Alex's Reviews > Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot
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Jan 02, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2011, reading-through-history, favorite-reviews, perfect-novels, top-100, rth-lifetime
Read from July 03 to 25, 2011

"It is one thing to like defiance, and another thing to like its consequences."

Middlemarch is a towering achievement. It's tough to find words strong enough to describe it; I mean, I just finished Madame Bovary and called it perfect, so where do I go from there? Middlemarch is almost three times as long and it's still perfect; that's more impressive. But Anna Karenina is pretty close to perfect too, so here's the best I can do: George Eliot is better than Tolstoy.

Tolstoy is a realistic writer: his characters are real, complicated people with real lives. Among other things, that means that they don't always get neat little character arcs; Tolstoy's plots don't always come together in a tidy bow. By comparison, guys like Hugo and Dickens operate in slightly surreal worlds; their characters' stories weave in and out of each other, often by means of coincidences that would be unlikely in real life. That's very satisfying from a plot point of view, but I know it bothers some people who can't get over its unlikeliness.

And here's Eliot, walking a tightrope right over both of those methods. Her characters do intersect: they all come together - eventually - and they have enormously satisfying arcs. But it all happens completely naturally. She sets up each person's personality so carefully, so exquisitely, that everything that happens subsequently feels perfectly inevitable. It's one of the most tightly plotted books I've ever read. Not a thread out of place. It's an astonishing feat. There are times when I put the book down just to say, "I can't believe she's pulling this off." It's like the first time you get a handjob. "Technically, this is something I've experienced hundreds of times before...but holy shit, is it better!"

You can borrow that comparison for your thesis if you want. I don't mind.

And her writing! I threw a few of my favorite lines here and there in this review. She's hilarious and brilliant, and her mastery of language is staggering.

"The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots."

So okay, yeah, we should mention that it does take a while to get going. I didn't really figure out what Eliot was up to until about 400 pages in. That's a very long time. I had fragmented reading time during that period, so it's partly my fault, but I'm not the first to mention that Middlemarch isn't quick off the blocks. Normally I would say that prevents a book from being called perfect - but Eliot's so aware of what she's doing, and what she's doing is so brilliant, that I think Middlemarch actually earns the right to be a little boring for a while. The return on investment is extraordinarily generous.

"He felt the scenes of his earlier life coming between him and everything else, as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and the trees."

A few years ago I had this flash of insight about a new friend I'd been making. We'd been hanging out for a couple of months, and one night she said something dismissive about someone else and all of a sudden, all the pieces I'd gotten to know fell into place and I knew her. "Oh!" I thought. "She's a narcissistic twat."

I'm sure we all know how it feels, that moment when you finally really get someone. And Eliot works like that. Character spoilers, and also a very bad word, ahoy: (view spoiler)

"The tender devotedness and docile admiration of the ideal wife must be renounced, and life must be taken up on a lower stage of expectation, as it is by men who have lost their limbs."

Yeah, Eliot requires a good deal of patience and commitment. But it's so worth it. Ten stars, guys. A hundred stars. Millions and millions of stars. This book is a unicorn. It doesn't reveal itself easily, but when it does, it's magic.


Edition notes: this Penguin edition has a serviceable intro, but it's very short on endnotes. For example: each chapter begins with an epigram, but many of them are unattributed. I now know that the unattributed ones were written by Eliot (thanks Carla!), but an endnote to clue me in at the time would have been lovely, yes?
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Reading Progress

07/18 "Causabon "had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of his mythological key." Lol, virgin. p. 278"
07/18 "The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots. p. 305"
07/18 page 331
38.0% "Comparison of a dead guy's relatives to pairs going on to the ark, each hoping for a finite share of the pot: just awesome."
07/21 page 422
48.0% "Some men with his years are like lions; one can tell nothing of their age except that they are fully grown."
07/21 page 461
52.0% "It is one thing to like defiance, and another thing to like its consequences."
07/23 page 615
70.0% "He felt the scenes of his earlier life coming between him and everything else, as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and the trees. Man, that's smart."
07/24 page 652
74.0% ""The tender devotedness and docile admiration of the ideal wife must be renounced, and life must be taken up on a lower stage of expectation, as it is by men who have lost their limbs." Ha!"
02/04 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-31 of 31) (31 new)

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message 1: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El I just can't love this one more than Anna Karenina. But that could just be about timing - I read AK at the right time. Maybe I should have read Middlemarch then too. I like Middlemarch more than War & Peace.

Thanks to your comment in Bookish (and now this review) about Eliot being better than Tolstoy, that's pretty much all I've been thinking about today. Doesn't help that I'm reading a collection of his short works and they're all rocking my face pretty hard. I feel one day we may need to fight about this. I'll let you know.

Alex I just read the Middlemarch essay in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and then re-read the AK one because Smiley read them in succession; she does bring up the "So is one of these the greatest novel ever?" question, and then correctly dismisses it as fun dinner-party conversation but essentially silly. So yeah, it's a dumb argument and I will bring the giant foam Q tips to the meetup so we can battle it out properly.

But I do feel that Middlemarch's plot is tighter. And Eliot's insight into the female mind seems sharper, unsurprisingly, and that is important since it's a major point of both books.

On the other hand, AK doesn't drag as much. And my favorite scene in AK - her dread as she waits to see the reaction to the outing of her affair - is marginally more gripping than the key scene in Middlemarch (Dorothea's climactic conversation with Rosamond).

message 3: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El Oh, well if Smiley says... yeah, just bring the foam Q-tips.

I think the main thing missing from Middlemarch is an extended grass-mowing scene. That whole passage in AK took my breath away. And not everyone can write a good grass-mowing scene.

I do appreciate the inclusion of all the dogs in Middlemarch, however. Eliot must have been a fan of canines too.

Alex But AK does have Middlemarch beat for dogs, with that extended scene from Laska's POV. (I had to look that name up, but Google just brought me right back to a trivia question on this site, which I totally got right.)

message 5: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El Crap, you're right. It's been a long time since I read AK and I forgot Laska. So, yes, I still love AK more than MM.

Heather Helz yeah! I'm glad you loved this one. It is one of my favorites!

Alex Heather wrote: "I'm glad you loved this one."

I am too, Heather.

El - there is the extended digression in MM about the dog named Fag. Unintentionally funny, yes, and still not as good as the AK Laska scene...but still, pretty entertaining.

Petra Excellent review. It's put this book at the top of my TBR list.

Alex Still a little pissed that no one complemented me on how straight I kept my face with that unicorn remark. I did that for you, guys.

message 10: by Cindy (new)

Cindy It's not exactly a drunk unicorn shitting a rainbow, now is it?

message 11: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex They can't always shit rainbows!

message 12: by Cindy (new)

Cindy As long as their shit droplets have enough surface tension to promote total internal reflection they can! #thatwastechnobabble #letswriteapaper

message 13: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex My Thesis: Unicorn Shit Tension vs. Total Internal Reflection.

Description: I have a terrific whiteboard. Will require an incontinent unicorn.

message 14: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Don't they eat skittles or Leprechauns or something? This is totally going to affect our cost budget for the grant application from NIH/DoE.

message 15: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex They eat fucking virgins, Cin. Don't you know anything?

Do you have any cousins or something we could bait the trap with? All my cousins are sluts or cage fighters.*

* more true than I'd like it to be.

message 16: by Cindy (last edited Sep 24, 2011 12:11AM) (new)

Cindy No, but I've got a lot of FB "friends" who post pictures of their kids. Surely children's tears are a Unicorn diuretic? Alasse will know. I've added in a line item for $100k of "Virgin Supplies."

Will there be gold at the end of our shitty rainbows? That might be a payment in kind.

message 17: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars


message 18: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex wow, that's not a real URL. Should we grab it before it's too late? This could be our million dollar idea.

message 19: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Really? You'd think some entrepreneur in meth-land would have snapped that up by now. Or maybe in America's Hat. I hear they're weird like that.

BTW, this is a great idea for NaNo 2011 - and I could publish it all here. It would totally shine on my resume.

Carla Miller I just finished the Penguin edition of Middlemarch, and I seem to recall that one of the endnotes for one of the unattributed quotes mentioned that the "unattributed" ones mostly likely came from Eliot herself.

message 21: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Ah! That would make sense. Thanks Carla!

message 22: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Hi Jerry,

I put spoiler tags around specific plot discussion, so no worries there.

And yes, I'd be happy to. I'll make that the thing I think about during idle moments at work today and get back to you in a while. Glad you're enjoying Middlemarch. It's a hell of a book.

message 23: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Just checked out your profile. I suspect you've read more than 24 books, so I'm not getting a full picture here, but what's there looks heavy on Victorian lit and some fantasy (LOTR & Harry Potter). Is that about accurate?

message 24: by Alex (last edited Mar 27, 2012 08:37AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Jerry wrote: "What I am really searching for is a modern Dickens or Eliot"

Aren't we all, my friend...aren't we all. Okay, I have my choices. Only the first is properly Dickensian or...Eliotian? The other two are just good.

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (1859): a terrifically fun proto-detective story from one of the 19th century's best and most readable authors, and a buddy of Dickens. Features one of my favorite villains and one of my favorite heroines ever.

The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa (1981): a haunting, violent, epic account of the War of Canudos in Brazil at the turn of the 20th century, this owes more to War & Peace than to Dickens. Llosa is a Nobel Prize winner and one of the greatest living Latin American authors.

And just because you're Irish, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore, Yeats (1893): a slim, tricky, brilliant definition of Irish character from one of the best poets ever. It's probably bad form to link to my own review, but I have a lot of thoughts about this book.

Bonus Dickensia: the five-season HBO television series The Wire. In its scope, savage insistence on showing the conditions of the poor, and humor, it captures the spirit of Dickens more than any modern book I've read.

Man, Butcher Boy is a headfuck of a book, huh? I read it on a road trip through Northern Ireland last spring; it made me feel deeply icky.

Lemme know if you've read any / all of these and I'll go back to the board.

message 25: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex The Wire is television. It's based on the nonfiction The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, whose co-author David Simon is also the show's creator and head writer. The Corner is a good book, but the show is better.

TV's episodic nature makes it in some ways a natural spiritual descendant of the serialized fiction of the 1900s...I'm a book guy, obviously, but I think The Wire is legitimately high art.

Yeah, I've read The Road too...Cormac McCarthy doesn't really saddle my horse.

Interesting you mention O'Conner; I've heard Star of the Sea described as Dickensian.

Judith Lewis Yes, Rosamund is a remarkable and very disturbing villain, is she not. Presumably Hitler and Stalin justified their behaviour on the grounds that they thought they were right

message 27: by Laura (new) - added it

Laura Richardson Better than Tolstoy? I doubt that, although now I absolutely have to read this book.

message 28: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I know it's high praise! But since reading this book two years ago, I haven't read anything else as good; this is still what I'm calling my favorite book ever, when people ask.

message 29: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Thank you, thank you ... I know Middlemarch deserves praise, but I can't do it right. I read it every five years and have forced my children to read it (I'm a home-schooler), my last daughter just finished it and loved it. I got weak-voiced when talking to her about my favorite part: the bowed conversation between Dorothea and Rosamond on the couch... holy ground. So again, thank you for describing Dorothea so justly and for calling Rosamond a ****.

message 30: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Totally agree: that's my favorite scene too. It came up in the comments above; I called it the key scene in the novel. So glad your daughter liked it as much as we do!

Minrain kudos to that handjob comparison!

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