Into the Canon: Middlemarch

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It's been too long since I've posted on my explorations. Frankly, I haven't been sure what, precisely, to say. Here is a really ragged attempt.


George Eliot's prose have a kind of physicality, and making my way Middlemarch feels more like studying a sculpture than actually reading a book. There's a narrative here, but it's almost beside the point. (At least so far.) What I'm more seeing is kind of philosophical tract written with conventions of fiction.

I don't mean in the fashion of bad allegory, of nonfiction writers who lack the courage to report and thus fall back on flat, stock characters to convey ideas. Eliot's characters are alive, and she gleefully employs all manner of tools to dispense with your disbelief. My favorite is pouring out an utterly dispassionate omniscient analysis and then abruptly switching to the first person:

How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither? I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. 

But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight--that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.

That "I suppose" is so key there, for me. There's a dissonance between the omniscient narrator pose, which Eliot strikes for most of the book, and the lack of certainty in "I suppose..." Her lack of confidence, her compulsion to speak of the situation with that same hesitancy with which we speak about our own lives, is seductive. In reality we are never sure. Thus Eliot's hesitancy becomes a kind of confidence, and the prose become real.

But to the physicality of the work and its philosophical nature. On Fred Vincy:


You will hardly demand that his confidence should have a basis in external facts; such confidence, we know, is something less coarse and materialistic: it is a comfortable disposition leading us to expect that the wisdom of providence or the folly of our friends, the mysteries of luck or the still greater mystery of our high individual value in the universe, will bring about agreeable issues, such as are consistent with our good taste in costume, and our general preference for the best style of thing....

On his family:

And in any case, even supposing negations which only a morbid distrust could imagine, Fred had always (at that time) his father's pocket as a last resource, so that his assets of hopefulness had a sort of gorgeous superfluity about them. Of what might be the capacity of his father's pocket, Fred had only a vague notion: was not trade elastic? And would not the deficiencies of one year be made up for by the surplus of another? The Vincys lived in an easy profuse way, not with any new ostentation, but according to the family habits and traditions, so that the children had no standard of economy, and the elder ones retained some of their infantine notion that their father might pay for anything if he would. Mr. Vincy himself had expensive Middlemarch habits--spent money on coursing, on his cellar, and on dinner-giving, while mamma had those running accounts with tradespeople, which give a cheerful sense of getting everything one wants without any question of payment. 

On his species:

With a favor to ask we review our list of friends, do justice to their more amiable qualities, forgive their little offenses, and concerning each in turn, try to arrive at the conclusion that he will be eager to oblige us, our own eagerness to be obliged being as communicable as other warmth. Still there is always a certain number who are dismissed as but moderately eager until the others have refused; and it happened that Fred checked off all his friends but one, on the ground that applying to them would be disagreeable; being implicitly convinced that he at least (whatever might be maintained about mankind generally) had a right to be free from anything disagreeable. 

And finally on his class:

That he should ever fall into a thoroughly unpleasant position--wear trousers shrunk with washing, eat cold mutton, have to walk for want of a horse, or to "duck under" in any sort of way--was an absurdity irreconcilable with those cheerful intuitions implanted in him by nature. And Fred winced under the idea of being looked down upon as wanting funds for small debts. 

The whole book is (so far) is like this--winding passages concerning the nature of Eliot's characters and what that nature says about us all. Again, one has the feeling more of spelunking into Middlemarch than reading it. Kenyatta asked me what the book was about today. I told her I didn't know.

I don't think I've ever seen anything like this. Middlemarch was written for a different era, and a different class of people. It was written for a leisure class with a great deal of time on its hands. I really tremble for its fate in the era of twitter.

More soon. Forgive the scattered, haphazard nature of my thoughts.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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