‘Middlemarch’ and Communication
George Eliot’s Middlemarch is generally accepted as one of the finest works of literature in the English language. To see how they felt about this distinction, Kate and Corey tackled this classic within a few months of each other and, after having a lot of feelings about it, decided to launched The Ides of Middlemarch, a month of discussion and celebration here on Literary Transgressions. Click here to see all posts in the series.
Corey: Honestly, I hardly know where to begin with Middlemarch. There’s so much to talk about! I know in our earlier, in-process chats about the book, we already talked a lot about the importance, and the frequent lack, of communication throughout the book. How many plotlines could have been easily solved, shortened, or otherwise drawn to tidy conclusions so much sooner and with so much less strife if all parties involved communicated better?
There is so much assumption between characters (and every assumption is usually based on an incorrect perspective on an issue) that it’s easy for everyone to get all turned around and confused. It’s actually amazing anything worked out for the best at all.
Kate: Did everything work out for the best, though? I mean, Dorothea and Will ended up together, but…he’s sort of unconvincing, to me. Dorothea seemed to be jumping from one extreme to the other, marriage-wise, and I’m not positive she’s going to find what she’s looking for with Will. I suppose it ended up okay for everyone else (except the Lydgate family).
Corey: Indeed, working out “for the best” may have been an optimistic assessment of the situation. Will is very unconvincing and I’m similarly conflicted about him being Dorothea’s best mate, not least because of their shared inability to communicate anything of import to the other and the lack of clarity surrounding what Dorothea actually wants in marriage and in life.
Kate: That’s an excellent point. What does she even want? She’s certainly not telling anyone, and I don’t think Will is going to know what to even do with her. She’s so smart, but she’s framing all of her knowledge within how she can help a husband — and I don’t see how Will fits into that. She wanted to marry Sir What’s-his-nuts so she could build tenant cottages; she married Causabon because she wanted to study and contribute to his research. What does Will have?
I’m not sure whether Eliot was trying to make a point about limited options in society or what, but I just wanted Dorothea to throw up her hands, forswear marriage all together and go do whatever she wants. Eliot did.
Corey: Yes! Dorothea’s (or perhaps society’s) insistence on framing her choices in relation to marriage was particularly frustrating because she, like Eliot, did have a professional passion: tenant cottages and improving the daily life of those around her. Even before she married Causabon and particularly after his death, Dorothea had the resources, the interest, and the ideas necessary to make her dream a reality, but chose instead to frame her life around the question of marriage. Eliot could only be making a statement about the limitations forced on women in society by creating such a character and then sweeping her up into two frankly baffling matches.
Kate: Yes, maybe that’s Eliot’s point? That the options for a young woman like Dorothea are marrying a rich, elderly, unhappy man or marrying a poor, attractive, but otherwise useless young man. It’s maybe notable that she gives up whatever financial resources she has to help people in order to martyr herself on the altar of marriage. Sure, she can live simply, as she said, but…why not put that money to good use somehow? And why marry, for that matter? Why not “live in sin” with Will, as Eliot did her lover, and have the best of both worlds? Why make that choice?
Similarly, Mary Garth’s options seem to be manipulating a childhood friend into changing his whole personality and constantly pestering him to better himself and marry her (becoming the “angel of the house”) or remaining single and tending to the elderly all of her days. Certainly none of these women live a life I envy, though Celia seems to be happy — but only because her expectations are in line with what society feels she should be doing, marrying well and having children.
Corey: Indeed, Eliot is not painting a terribly rosy picture of matrimony and women’s options. Even the middle-aged marriages in the book are similarly burdened with frequent miscommunication, misunderstanding, or mismatched expectations. The Vinchys are at cross-purposes frequently, with Mrs. Vinchy sheltering Fred no matter the consequences and Mr. Vinchy wanting to throttle him; the Garths love each other, but Mrs. Garth frequently suffers (and holds her tongue) in the face of Mr. Garth’s lack of business acumen; and Mr. Bulstrode fundamentally misleads his wife about his past until he is absolutely forced to reveal it, forcing Mrs. Bulstrode out of a community she liked and away from her family.
Next week: Who did we love and who did we hate? Kate and Corey chat about the characters and Eliot’s amazing characterization skills.