Empathy: the life study of George Eliot’s Middlemarch

George Eliot’s novel in 1871-1872 Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life it’s solid from the start.

Queen Victoria loved it. The roof of his London home had to be enlarged to accommodate the crowds that came to his readings. But what is the appeal of a book with its characters, related to each other, while others are not – and all of them fall into the work as if from a balloon?

The trick may not be in reading Middlemarch, but on further reading. As Vladimir Nabokov once said: the only way to read a book properly is to read it more than once. That’s when patterns and themes emerge like the picture in Henry James’ bed.

“People don’t know what he’s doing,” says VS Pritchett of Eliot. “They are not eccentrics. They are all planned and staged. But, with much credit to Pritchett, they are eccentrics: Dorothea Brooke, the “star” of the novel, is naive, spiritual, and fly – and marry a fool, Mr. Rosamund Vincy is rich to a fault. Many more.

They are just eccentric as people. But Pritchett is right about Eliot’s ethics and social analysis. Middlemarch It’s a book about finding a way to love others we don’t really like, or like.

Take Mr. Casaubon. “It’s a dry old tree of humanity,” says Rebecca Mead, a columnist for The New Yorker and author of My life in Middlemarch. He is a lone scholar, working on a project called “The Key to All Mythologies,” which aims to connect the Christian story with the history of the whole human race, covering psychology, cosmology, theology: that is, a book about everything. .

Middlemarch is a book ‘like offering different stories, different stories, different characters for different stages of life,’ says author Rebecca Mead. He adds that every time he picks up the book he offers something new. (Elisabeth C. Prochnik/Penguin Random House)

But it is a failure. And in a deep pocket of his mind, Casaubon knew. But he holds back the information. We expect to see him as a self-deceived near-charlatan who takes advantage of Dorothea Brooke’s interest in him and his work. Until Eliot warms to his character, we are asked to look at him with new eyes.

“For my part I feel very sorry for him,” Eliot told us Middlemarch. “It is very pleasant, it is what we call learned a lot and yet not enjoying: to come to this great scene of life and not to be freed from a small hunger.” In other words, can we hate Casaubon and love him at the same time?

“You’re more sympathetic, I think,” said Mead, “than the tragedy of people not getting everything they thought they’d be. It’s a terrible thing. Middlemarch.” Nose in books, mostly ancient relics, he misses the essence of life.

From hate to love

However, the pendulum is swinging back.

Casaubon accuses Dorothea of ​​spending too much time with her son Will Ladislaw. He thinks of planning a separate life without his death: a paranoia (although not completely wrong) and through new eyes we also see Casaubon as a manipulator. The reader goes from hating Casaubon to loving him.

The first driver of [George Eliot’s] Images of this kind want to change the world in some way,’ says Nicholas Dames. (Columbia University)

That’s the point, says Nicholas Dames, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York.

“All of these things are true. So you have to keep moving. You have to see different emotions in each person at each moment.”

There are lessons about living Middlemarch. Some, like Johanna-Thomas Corr in The New Statesman, have called the book a “world bible”: we hate Casaubon, we love Casaubon. Sound familiar?

It’s like the story of Job: feeling sorry for someone in pain or trouble because of some unexpected problem. Only Eliot, who rejected Christianity before, is a lesson that comes without the religious elements of religion: angels and firewood and little winged babies.

Always connected

Similar books Middlemarch has an infinite effect. That’s what makes the book stand out for so long. And that’s what inspires people to look to Eliot for contemporary connections, according to Rebecca Shoptaw, who wrote and directed an online adaptation of Middlemarch on YouTube: 60 episodes, five to six minutes long, set in a new golf town called Middlemarch, Connecticut.

Although Mary Garth is considered ‘straight’ in Middlemarch, Fred Vincy loves her and wants to marry her. (Wikimedia)

It’s low cost in principle: it’s supposed to be like a video blog. Shoptaw hosts friends, law students, students of Middle Eastern studies, and a student with previous experience at Shakespeare’s. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, board game. Shoptaw Middlemarch: The Series went another step, mixing men together, showing some similarities to Fred Vincy as a man.

“Gender change is not an attempt to fix anything,” Shoptaw said. “It’s not like it’s a protest [the book]. I tried to live and bring the spirit of Middlemarch. And I want it to be like, you know, when people put on Shakespeare’s plays, they put it in an interesting place. ”

Eliot’s classic novel and recent adaptations, including the 1994 BBC TV series, are realistic in their desire to show what it’s like to live among a difficult, often difficult, people. . This genre has a unique sound right now. For COVID, for example, there are those who believe in a scientific story and those who don’t, and the two sides have fought. The conflict is over every “right” and community, however we choose to define them.

In this supercharged environment, can we love those we disagree with? One hundred and fifty years after publication, George Eliot Middlemarch is asking us that question.

Visitors to this section:

Nicholas Dames Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York.

Rebecca Mead a columnist for The New Yorker and author of My life in Middlemarch.

Ruth Livesey He is the head of the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK

Ronjaunee Chatterjee Associate Professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal.

Laura Gehrke a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Washington.

Fionnuala Dillane in the School of English, Drama and Film at the University of Dublin, Ireland.

Rebecca Shoptaw a writer and chairman of Middlemarch: The Series on Youtube.

MiddlemarchThe BBC Series, 1994, starring Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke, written by Andrew Davies based on the novel by George Eliot.


*Nah Tom Jokinen.

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