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On Middlemarch

February 13, 2007

Via 3quarksdaily, I was alerted to the fact that this “classic review” of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, one of my favorite books, can be read online at Powells.com.

The review, which is written by Arthur George Sedgwick, is magnificent. Not only is it delightful to read the reaction of one of Eliot’s peers to her genius, but the insights found therein speak to the greatness of Middlemarch. Sedgwick, describing “the fate of George Eliot,” as in, her conception of fate, and how it is different from the typical notion of Fate that we have inherited from the Greeks and which has been the subject of countless novels and plays since then, writes:

The fate of George Eliot is not one of them. Hers is a more modern and truer conception. The destiny which surrounds her characters, which leads to their several allotted ends the lives of Tito, Maggie Tulliver, Tom, Hetty, Romola, Lydgate, the Vincys, or the poor drunkard whose last agonies are described with such minuteness in Middlemarch, is the compounded destiny of natural laws, character, and accident which we call life. It leaves nothing out of view; neither the material nor the moral forces; neither the immutable fixity of physical succession, nor the will. Man is, in these novels, neither a creature who controls us and who controls nor who is controlled by nature; he is himself part of nature.

We would not, however, overlook the fact, — which is of the first importance, — that George Eliot’s fate is a moral fate, or, to put what we mean in other words, that the moral lessons enforced by life are the most important lessons for her. It is not the strangeness and awfulness of life, it is not the joy of life, it is not the misery of life, nor the absurdity of life, that is first with her: all these she understands and feels; but what she most keenly understands and most keenly feels are the lessons which all this strangeness, awfulness, joy, misery, and absurdity bring for those who will read them aright, as well as the obligation that she herself is under to help others to read them aright. This is not merely saying over again that she is a moralist. There have been many moralists in literature, particularly English literature, who would have been quite at a loss to understand the meaning of this morality; moralists to whom the bare idea of fate or destiny was anathema, and who could not have even imagined the connection between it and duty.

This is precisely why Middlemarch is the greatest of English novels, and I nearly leapt from my chair just now. Her characters are fully human, demonstrating the remarkable conflict between duty and desire which affects every decision we as humans make.

This next paragraph is dense, and contains a long quotation, a few rhetorical flourishes, and central question which is profoundly answered. Read it through at least twice, and you’ll be glad you did:

And what is this modern view of life, which is different from all others, — so sad, and so moral, so ironical, and so didactic, yet so undogmatically didactic? M. Taine, in his English Literature, after speaking of Byron’s unhappy career, and that of the poets whom he calls “romantic,” answers this question in a way that, whatever may be thought of the criticism in other respects, is complete: “So lived and so ended this unhappy great man; the malady of the age had no more distinguished prey; around him, like a hecatomb, lie the rest, wounded also by the greatness of their faculties, and their immoderate desires, — some extinguished in stupor or drunkenness, others worn out by pleasure or work; these driven to madness or suicide; those beaten down by impotence, or lying on a sick-bed; all agitated by their acute or aching nerves; the strongest carrying their bleeding wound to old age, the happiest having suffered as much as the rest, and preserving their scars, though healed. The concert of their lamentations has filled their age, and we have stood around them, hearing in our hearts, the low echo of their cries. We were sad like them, and, like them, inclined to revolt. The institution of democracy excited our ambitions without satisfying them; the proclamation of philosophy kindled our curiosity without contenting it. In this wide-open career the plebeian suffered for his mediocrity, and the sceptic for his doubt. The plebeian, like the sceptic, attacked by a precocious melancholy, and withered by a premature experience, delivered his sympathies and his conduct to the poets, who declared happiness impossible, truth unattainable, society ill-arranged, man abortive or marred. From this unison of voices an idea sprang, — the center of the literature, the arts, the religion of the age, — that there is, namely, a monstrous disproportion between the different parts of our social structure, and that human destiny is vitiated by this disagreement. “What advice have they given us for its remedy? They were great: were they wise? ‘Let deep and strong sensations rain upon you; if your machine breaks, so much the worse!….Cultivate your garden, busy yourself in a little circle; reenter the flock, be a beast of burden….. Turn believer again, take holy water, abandon your mind to dogmas, and your conduct to hand-books…. Make your way; aspire to power, honors, wealth.’ Such are the various replies of artists and citizens, Christians and men of the world. Are they replies? And what do they propose but to satiate one’s self, to become beasts, to turn out of the way, to forget? There is another and a deeper answer, which Goethe was the first to give, which we begin to conceive, in which issue all the labor and experience of the age, and which may perhaps be the subject matter of future literature. ‘Try to understand yourself and things in general.’ A strange reply, seeming barely new, whose scope we shall only hereafter discover. For a long time yet, men will feel their sympathies thrill at the sound of the sobs of their great poets. For a long time they will rage against a destiny which opens to their aspirations the career of limitless space, to shatter them, within two steps of the goal, against a wretched post which they had not seen. For a long time they will bear, like fetters, the necessities which they must embrace as laws. Our generation, like the preceding, has been tainted by a malady of the age, and will never more than half be quit of it. We shall arrive at truth, not at calm. All we can heal at present is our intellect; we have no hold upon our sentiments. But we have a right to conceive for others the hopes which we no longer entertain for ourselves, and to prepare for our descendants the happiness which we shall never enjoy.”

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