The “hidden lives” of Middlemarch

It’s taken me quite a while to get through George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But I don’t think I’ve ever struggled through a novel only to be so taken by the ending – especially the very last words:

…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.

The idea that people must do great things to change the world is put to rest by the stories Eliot tells in her novel. The residents of Middlemarch, of which there are many, live their lives and dream their dreams. Some hold on to the status quo with dear life while others bend the rules and go against the grain of tradition. With Eliot’s final words, she brilliantly shows us that the small decisions and the little acts of those in which we are unaware help shape and mold the world into a different place – one that is better for all of us.

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Each character in Eliot’s novel becomes the important one – the protagonist – during the sections of the narrative in which they are involved. How intimate Eliot can make these characters is remarkable. Perhaps it’s easiest to consider Dorothea Brooke the true heroine. She’s the one that goes against the wishes of her husband and the general traditions of her family. She’s the one that grows from a timid girl to a strong woman willing to make needed sacrifices not just for her own happiness but for the happiness of others, too.

Eliot also can paint conversations between individuals as well as anyone. As readers, we get both the outwardly spoken thoughts and and the hidden unspoken ones all at the same time. The several conversations between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw leading up to their final decision are beautifully written and puts the reader in a wonderful suspense waiting to see what might happen.

While this probably isn’t my favorite of Eliot’s novels (of the ones that I’ve read anyway), I’m glad I read it. If I was going to recommend an Eliot novel with which someone might start, it would be Silas MarnerIt has all of Eliot’s wonderful writing – but it’s not as long. And I still intend to read Daniel Deronda, another Eliot novel on my shelf that is on the lengthier side. It just might be a little while before I decide to tackle it.

 

Stuck in the middle of Middlemarch

Occasionally I come across books that I try to read and then come to the conclusion that life is too short for me to spend so much time to get through a specific book. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is NOT one of those books; however, given how long it’s taking me to read it, anyone might think it should be in this category.

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I can make the excuse that I started reading it just as my busy season at work began. Next time, I won’t try to read a book of this magnitude during this time of year. But I do plan on finishing it.

I’m right in the middle of the novel, now. The depth of character and Eliot’s ability to paint so much of the human condition into a small provincial town amazes me. Dorothea Brooke appears to be the protagonist among a large variety of people. And the main plot twist at the moment seems to be the reading of a will – something that rarely fails to intrigue.

Have you read Middlemarch? How long did it take you and what was your experience with the novel? What books have you not been able to finish that everyone else seems to like?

George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

I’ve enjoyed reading Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Louisa May Alcott this year but based on what I’ve read, in my humble opinion, the Nineteenth Century Female Author to beat all Nineteenth Century Female Authors is George Eliot. I felt this way after I read Silas Marner back in 2013 and immediately went out and bought The Mill on the Floss. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to read it but I’m glad I finally did. I can’t wait this long to read more of Eliot’s work.

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From the beginning, Eliot’s own narration drew me into the story and I knew she wouldn’t disappoint:

Ah, my arms are really benumbed. I have been pressing my elbows on the arms of my chair, and dreaming that I was standing on the bridge in front of Dorlcote Mill, as it looked one February afternoon many years ago. Before I dozed off, I was going to tell you what Mr and Mrs Tulliver were talking about, as they sat by the bright fire in the left-hand parlour, on that very afternoon I have been dreaming of.

As I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about this novel since I finished it, the one thing I come up with as to why she is my favorite of the above mentioned authors is that her narrative and characters are so subtle and nuanced and yet she’s able to realistically surprise the reader by having characters respond in ways one wouldn’t have expected.

Like the heroines of the other authors, Eliot gives Maggie Tulliver an intelligence and strong will that pushes against and surprises her family and society, usually to their disappointment. Her brother Tom treats her in a less than noble manner while children but the reader (and Eliot herself, I believe) has to give a little admiration to Tom as he makes a tireless and ultimately successful endeavor to win back their lost family property and respect. The chorus of arrogant Aunts on Maggie and Tom’s mother’s side constantly chide Maggie for her nonconforming ways but eventually stand up for her when Tom feels he needs to banish her from the family.

As she develops a wonderful friendship and almost-romance with the shy and deformed Phillip Wakem, Maggie surprised me by getting caught up in the ways and words of the dashing Stephen Guest. Even Stephen Guest doesn’t fit the mold of “mean rich guy”; he reminds me more of Laurie in Little Women.

Then there is the finale that is arguably anything but subtle and nuanced. I firmly believe that many stories are worth reading even if one knows how they will end and The Mill on the Floss is one of them but I won’t reveal the ending. However, I couldn’t help feel that Eliot had given hints (subtle ones) along the way of how the story would wrap up. It was kind of like a literary de ja vu.

I’ll just say that of the three men between which Maggie’s devotion is torn, the one she ends up with is a fascinating choice.

What are your thoughts about George Eliot? Which of her novels have you read and how would you compare her to other popular Nineteenth Century Female British authors?

 

 

 

 

Summer Reading!

With yesterday being the unofficial beginning of summer, I thought I would post a little about my reading plans for the next couple of months. As with any of my reading plans, they are subject to change without notice!

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Right now, I have begun John Irving’s latest novel Avenue of Mysteries. Irving’s novel  A Prayer for Owen Meany is on my list of favorites; however, I have not been able to get into his other novels. This one looks like it might be breaking that pattern.

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Next is Yann Martel’s latest The High Mountains of Portugal. I’ve been a fan of Martel’s ever since Life of Pi. I’m looking forward to more of his work.

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After that, I’m thinking about Junot Diaz’ Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Diaz has long been on my radar but so far I’ve only read his great short story “Edison, New Jersey”.

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I would also like to read Alan Jacob’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. A great title that I’ve heard some interesting things about.

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After that, I plan to resume my adventures with Nineteenth Century Female British authors. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss has been on my shelf for a few years, now. This is going to be the year I read it. In addition, I would like to round out my Bronte sisters expedition with Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I don’t own this one as of now so I’ll have to get a copy somewhere.

So there you have it! My reading plans for the Summer of 2016 – we’ll see how everything plays out. What books are you planning on reading over the next few months? I’d love to know!

 

 

J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (and ramblings about banned books)

I first read J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye when I was sixteen and I’ve been cussing like a sailor ever since.

No, I haven’t.  I’m just kidding. (Really – I don’t).  But in honor of Banned Book week, I thought I would reread it.  It’s been a long time since I was sixteen and I was curious whether the novel would hold up as well now that I’m an adult – and a much older adult.  I have teenagers of my own, now.  I even read the same copy that I had bought at a Walden’s Bookstore when  I was sixteen.

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I think my passion for being free to read the books that I want to read comes from having read a few books like The Catcher in the Rye that are surrounded by controversy.  When I read them, I found the novels to be significantly deeper than their critics gave them credit. Sometimes the expression “missing the forest for the trees” comes to mind when I hear why some would want to ban books.  For some reason, when I was sixteen, I could see passed the profanity to find the character of Holden Caulfield and Salinger’s writing style fascinating.

In the case of Salinger’s novel, the protagonist was the same age as myself when I read it the first time.  I have no doubt that much of the novel’s ability to resonate with people has to do with the fact that we were all teenagers once – struggling to figure out our place in the world when the world doesn’t always seem to make sense.  I remembered Holden’s siblings D.B., a writer in Hollywood, and Phoebe, grabbing for the gold ring on the carousel.  I didn’t even remotely remember that he had a younger brother, Allie, who had died.  All these years later, Holden’s attempts to deal with his brother’s death brought a new sense of depth to his musings.

I’ve been thinking about books that high school students read.  The Catcher in the Rye may or may not still be on the reading lists, but, in my opinion, it’s a novel that has all the makings of great literature in a way that allows teenagers to relate to it.  I recently read George Eliot’s Silas Marner and discovered it to be fantastic; however, I don’t think I would have had the appreciation for the story and Eliot’s writing when I was sixteen.  I’m not  sure I would have been able to put forth the effort to read it the way I could now that I’m a more mature reader.

I’m probably rambling as much as Holden does in the novel.  One of his traits that I’ve remembered over the years is his dislike of movies.  When I was a teenager and even for most of my adulthood, I’ve enjoyed movies, but in recent years, I’ve discovered that I’ve become less and less interested in them.  I was a little surprised that this gave me more of an affinity with Holden than even when I was a teenager.

And I can’t finish this post without a few words about the banning of books.  I fully support the right of parents to monitor what their kids read – especially younger kids.  At the same time, when I think about how much I enjoyed Salinger’s story (and it was the story I enjoyed, the profanity was part of Holden’s character – but it wasn’t the story), I can’t imagine not letting my  16 or 17 year-old read The Catcher in the Rye.  I’m grateful to my public high school for including this and some other banned books on our reading list. Nobody was forced to read these books, but they were available for anyone who wanted to. I believe in the freedom to read and I believe in the freedom not to read.  I’m fairly comfortable in my ability to make that decision for myself.  I don’t need any “governing body” making it for me.

George Eliot’s Silas Marner

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In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction.  We see no white-winged angels now.  But yet men are led away from threatening destruction; a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

George Eliot’s short novel Silas Marner has always had the reputation (at least in my circles) as being the epitome of boring Victorian British novels.  It’s been a result of this reputation that has prolonged my reading of it; however, I finally did and I have to say that, in my humble opinion, the reputation it seemed to have earned is completely unwarranted.  In fact, I think it’s become one of my favorites.

With parts sad and parts heartwarming, it’s been a while since I’ve read a novel with such vivid scenery and characterizations.  Because of the time period in which it was written and is set, I couldn’t help but attempt to make comparisons to Charles Dickens – especially A Christmas Carol.  However, Eliot’s miserly Silas Marner is world’s apart from Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.  As the result of a tragic betrayal, Marner is banished from his hometown and makes his home in a little cottage in Raveloe.  A weaver by trade, he makes a living selling his craft to the people of the village.  While he doesn’t become rich, he spends his lonely days counting his money.  He is not mean-spirited like Scrooge.  He simply is afraid of being hurt again by people.

The theft of his money inadvertently brings him into society in an attempt to find who stole it.  The people of Raveloe, who up to this point have considered him somewhat odd, find a little sympathy for him if not his money.  After he spends Christmas Day alone, a small girl wanders through the open door of his cottage to fall asleep by Marner’s fire place.  Eliot’s image of Marner’s gold money coming back in the form of a golden child is spot on – without being too sentimental or too much like a fairy-tale.

Another difference between Eliot’s story and Dickens’ story involves the portrayal of class differences.  The vast ocean between the rich and the poor in many of Dickens’ stories is only a small stream in Eliot’s Silas Marner.  Neither the rich nor the poor are set up to be hated by Eliot.

Anyone interested in a story with a happy ending, check out Silas Marner.  This is the first of Eliot’s novels I’ve read, but I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Has anyone else read Silas Marner?  How about George Eliot’s other works?  Has anyone else heard negative things about a book that ended up becoming a favorite?