Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Living Faithfully a Hidden Life: Thoughts on George Eliot's 'Middlemarch'

I have just finished the second of a projected three weighty, challenging classics of Western literature that I'd decided I would try to read this year, after repeated procrastinations and delays: George Eliot's Victorian-era epic of English provincial life and manners, Middlemarch. (The first one, reported on earlier on this blog, was Thomas Mann's philosophical novel The Magic Mountain, and the third, if I ever get to it, will be Fyodor Dostoevsky's monumental spiritual classic The Brothers Karamazov.) This was also the first installment of my aforementioned "British Literary Invasion," in which I attempt to fill in the embarrassing gaps in my literary education when it comes to British literature. Soon I will be moving on to the next installment in that series with one of Thomas Hardy's best-known novels, The Return of the Native.

But enough about other novels -- I'd like to share a few thoughts about the massive one I have just completed. This was my first encounter with George Eliot's work, although of course I have been hearing about her famous novels for as long as I can remember: acknowledged classics such as The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, as well as lesser known works like Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede. Several years ago I learned about the spiritual and moral import of her work through reading Dr. Robert Coles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist and literary critic who famously taught the works of the Western literary tradition to doctors and lawyers at the graduate level at Harvard. The focus of his courses for these graduate students was always on how literature teaches us critically important moral and spiritual lessons of life, and several times in his writing he refers to Middlemarch as a work that has much to say about (to swipe the title of a book I just finished) "the art of living." I made a note to myself that this was a classic I needed to get back to at some point. That 'point' happened to be the last few months -- yes, it took me that long to get through it, but with a family of five and a full-time job to juggle, you don't exactly have huge chunks of time to sit back and read at your leisure! If you're going to take on a book as long and complex as Middlemarch, you have to be resigned to the fact that you're going to be living with these characters, and this writer, in your head for a long time...

All that said, I am happy to report that although Middlemarch takes real effort to get through, it is well worth the time spent. One might well wonder what a Victorian-era novel about the life of the citizens of a provincial English country village -- in which no major events happen, no crimes or battles or strange incidents or accidents or riots -- could possibly have to say to adults living in 21st-century America during the age of instant information, postmodern confusion and the pervasiveness of pop culture. My answer, perhaps not surprisingly to anyone who has visited this blog before, is simply this: everything. One of the great glories of literature is firmly rooted in the fact that human nature, in its essence, does not change. When the external wrappings of time and place are stripped away, the core is revealed to be something we all hold in common. And though the physical, logistical and social constraints and conditions of Victorian-era life in rural England may be quite different than those we live with, the deep and profound questions these characters are contending with were ones I found to be quite familiar. See if you agree with me. Questions such as:
  • What is the best way to live respectfully with others in community, while at the same time remaining independent with one's own ideas and not being afraid to express them?
  • What are one's obligations to those neighbors outside the boundaries of one's own family circle? What happens when one's perceived responsibilities to those less fortunate than you start to impinge on one's responsibilities at home?
  • What does it mean to "work out (one's) salvation with fear and trembling" within the context of a marriage relationship?
  • To what extent should one's own hopes and dreams be sacrificed or put on hold so that a spouse can pursue theirs?
  • To what extent should financial concerns and stewardship guide one's everyday decisions?

Middlemarch is a book that deals with the realities of married life vs. the societal conventions and expectations husbands and wives have imposed on them, the struggle to maintain a healthy moral and spiritual relationship to the material goods and resources we need in order to live, and the challenges and blessings of living in community. Beyond (and including) all of this, however, I think it is a book about vocation. Eliot chooses to begin the book with a fascinating prologue, comparing her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to Saint Teresa of Avila (!):

Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity . . . . With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness . . . . Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse . . . . Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long recognizable deed.

Which sounds bleak, I realize (though interesting)... but my point is that Eliot is concerned with taking this seemingly ordinary life and opening it up for us, like a flower, to show us that inside is a heart that's much more complex and ambitious than it would appear on the surface. This is, in point of fact, no ordinary life at all. As we observe Dorothea's courtship and marriage, and then the terrific emotional and spiritual struggles she and her husband go through to maintain a happy and healthy life together, we come to realize that this is the crucible within which Dorothea's soul must be tested in order to realize who she really is. We are all tested in our lives with daily battles that roil and rage under the surface of seemingly "normal" and conventional situations. The people you pass by, work with, and talk to on the phone could very easily be going through excruciating, or exhilarating, seasons in their lives that will have a profound impact on who they are and what they have been put on this earth to do. But what we do, and specifically what we do with, to and for others, can have an impact that goes well beyond what our limited minds can account for.

Eliot expresses this profound reality eloquently in the final, and strangely hopeful, sentence of this great and serious book:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

I enjoyed this post on Eliot's classic! I knew practically nothing about it but I think that you did a very fine job of arguing why it would make sense to read in this day and age. I would have thought so anyway, but the reasons you laid out here for the usefulness of such a work of literature for modern readers were astute and well-articulated! You do a much better job of recapping the books you ingest than you probably think, but it's hard to be objective about such things I guess. It's interesting too that this book meant so much to Bob Schweik since it seems more optimistic than Hardy (I might be wrong about that). I salute the effort it took to read and then write about a book like this. Also, that last sentence was damned incredible!!!