Tuesday, January 25, 2011

From Fart Stories to Middlemarch - I am Nothing if not Narrowly Focused

My good friend, the wise and wonderful JD Love, is reading Middlemarch after having listened to me rave over it a billion times. And while I'll acknowledge that most of the people who've tried to follow me into Middlemarch fandom have given up a few hundred pages in, I will not tolerate broad besmirchments of my beloved book. And over at JD Love's FB page, folks have hurled invective in the direction of my Middlemarch in a manner that simply Can. Not. Stand.

So, listen up, my brothers and sisters, and I will tell you precisely what it is about Middlemarch that I love so much.

Dorothea, our main character, is introduced to us as, undoubtedly, a total asshole. She is smug, self-righteous and given to preachy, mean judginess (shut up, it's a word). But we're also told, from the get go, that Dorothea's primary attribute is fierce, passionate intellectualism and an idealistic faith in her own responsibility to use that to make the world a better place. What happens to a woman like that when she's stuck in a world that not only doesn't allow passionate intellectualism from women, but doesn't even believe it can exist?

If you're Dorothea, you marry the dreadful Edward Casaubon, because he's some kind of intellectual giant of the time and who is also old and icky (I love it when Celia talks about how he looks when he eats). His winter's age foray into marriage is brought to us by his introduction to a young, beautiful, fawning acolyte. He's excited by the prospect parading around his extensive (and dry, boring, smug) intellectualism as she she gazes up adoringly. In the meantime, Dorothea dreams that in her marriage she can be like "one of Milton's daughters, copying Greek, and even Hebrew, without understanding it." Can you imagine having to live like that? To only be able to hope for such meager dregs of the thing that you're most passionate about? You'd be a total asshole too.

And Casaubon won't even give her that much! Instead he just gets disappointed that his child bride doesn't remain forever fawningly worshipful and instead a grows into an adult woman and wife. Dorothea is a faithful, attentive, loving wife, but Casaubon wanted her to stay the kid.

Every character in Middlemarch is flawed, but flawed in understandable ways; flawed mostly because of the claustrophobic society they inhabit, and are interchangeably victims of and culpable in. And, good googly moogly, does George Eliot make this claustrophobic society come alive. It's drawn so artfully, and wittily and expansively.

But it's the end I love the most. In the end, all our characters (except Casaubon, who left the book after managing to be a dickhead from beyond the grave) are redeemed by Dorothea. But not through some grand act. Instead, Dorothea redeems them all through a simple act of decency; by believing Lydgate for no other reason than that there's no reason NOT to believe him. Because she is too good to descend into the petty, village gossip, Dorothea and Lydgate and Rosamund and Ladislaw and Fred (Mary was already OK) are all made better.

But Middlemarch remains the same toxic, claustrophobic place it always was. In the end, people are still talking shit about Dorothea and no one gets their comeuppance. Because that's the way the world works. Dorothea and Will get to be happy, but they are not happy in a vacuum.

Eliot ends her book with this:

...the effects of her life were incalculably diffusive [I love those two words together more than I love anything else I've ever read]. For the growing good of the world is partly dependent upon unhistoric acts and that things are not so ill with you or I as they might have been is half-owing to the number who lived, faithfully, a quiet life and rest in unvisited graves.

In other words, somewhere in the past, someone did the right thing, was a good person, and we don't celebrate then and there are no statues built to honor them, but your life, goddammit, is better for them having been there. Having read that and having read what led up to it and made those last words resonate, I shit you not and I care even less how grandiloquent I might sound, has enriched my life in a very real, very profound fucking way.

And if you haven't gotten that, than that's OK. But, your loss, motherfucker. Don't put it on Middlemarch. Otherwise, I'll blog again about how wonderful Middlemarch is. And, honestly, haven't I done that enough?