element of her work; it is a testament to Eliot’s command and genius as a writer, and to the completeness of Middlemarch, that every element has been carefully orchestrated by the artists, and successfully accomplished, making the work all the more full, beautiful, and affective.

share this page: