(I originally wrote this as a post on a now-defunct blog. Moving it here so I can find it more easily.)(It's about the ending of the book, so I suppos(I originally wrote this as a post on a now-defunct blog. Moving it here so I can find it more easily.)(It's about the ending of the book, so I suppose I should put up some kind of spoiler warning, but I don't think I can spoil it. In fact, I think I can only enhance it by revealing the ending and letting prospective readers know that it is, indeed, worth getting there.)
A little history here -- I saw the BBC Middlemarch on Masterpiece Theatre before I ever read the book, so I got to hear Russell Baker's commentary before and after each episode. After the last episode, he said something along the lines of this: generations of readers have felt vaguely disappointed by the ending of Middlemarch, and wished that Eliot had somehow been able to get Dodo and Lydgate together.
I don't remember what else he said because I was shocked. Of course Dodo and Ladislaw belonged together! Ladislaw was HAWT. And Romantic. What else could a girl possibly want? (I was 22, let it be remembered).
Reading the book shortly thereafter did not change my mind.
Fast forward 11 years to this past Christmas. I was on the phone with an old friend who had finally gotten around to reading the book (inspired by my gushing long ago). She hated the ending. Her points were these: * Clearly, Eliot intends the reader to think Ladislaw is a much better catch than any sensible modern reader would think he is. He's self-absorbed and mediocre. All Dodo's wants and ambitions are subordinated to his career. She should not have married him. * Dodo should have married Lydgate. * The ending, therefore, is either lame or tragic, or more likely both. If you fall in love with the wrong person, you are pretty much doomed to limp along, never achieving what you might have, and that's just depressing.
Oh dear. It had been so long since I'd read the book, that I had no rebuttal. What she said made sense to me, and made me worry that this book I had loved so long was, in fact, nothing but a big disappointment. That's one of the reasons I leapt at the chance of reading it again, with other people! I needed to know which was right -- her pessimistic reading, or the rosy interpretation of my youth.
I have concluded NEITHER.
This time through, I like the ending. Not in a "how romantic, they're together!" kind of way, I mean, and not without a certain somber understanding. It's not a buoyantly happy ending for Dodo; not happy at all for Lydgate. Fred and Mary fare a bit better. But let's have a look at what Eliot is trying to say.
One of the big themes in Middlemarch, to my mind, is how to make peace with your ordinariness. Everyone wants to be special: Fred wants to be exempt from work; Bulstrode wants to be part of God's elite, without having to follow the rules himself; Lydgate wants to make a big splash in the medical community; Rosamond wants to rise in society; Casaubon wants to do exceptional scholarly work. (The exception to this, it seems, are some of the peripheral characters -- Celia, Sir James, Mrs. Cadwallader -- who are extremely interested in keeping everything exactly as it is. Similarly, much of conservative Middlemarch society).
Inevitably, characters who strive for, long for, and chase after specialness run up against setbacks and disappointments. There are good ways and bad ways to deal with setbacks. Our bad models include Bulstrode (who bribes, cheats, and possibly hastens death), Casaubon (who hoards and hides), and Lydgate, who basically gives up (we can debate this, if you like). There are two significant good models: Farebrother (who I've discussed before), and Caleb Garth. Caleb's strategy is especially instructive: he works hard. Success comes only slowly, specialness perhaps never, but that doesn't really matter. Work is its own reward. He never stops moving, and he never stops believing in work for its own sake.
Work is one thing that saves us from despair in the face of obstacles: love is another. Fred and Mary have both, and I think they end up the happiest. Lydgate ends up with pale shadows of both, and I think his fate is unambiguously tragic.
Then we have the problem of Dodo. She is presented from the beginning as special -- and she is. She is kind and courageous, able to step forward and save Lydgate when no one else (even my dear Farebrother, *sob*) will do it. Under the right circumstances, she could have been St. Theresa. But these aren't the right circumstances, and the question Eliot asks in the ending is Is that a tragedy? Is it enough to marry someone you love? Is it enough to work diligently at the myriad invisible, unappreciated tasks of everyday life?
I think it is. I think Eliot thinks so too. We work, we love, we do our best, and we can't let the specter of how much better we could have done (maybe! under the right circumstances!) recast our stories as tragedies. Dodo's story is still worth telling. So is yours.
Let me just end with the very end, barely remembered from my first read-through, that now gives me chills: ...[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 have lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.