As a child, I had a reasonable amount of exposure to, if not very good instruction in, Christianity and its texts. One story I didn’t understand until very recently (as in, a couple months ago when the consumption partner finally explained it to me) was that of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Chances are good that you know it: a man has two sons, the younger asks for his share of the estate in advance, then goes away and squanders the cash. Destitute, he returns home and is welcomed by his father, who “said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
The older son, who’s been home and working hard the whole time, isn’t very happy about this. He refuses to party with the rest of the household, eventually yelling at his dad, “‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’”
Despite knowing now that the point of the story (again, according to the CP) is something like, “God’s reward is equal for everyone,” my only reaction is the same: this shit is completely unfair. And when my man told me this, I immediately shouted back, “Then it’s just like the other
Continue reading Is the morality of Middlemarch appalling?
Earlier this week I focused on one tiny conversation between Dorothea and Celia, and how much of their personalities it contained. Elsewhere, after describing many of the same differences, the narrator remarks:
To have in general but little feeling, seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion.
Dorothea certainly has a lot of feeling; whether it’s too much is for you to decide. That is, of course, the whole idea of Middlemarch. But one thing I remarked going back through my notes is the unusual amount of attention I had paid to Dorothea’s feelings. I don’t usually find I’ve highlighted such a bunch of emotional stuff, but I think Dorothea sort of goads you into it somehow, feeling as much as she does.
After an early marital confrontation with Mr Casaubon:
I am sorry to add that she was sobbing bitterly, with such abandonment to this relief of oppressed heart as a woman habitually controlled by pride on her own account and thoughtfulness for others will sometimes allow herself when she feels securely alone. …
Yet Dorothea had no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself; and in the midset of her confused thought and passion, the mental act that was struggling forth into clearness was a self-accusing cry that her feeling of desolation was the fault of her own spiritual poverty.
This “girl whose ardent nature turned all her small allowance of knowledge into principles, fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick emotions gave the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or pain” is quick to torture herself, holding herself to such high spiritual standards she can hardly hope to live up to them. It’s not the only time she ends up sobbing bitterly in
Continue reading Dorothea Brooke, angel beguiled
My favorite point among Prof Maitzen’s tips for aspiring book-club Middlemarchers is this one, worth quoting in full (emphasis in original):
As you read, keep in mind that one of the most important ideas behind both the plot and the form of Middlemarch is that things look different from different points of view. (A great early example is the number of different perspectives we get on Mr. Casaubon.) This is a simple enough idea but it has significant consequences for the novels’ characters (who often aren’t very good at imagining how the world looks to other people), for us as readers (and as human beings), and for the form of the novel: once you take this idea really seriously, you’ll stop asking why the novel is so long and start thinking that it should have been even longer.
Mr Casaubon is an early and also an easy example, because he’s so polarizing. Undeniably respectable, he still provokes wide-ranging reactions from other characters. Celia, Dorothea’s younger and more conventional sister, is more focused on “[h]ow very ugly Mr. Casaubon is!” While Dorothea considers him “one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw” (not, of course, actually a contradiction to Celia’s statement). The sisters, as such, bicker both amusingly and revealingly about the subject:
“He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets.”
“Had Locke those two white moles with hairs on them?”
“Oh, I dare say! when people of a certain sort looked at him,” said Dorothea, walking away a little.
“Mr. Casaubon is so sallow.”
“All the better. I suppose you admire a man with the complexion of a cochon de lait.” … “I wonder you show temper, Dorothea.”
“It is so painful in you, Celia, that you will look at human beings as
Continue reading More Middlemarch: Who is Mr Casaubon?
You may have noticed in my sidebar, because heaven knows it sat there long enough (it is long), but I recently re-read Middlemarch. There’s something I don’t like about reading a book over a really long period of time—in this case, about a month. It was pretty much the only book I was reading during that time, but I was busy and generally only getting through a chapter here and there, which makes me feel like I’m not “experiencing” the thing properly. I think I am mostly too hard on myself about that, and besides, this was a re-read for me anyway, which makes everything different.
By pure chance, it was just at the same time the lovely and George Eliot–advocating Rohan Maitzen was introducing her Middlemarch for Book Clubs project that I began my re-read. I hadn’t realized, somehow, that Middlemarch was considered so daunting. After all, I’d first read it as a kid. It was long, sure, and memory was light on plot details, but it was definitely lodged in my mind as a “solid Victorian novel with lots of characters and subplots and general stuff going on.” If Anna Karenina can be an Oprah book… In any case, just flipping through Prof Maitzen’s guide a bit made me pause and think about how really to tackle something this big, and I hope it helped me pay attention to some things I might not have otherwise.
So, anyway, there is a lot in Middlemarch, and certainly a lot written about it as well, which can make blogging seem futile. (That’s when you remember that blogging is for yourself!) Most of my writing on the novel will deal with sympathy, but first I wanted to do a little post on something that just made me enjoy it—the deftness
Continue reading Middlemarch: a small opening
George Eliot’s 1859 novella The Lifted Veil has, like Amos Barton before it, renewed my interest in getting back into Eliot’s long works—though hopefully it won’t be another two years before I finally move on that. Here, the themes are among my favorites: the problems of sympathy and understanding other people.
The narrator, Latimer, has laid his tale down for posterity in part because he’s never told a living soul anything about his real inner life. “I have never fully unbosomed myself to any human being; I have never been encourage to trust much in the sympathy of my fellow-men,” he tells us. But while he has never unbosomed himself, his fellow-men have, albeit unknowingly. As a young man, Latimer began to suffer from the strange condition of being able to read other people’s thoughts. And most of the people he spent time around didn’t think very positively of him at all.
At the same time as this condition develops, Latimer meets Bertha Grant, the ward of a family friend who will soon be engaged to Latimer’s older brother. Mysteriously, Latimer cannot read Bertha at all, and this fact makes her unsurpassably attractive to him. Into her coy, coquettish behavior he infers a special playful sympathy, and he has a vision—he is sometimes also clairvoyant—of them married. But in this vision, he can read her thoughts, and they are not pleasant. Still, he can’t help loving her and is determined to marry her:
Behind the slim girl Bertha, whose words and looks I watched for, whose touch was bliss, there stood continually that Bertha with the fuller form, the harder eyes, the more rigid mouth—with the barren, selfish soul laid bare; no longer a fascinating secret, but a measured fact, urging itself perpetually on my unwilling sight. Are
Continue reading The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
The Sad Fortunes of the Revd Amos Barton was, according to its introduction, George Eliot’s “first work of narrative fiction”—a novella really, not a novel.
The Revd Amos Barton is the curate in a small English town, and as always a central feature of the small English town is its gossip. Gossip is one of our main sources of information, even though we also have the benefit of an omniscient first-person narrator, who himself (herself?) grew up in the town. That narrator is telling us about the past, and to do so, zaps us into the drawing room (or whatever) of some local personality (e.g., “Mrs Patten, a childless old lady, who had gotten rich chiefly by the negative process of spending nothing”), sets the scene in the present tense (e.g., “the home-made muffins glisten with an inviting succulence”), and then give us the dirt:
‘So,’ said Mr Pilgrim, with his mouth only half empty of muffin, ‘you had a row in Shepperton Church last Sunday. I was at Jim Hood’s, the bassoon-man’s, this morning, attending his wife, and he swears he’ll be revenged on the parson—a confounded, methodistical, meddlesome chap who must be putting his finger in every pie. What was it all about?’
I found it all very effective. Almost every chapter brings us to a new house, full of chatty country folk tucking into tea with cream (I want to try this, now, but Eliot tells me I need to experience it with freshly skimmed cream). It’s February, so it’s cold, and they’re all sitting round fires. It’s so pleasant. Once in a while we find out they aren’t quite accurate in their rumor-mongering (Barton’s father “was not a shoemaker, as Mr Pilgrim had reported,” but a cabinet-maker), but we have that omniscient narrator to tell us
Continue reading Amos Barton by George Eliot