The Sorrows of Young Werther

book cover

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel about an artist who settles in a peasant village, falls in love with a local girl called Lotte, and continues to pursue her – to the point of obsession – even after he discovers that she’s already engaged to someone else.  As Werther’s chances with her dwindle, his jubilant passions give way to fiery madness.

The story is a blend of fact and fiction as it is loosely drawn from events in Goethe’s own life.  Two years before he started work on it, he met and fell in love with a woman named Charlotte Buff who was engaged to a humdrum man, twelve years her senior named Johann Kestner.  However, Goethe didn’t fall off into psychosis as Werther did.  Though he admitted to being in a “pathological state” when he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, he parted from Charlotte and Johann on friendly terms.  Shortly thereafter he received word that one of his acquaintances had committed suicide.  These two unrelated events intertwined to influence the creation of the story.

Goethe’s short novel is a work of the Sturm and Drang movement, usually translated from German as “Storm and Stress,” which was a short movement in German literature that exhibited extreme sentimentalism in answer to the rationalism of the Enlightenment.  Proponents of the movement asserted that sensibility* (thank you Jane Austen, for if I hadn’t read Sense and Sensibility first I wouldn’t have fully understood this term in the context of the 18th century) was a more honest reflection of the human experience and condition.

The experiences of young Werther contrast the irrational individual against the rational world.  Yes, yet another individual vs. society tale.  Werther is by all accounts a sensible* man who exists in friction with the rational world around him.  He stands in stark contrast to the model 18th century man put forth by characters like Robinson Crusoe who through his cleverness and compliance becomes the ideal “self-made” man.  Where Crusoe exhibited tight order and restraint, Werther is positively gushing with unregulated emotion.  Unlike the measured and steady Crusoe, a man ruled by reason, Werther is an emotional man who is ruled by his passions.

Where Crusoe would give an expressionless account of his surroundings, Werther puts forth statements like this one:

A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet spring mornings which I enjoy with all my heart.  I am alone, and feel the enchantment of life in this spot, which was created for souls like mine.  I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of tranquil existence . . . When the lovely valley teems with mist around me, and the high sun strikes the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few rays steal into the inner sanctuary, I lie in the tall grass by the trickling stream and notice a thousand familiar things . . .”

He continues, carrying on about worms and insects and “eternity of bliss” and “universal love” and the “splendor” of his visions.  While Werther maintains a depth of emotion throughout, he does not stay all flowers and butterflies.  When it becomes clear that his love for Lotte is going to remain unrequited, his passionate outbursts transcend into darkness, inspiring passages such as this:

Sometimes I am oppressed, not by apprehension or fear, but by an inexpressible inner fury which seems to tear up my heart and choke me.  Then I wander about amid the horrors of the night, at this dreadful time of year.  Yesterday in evening it drove me outside . . . I rushed out after eleven o’clock.  I beheld a terrible sight!  The furious torrents and hedges were torn up, and the entire valley was one deep lake, agitated by the roaring wind!  And when the moon shone forth, and tinged the black clouds, and the wild torrent at my feet foamed and resounded with awful and grand impetuosity, I was overcome by feelings of fear and delight at once. . . For a moment I was lost in the intense delight of ending my sorrows and my sufferings by a plunge into that gulf!”

In both passages above, the landscape mirrors the state of Werther’s emotions.  Goethe’s use of the landscape is more than just a scenic backdrop.  Werther’s euphoric faith sinks into dejection and gloom as gradually and naturally as the vibrancy of summer fades into the void of winter.  (this idea is similarly explored by Hardy) Perhaps I make the following inference because of my experience with Hardy, but it seems as if Goethe is trying to say that we are as raging and untamable as the forces of nature.

The story of Werther also speaks to some timeless themes that are relatable now such as unfulfilled happiness and the loss of idealism.  One of the most memorable passages in the book for me was when Werther goes back to the place where he grew up.

I have paid my visit to my native place with the devotion of a pilgrim, and have experienced many unexpected emotions. . . There I stood, under that same linden tree which used to be the goal and end of my walks.  How things have changed!  Then, in happy ignorance, I sighed for a world I did not know, where I hoped to find the stimulus and enjoyment which my heart could desire; and now, on my return from that wide world, O my friend, how many disappointed hopes and unfulfilled plans have I brought back! . . . As I saw the mountains which lay stretched out before me, I thought how often they had been the object of my deepest desires.  Here I used to sit for hours, wishing to be there, wishing that I might lose myself in the woods and valleys that now lay so enchanting and mysterious before me – and when I had to return to town at a definite time, how unwillingly did I leave this familiar place!”

Many can relate to having experienced a trigger that surfaces a long forgotten memory or the sudden remembrance of a squelched desire from youth.  I am reminded of a quote from Nelson Mandela;

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

It’s hard to say what I would have thought of this novel had had I not first read two preceding neoclassical works of the 18th century by Defoe and Swift.  Personally, I think I prefer the fury and emotion of sentimentalism over the restraint and order of neoclassicism.  Some have argued that Werther goes too far in its emotionalism to the point of being unbelievable.  Perhaps the character, Werther, is not wholly realistic, but I’m not certain that he was meant to be.  Robinson Crusoe wasn’t exactly a realistic character either.     Both of them are prototypes – they just represent different things.  Werther is a prototype of sensible man and how he subsists and reacts within reserved and steadfast society.

I found myself completely taken in by The Sorrows of Young Werther which was a pleasant surprise given my two previous experiences with 18th century literature.  I loved the imagery and the lyrical quality of Goethe’s prose.  I tend to shy away from reading plays, particularly very old ones, so before reading this book I wasn’t really looking forward to reading Faust – but now I’m excited about it!  I am eager to read more from Goethe.  The edition that I read also includes two short stories, The New Melusina and Novelle, so I will be devouring those very soon as well.

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*The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms describes “sensibility” as an “18th‐century term designating a kind of sensitivity or responsiveness that is both aesthetic and moral, showing a capacity to feel both for others’ sorrows and for beauty.”  It is most closely related to what we would define as “sensitivity” today.

Jude the Obscure

Devastating.

Shattering.

Wrenching.

Soul-crushing.

And ultimately brilliant.

book imageIn his final novel, Mr. Hardy packs quite the punch.  Jude the Obscure encapsulates his most blatant criticisms of class, marriage, and religion.  It is also perhaps his most devastating portrayal of idealism shattered by the harsh hand of fate.

Having said that, I wasn’t personally as heartbroken by Jude as I was by Tess, even though Jude is the most achingly tragic story that I have ever read (or probably ever will read).  I was reading Tess of D’Urbervilles exactly one year ago and it was my very first experience with Hardy, who I knew nothing about at the time.  So I was completely unprepared for what was to come.  I think that Tess might be the only literary character that I’ve truly mourned in my adult life.

I began Jude as a much more informed woman.  With 6 other Hardy novels under my belt, I was more prepared for the inevitably harsh blow that was to come with Jude.

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Jude the Obscure is the story of Jude Fawley, a lowly orphan boy with mighty dreams.  Though he has a lowly upbringing, a childhood experience awakens in him the desire to become a scholar.

While I never forgot that I was reading Hardy, I was really rooting for Jude.  I was smitten by his sensitive nature (one who is careful not to step on earthworms), his longing for knowledge and books, and his desire to broaden his physical and mental horizons.  I so wanted him to succeed.  I felt angry at those who didn’t see his worth, acknowledge his gifts, or want to give him a second glance, much less a chance in life.  I hurt for him when he was let down by people or faced disappointment.  I became frustrated when he deviated (more than once!) off course.

One of the themes that stands out to me in Jude the Obscure is confinement.  Jude Fawley’s life is a demonstration of the things that confine us, hold us back, and eventually take us down.

Geographic Confinement

Jude experiences geographic confinement as he longs for the university town of Christminster.  Christminster is a town that is close enough to see from a nearby rooftop but might as well be a thousand miles away.  We feel the magnitude of his isolation as well as his longing, with this depiction of him travelling to a rooftop from where he could get a glimpse of the town that he longed for:

“Whenever he could get away from the confines of the hamlet for an hour or two, which was not often, he would steal off to the Brown House on the hill and strain his eyes persistently; sometimes to be rewarded by the sight of a dome or spire, at other times by a little smoke, which in his estimate had some of the mysticism of incense. . . Then the day came when it suddenly occurred to him that if he ascended to the point of view after dark, or possibly went a mile or two further, he would see the night lights of the city. . .The project was duly executed. . . He was rewarded; but what he saw was not the lamps in rows, as he had half expected.  No individual light was visible, only a halo or glow-fog over-arching the place against the black heavens behind it. . . “

I can just imagine young Jude straining to see from a distant rooftop, imagining all that was taking place, the interaction, the learning, the life of the city . . . but to him, it was just a hazy glow – vague, indistinct, and unattainable.

Social and Economic Confinement

Jude is confined by social conventions, more specifically by the institution of marriage.  His intellectual ambitions are first thwarted when he meets, and eventually marries, the intoxicating Arabella.  He is love-struck by her and almost immediately abandons his studies in favor of spending time with her.  The following happens on the very first night of their marriage:

“A little chill overspread him at her first unrobing.  A long tail of hair, which Arabella wore twisted up in an enormous knob at the back of her head, was deliberately unfastened, stroked out, and hung upon the looking-glass which he had bought her.

‘What – it wasn’t your own?’ he said, with a sudden distaste for her.

‘O no – it never is nowadays with the better class.’”

This is one of the first hints that marriage and life with Arabella are not going to be what they were cracked up to be.  Hardy seems to be demonstrating that things are not always as they appear.

__________

Eventually Jude breaks down the geographic barrier and moves to Christminster, finding work as a stonemason while trying to get back on track with his educational ambitions.  He has an epiphany one day, suddenly feeling that what he needs is a scholarly mentor.  He sends requests to five professors at the university – and gets a response from only one, who tells Jude essentially that he is part of the working class, and part of the working class he should remain.

During this time, Jude is beckoned to recite a bit of Latin in a pub attended by the lower classes.  He does so, much to their amusement.  Here, we see Jude reduced to nothing more than an amusing sideshow.  He’s neither wealthy nor educated enough to gain respect among the university crowd, yet he also stands out among the lower class.  Jude is an outsider.  Try as he might, he doesn’t fit anywhere.

Having no voice among the educated community that he so longs to belong to, he scribes a message on a public wall:

“I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you; yea, who knoweth not such things as these?” – Job xii 3.

Even that desperate declaration is fleeting, impermanent, and may very well go unnoticed — It is written with chalk.

Fate and Self-Confinement

Jude is also confined by the cruel hand of fate which, as Hardy says in A Pair of Blue Eyes, doles out its cruelties with “lawless caprice.”  Yet, it is not just matters of the external world that detain Jude.  He is also limited by himself, his essential nature – his own flawed, human, messy, untimely desires and inclinations lure him off his path and lead him astray over and over again.

Poor Jude.  Jude was an idealist in a time that was not ripe with idealism.  It reminds me of a quote from Amelie, one of my favorite French films,

“Times are hard for dreamers.”

Times were definitely hard for the dreamer, Jude.  Part of what adds to the sadness of his plight, is that Jude realizes this very early on.  In Chapter 2, he reflects, “Growing up brought responsibilities,” and “Events did not rhyme quite as he had thought.”  Jude sees, experiences, and reflects on the disparities of life, and yet he does not give up.  He has such hope!

What truly amplifies the ache of this novel is that the things that Jude desires are always within his line of vision, but just beyond his reach.

. . .sigh . . .

image of thomas hardy

Thomas Hardy

I always feel a little frustrated when I sit down and try to put forth and preserve my thoughts about one of Hardy’s novels, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more frustrated than I have with this one.  There are so many things that can be cited and discussed.  I’ve only cracked the surface.  I feel as though I have said both too little and too much all at the same time.  I’ve written what amounts to 2½ pages and yet I feel like something’s missing.  There’s so much more.  I never quite feel as though I do Hardy justice.   So it’s frustrating – but it’s also what I love about reading his work.  It’s complex, and deep, layered and insightful.

Jude the Obscure marks the completion of my reading of Hardy’s major works.  I now look forward to moving on to some of the minor ones as well as his poetry.  I feel relieved that there’s more to come and I’m not at the end of his body of work.  But when I do get there, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.  I’ll just start again. . .

*****

Published: 1895

My Rating: ***** 5/5

*****

Agnes Grey

book imageby Anne Bronte

Published: 1847

My Rating: ****, 4/5

The intent of Agnes Grey is perhaps expressed best by its opening line, which says:

 

“All true histories contain instruction.”

 

It is quite apparent that Anne Bronte intended with this novel to instruct and inform her audience.  At the most basic level Agnes Grey is a portrayal of the struggles and realities of life as a governess.  However, there’s no mistaking that Bronte also hoped to inculcate in her readers further lessons of empathy and human decency while also illuminating the superficial, petty, and small-minded natures of the wealthy.

 

When the book was first published in 1847, it was released in a volume along with two other novels, including Wuthering Heights, written by Anne’s sister, Emily.  After its release, many literary critics ignored Agnes Grey altogether, while others criticized Anne for her stark realism.  Literary critics apparently had more reverence for idealism and romanticism than for harsh pragmatism.

 

Anne Bronte confronted this criticism head on, and (in my opinion) with a great deal of wisdom and poignancy.  She responded saying:

 

“To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest or the safest?  Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers?”

 

At the beginning of the novel, Agnes Grey was just such a “young and thoughtless traveler” with many blossom-covered pitfalls ahead of her.  When she first decides to embark on the life of a governess, she has a very idealistic view of what such a life will entail.  She predicts:

 

“How delightful it would be to be a governess! . . .and then how charming to be entrusted with the care and education of children . . .”

 

She further over-simplifies and idealizes the task ahead of her when she envisions;

 

“I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age and I should know at once how to win their confidence and affections; how to waken the contrition of the erring; how to embolden the timid, and console the afflicted;”

 

Her naive notions are shattered almost at once when the least of her endeavors proves to be much harder than she anticipated.  In this way, Agnes falls into her own flower-covered hazard of reality.  The fall is quick, for she makes the following assertion in Chapter 4, not even 50 pages into the novel;

 

“ – a more arduous task than anyone can imagine, who has not felt something like the misery of being charged with the care and direction of a set of mischievous, turbulent rebels, whom his utmost exertions cannot bind to their duty,”

 

19th century governesses were quite isolated socially and Agnes’ loneliness reflects this.   Their superiors kept them at a condescending distance, while their inferiors, the lower servants of the house, often regarded them with either a respectful distance or an indifferent/scornful distance.  There was no other person in the household that held an equal rank to the governess who could serve as a confidant.   To this effect, a common complaint of Agnes’ was her lack of friends and companions.

In her two positions as a governess, Agnes must also contend with pupils who are unruly, lack fellow feeling, believe that everything should be arranged for their amusement, are unremorseful, and are cruel to animals.*

*Note: Cruelty to animals comes up again and again in Agnes Grey.  While Bronte believed in treating animals compassionately and as companions, it was not uncommon in her day to view animals as lesser beings that are merely on earth for the convenience and amusement of humans.  Therefore, Agnes’ compassion in contrast to the irreverence of others serves as a criticism of the view that animals could be treated harshly without consequence.

While Agnes is not very sympathetic towards the children, she does recognize that they are corrupted by their environment and the adult influences in their lives.  The upper class parents and other adults in the novel are depicted as cold, callous, and uninvolved.  They possess a bloated sense of entitlement, which they pass along to their children.

The only characters who are presented sympathetically in this novel are Agnes and others of the lower classes.  All of the upper class characters are deplorable and have little, if any, common decency.  They never do or say anything that is redeemable in the slightest.  I found myself loathing all of them just as Agnes did and I believe that this was intentional; we are not meant to like certain characters.

I will admit that when I first finished the novel, before I’d given it much thought, it irked me that Bronte’s characters were not more transformative.  While the characters are well-depicted, all of them, including Agnes, are rather one-dimensional.  At the novel’s beginning, Agnes’ downfall is her lack of life experience.  At the novel’s end, she has gained a great deal of life experience, but what has she learned from it?

Though none of the characters are very evolutionary or introspective, I hesitate to dwell on this too heavily.  It occurs to me that perhaps transformative characters are not the point; perhaps Bronte intentionally left her characters flat in order to keep attention on her social critique. Agnes Grey is meant to represent the path of goodness, contrasting with the upper class families with which she is forced to contend, who are meant to reverberate the immorality of decadence.  Maybe any transformation on either side would have softened the contrast she meant to render in her depiction.

My final thoughts: Bronte does not hide her intention with this novel.  Her purpose is quite clear from the beginning, and she addresses you, the reader, directly many times throughout the novel just in case you’ve forgotten that she’s talking to you, trying to tell you something.  Agnes is at times preachy and at times self-righteous; (if I knew her in real life her piety would no doubt annoy and exasperate me) however, this aspect does not overshadow the talent of Anne Bronte in crafting a simple, elegant, and yes, moralistic story.  I didn’t find Agnes Grey to be as captivating as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but Anne’s writing is fluid, her story is engaging, and it was well worth the short time that it took to read it.

 

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The Mayor of Casterbridge

book imageby Thomas Hardy

Published: 1886

My Rating: **** 4/5

When a book begins with a man auctioning off his wife while in a drunken stupor, you know it’s going to be a real humdinger.  The whole scene is cacophonous and chaotic, if you can imagine a slovenly drunk man, stumbling around calling out bids for his wife in between lamenting his lot for marrying so young and having his ambitions ruined by marrying a simple-minded woman.  At first, I almost laughed because I didn’t think that such a thing would seriously occur.  But it did occur.  Immediately after the sale is complete, the man becomes struck with the reality and the finality of it, as though he too thought it wouldn’t really happen — that it was all a big, cruel joke that he had played on himself.  Following this realization comes one of the most achingly beautiful passages in the novel:

“Is she gone?” he said

“Faith, aye; she’s gone clane enough,” said some rustics near the door.

He rose, and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic load.  Some others followed, and they stood looking out into the twilight.  The difference between the peacefulness of inferior nature and the willful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place.  In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey.  Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet.  The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed.  To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium.  In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.”

Wow.

A man callously sells off his wife with a harsh disregard of her as a fellow human being and then goes to the door of the inn where he is met with the natural world in all its calm radiance, where even the animals are managing to show more affection for each other in that moment.

But before you can jump to any hard and fast conclusions about the state of things, Hardy quickly reminds us of the impermanence of the conditions of the natural world.  All is fleeting, and tomorrow the the scene may reflect the exact opposite.

As an interesting side note – the act of selling one’s wife may seem barbaric to our modern ears but an essay by Philip Allingham that is published on the Victorian Web states that the practice was not unheard of among rustics as a way of ending marriages that had gone sour.  Hardy says as much when he says at the beginning of chapter four that there have been “numerous other instances” of such transactions.

illustration

Image from Victorian Web

The main protagonist is this man who sold his wife, Michael Henchard.  When the deed is done – when he comes to the sobering realization that it cannot be reversed – Henchard vows not to take another drop of alcohol for 21 years and then he heads for Casterbridge to start anew.  He does improve his standing considerably but Henchard is never happy.  When he’s poor he is unhappy and when he’s rich he is unhappy.  When he’s alone he is unhappy, and when he’s married, you guessed it, he is unhappy.  Towards the end of the novel he finally obtains something to increase his happiness but even that becomes marred by a selfish act that puts a permanent suspicious cloud over what he’s obtained.   Michael Henchard seems almost cursed to loneliness no matter what his circumstances are.  As a result, the tone of the novel can mostly be described as melancholy and sorrowful.

In true Hardy fashion, there are a number of coincidences peppered throughout the novel, and there are times when the plot is driven by Chance.  However, Michael Henchard is not so much a man abused by Fate as he is completely responsible for his own downfall.  There is a strong note of personal responsibility in The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Though Henchard improves his lot after his drunken heinous act, he still cannot escape the treacherous dealings of his past.  Again and again, he pays for his mistakes.

Despite all of his misgivings, Hardy does not set Henchard up to be disliked by readers.  I had an incredible amount of sympathy for his plight and I think that Hardy intended this.  Michael Henchard is a complicated man.  He is hard, aggressive, selfish, and spiteful.  Yet, he’s also a man who can be thwarted from violent action because of being moved by music. He reconsiders a vengeful act when he hears a song that touches his heart.  He is a man who needs human contact and affection but he doesn’t know what to do with it once he’s got it.  He often abuses those who offer it.  It was painful to watch this lonely man attempt to remedy his situation only to further debauch it, with one mangled act or interaction after another.

Henchard is both emotionally unsound and a force of nature.  He is a moody man who is ruled by his moods.  In a moment he can flip-flop between acceptance and bitter resentment.  Henchard is certainly not one-dimensional.  He embodies the sort of complexity that makes Hardy’s characters true to life.  The intricacies of Henchard’s nature reflect Hardy’s personal view of character and personality as expressed in his book Life and Work:

“I am more than ever convinced that persons are successively various persons, according as each special strand in their characters is brought uppermost by circumstances.”

So perhaps every man has grievous flaws that could bring him to his end given the right set of circumstances, when Chance collides with human nature.   This notion is strongly manifest in Michael Henchard and it also speaks to the complexity of man in general.  As in life, characters like Henchard cannot be boxed in with general characterizations.    The gentle person is not always yielding and mild; the rough person is not always hard and unfeeling.  No one is completely good or evil.  Life and people are too complex to be contained within generalities.

That’s what I most love about Hardy.  I love the depth and the intricacy of his characterizations.  I love that nothing is ever cut and dry, black or white, good or evil.  I love that Hardy can take a man like Michael Henchard and ask you to understand him better and sympathize with him.  Those sympathies don’t change the tragic end that Henchard meets, but it does leave your heart a little softer towards him.  Like The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye, the elemental force of Henchard’s nature dooms him to a life on the fringes of society.  These are characters that just don’t seem to fit anywhere.  They are too extreme; society hasn’t made a place for them and their natures are too wild and nonconforming to ever be deemed socially acceptable.   Through his characterizations, I believe that Hardy expresses a deep sympathy towards the likes of Michael Henchard and Eustacia Vye.  Yet, their fates also reflect a harsh reality.  Hardy was not an idealist.  He doesn’t depict these characters as reformed, nor are the communities that they inhabit reformed in order to accept them.

As I concluded in my review of The Return of the Native, the outcome of The Mayor of Casterbridge reflects a survival of the fittest.

Middlemarch : Reactions and Thoughts

book imageby George Eliot

Published: 1872

My Rating: ****1/2 – 4.5/5

This ended up being a much longer post than I intended.  I thought about breaking it up into multiple posts, but instead I decided to just divide it into sections.  The first section is my reaction to the experience of reading Middlemarch followed by my thoughts about the book’s themes.

REACTIONS

As I labored through the first 150 pages or so of Middlemarch, I mentally prepared myself for a long and arduous journey.  I began to see it as the kind of book that I might once have set aside in favor of something less demanding.  But I knew from page one that for better or worse, quitting was not an option.  Middlemarch is hailed as the quintessential Victorian novel after all; I knew I had to finish it.

Looking back on those initial feelings as I began the novel, I liken it to being an outsider at a town party where everyone is already engaged in familiar interactions and you’re just wandering from encounter to encounter.  Not knowing what’s going on, you’re sure to be confused, a bit bored, and even put off at first.  But over time, and with a little effort, personalities start to emerge, characters take shape, voices become clear, intentions are manifest.  That’s exactly how I felt reading Middlemarch, which incidentally is the name of the English town where the novel takes place.  Beginning Middlemarch is very much like being new in town.

With a plentiful cast of characters, far-reaching detail, and several intertwining plot threads, there is much that can be taken away from this immense novel.  I’ve never felt so completely overwhelmed when approaching the task of composing my thoughts about a book.  Who should I talk about?  What should I focus on?  Though it was published in 1872, the novel takes place the early 1830s, just before the start of the Victorian era.   Eliot sheds light on many facets of life at that time, from politics (both local and national) to “modern” medicine, all the while injecting insights into marriage, gender roles, class distinction, and education.  I am also faced with a broad scope of ideas that were no doubt lost on me, for lack of understanding.

THOUGHTS

modern library cover

Image on the Cover of my Modern Library edition

In short, three concepts stood out to me;**(see note)

1. Shattered idealism

2. Prosperity and fulfillment

3. Community Perception

Idealism

Idealism leads many characters in the novel to make substantial mistakes that cost them their happiness.  With these characters there’s a great divide between what they envision and what becomes reality.  Perhaps idealism is considered an acceptable trait of youth; with time and experience, some shed idealistic notions in favor working with reality and others do not.  In Middlemarch, there is a noticeable contrast between the fates of those who let go and those who don’t.

*Spoilers begin here*

Dorothea Brooke: Dorothea is smart and hopes to do great things.  She renounces much and gets a little carried away with self-denial.  She becomes enamored with and ultimately marries Edward Casaubon when she learns that he is working on a research project that will end with writing “The Key to all Mythologies.” She idealizes this pursuit and also believes that her marriage to Casaubon will advance her own understanding and give her a part in his intellectual quest.  Those surrounding Dorothea see that it is an ill-suited match but this does nothing to change her mind about the life that she imagines with Casaubon.  Dorothea almost immediately awakens to the fallacy of her fantasies once she’s married.  She dutifully presses on in her marriage but remains discontented.

Rosamond Vincy: Rosamond is a woman very concerned with appearances and status.  She marries Tertius Lydgate, the young doctor in town, believing that he has aristocratic connections.  Rosamond, like Dorothea, ignores the more realistic advice of others regarding the marriage.  Even though his career is not lucrative, she envisions a life of high society due to Lydgate’s pedigree.   She is sorely mistaken when she discovers (after marriage, of course) that he has arrogantly distanced himself from his family to forge his own path; therefore they are not there to help when Lydgate meets with financial trouble.  Rosamond becomes miserable and resentful at the prospect of losing her status and her possessions, which she seems to have a greater regard for than she does for Lydgate.

Tertius Lydgate:  Lydgate is a young doctor with progressive ideas about medicine and treatment and is very interested in conducting his own research to discover the fundamental tissue of life.  He rejects the common practices of traditional doctors in favor of modern methods that he hopes to advance.  (He also does not like to dispense prescriptions, which was the only way that doctors made money since they were not paid for their time).  He married Rosamond for her beauty and social graces and because he thought that she would be a genteel wife.   When he meets with financial hardship, he briefly carries the delusion that their love for each other will be enough to carry them through the difficult times.  When this notion does not fly with the materialistic Rosamond, Lydgate becomes frustrated as their marriage plunges ever deeper into disillusionment.  To keep her satisfied Lydgate abandons his personal ambition in order to build a successful practice and gain the wealth needed to appease his wife, but that was never enough to really win her love.  Rosamond proves herself to be scheming and manipulative and Lydgate pays dearly for not realizing this sooner.  Lydgate also leaned on idealistic appearances instead of considering who would be most companionable to him.

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The downfall of these unions built on idealistic notions stands in contrast to the fates of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy.  Mary is practical and is not riddled with egotistic delusions of grandeur.  She has captured the heart of Fred Vincy, though at the beginning of the novel Fred is unstable and acts unpredictably.  He is well-intentioned but has some trouble finding his path and getting his footing.  Had Mary acted under the influence of romantic and impractical fantasies of what *might* be, she may have hurried into a union with him only to face disappointment and hardship, which may have no doubt permanently marred her affection for Fred.  Instead she waits.  Mary is very astute and self aware and though she admires Fred she acts sensibly, knowing that she needs a partner who is on solid ground.  In the meantime, Fred faces many obstacles to stability.  Yet, he doesn’t wallow in the misery of hopes deferred.  He adjusts his expectations.  He doesn’t lament over what isn’t, but works with what is.  Fred does eventually find his footing and he and Mary make a successful match.

Prosperity and Fulfillment

In the finale of Middlemarch we read that some of Eliot’s characters find material success and/or experience contentment, but the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Lydgate dies a prosperous man, but believing himself to be a failure because of having to abandon his life’s work and passion.  Rosamond technically gets what she wants materially and externally, but we are given no indication that this brings her any sense of personal fulfillment.  Fred, on the other hand, doesn’t get rich but is supremely happy and content with his humble life and a woman that he loves.    Mary’s sound reason and patience in waiting for a stable partner (contrasting with Rosamond’s hope for a wealthy partner) pays off as we learn that “Fred remained unswervingly steady.”  In the end, the both Rosamond and Mary get what they were after, but that doesn’t mean that they were both happy and fulfilled.

Dorothea forsakes material prosperity when she chooses to marry Will Ladislaw after Casaubon’s death.  Yet, she never regrets giving up her wealth.  Her release of prosperity actually leads to greater fulfillment.  She approaches her second marriage with greater maturity.  She is more cognizant of her internal needs.  When she married Casaubon, she was preoccupied with doing great deeds whereas her marriage with Ladislaw is marked with great love.  Whereas Rosamond is arguably too self-infatuated, perhaps Dorothea looked too far outside of herself in the beginning to the point of lacking self-awareness.  Conceivably, this contrast demonstrates that contentment arises from striking a balance between the two; happiness can no more come from self-denial than it can from self-indulgence.  And prosperity does not = fulfillment, nor does fulfillment = prosperity.

Community Opinion

In Middlemarch, the often shallow opinion of the community does not always fairly and accurately reflect the deepest truth.  To site one example, when Lydgate becomes enmeshed in a scandal, having witnessed the situation firsthand, readers believe in Lydgate’s innocence.  Yet, in his reality the truth is inconsequential because even truth will not change perception.   Even if his name is cleared, the damage to his reputation is irreversible.  In contrast, readers will recognize Rosamond’s true nature and her vanity, however, we learn that Lydgate’s associates envied him for having a charming wife and no one ever believes her to be less than amiable.   Such discontinuities and ironies are possibly meant to enlighten the reader to understand that communities should be more sensitive to individual natures rather than strictly adhering to unifying social norms and appearances.

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Concluding Thoughts

Eliot explores some of the same ideas explored by Thomas Hardy; chance vs. autonomy, the individual vs. society, human nature vs. social standards.  However, Eliot takes a more didactic approach.  This is evident with statements like the one that concludes the novel;

“{F}or 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.”

This overt statement and others like it convey that Eliot wants readers to come away from Middlemarch, having learned a lesson.  In fact, she wrote in a letter dated 1859,

“If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

Eliot’s morals, though, are not demoralizing.  They do not rigidly conform to social standards nor do they rely on religious dogma.  As she said, art should enlarge men’s sympathies; she does not say that it should elevate their religious and social convictions.

*****

I feel certain that this is the longest review I’ve ever written.  I wasn’t kidding when I said that I was overwhelmed, yet, I still feel as though there is so much that I haven’t given due credit to.  My appreciation for this novel grew by leaps and bounds the more I studied it.  If it is in any way indicative of Eliot’s other work, then I may grow to love her as I have grown to love Hardy.  Middlemarch is a feast for the mind!

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**Note: I would assume that this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway.  The themes mentioned should in no way be considered definitive.  A look into more scholarly criticism on Middlemarch would likely identify different themes.  These are merely the ideas that stood out for me.

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Sources Consulted:

  • George Eliot: Middlemarch (Landmarks of World Literature) by Karen Chase