First published:- 1872
First read:- April-May, 2015
Take this for granted. Middlemarch will haunt your every waking hour for the duration you spend within its fictional provincial boundaries. At extremely odd moments during a day you will be possessed by a fierce urge to open the book and dwell over pages you read last night in an effort to clarify newly arisen doubts -'What did Will mean by that? What on earth is this much talked about Reform Bill? What will happen to poor Lydgate? Is Dorothea just symbolic or realistic?'
And failure to act on your impulses will give rise to irritation. The world all around you will cease to matter and you will be forced to perform everyday tasks on autopilot mode, partly zombified, completely at the mercy of this wonderful, wonderful book. Even hours after you turn over the last page, Middlemarchers and their manifold conundrums and self-delusions will maintain their firm grasp on your consciousness. What I mean by these not at all far-fetched generalizations, is that Middlemarch is engaging, suspenseful and readable. Profoundly so.
Despite its dense outlay of character arcs dovetailing into the politics of the community, subplots jostling against each other for primacy and the reader's attention, vivid commentary by an omniscient narrator who interjects often to shape a reader's perception, and the painstakingly detailed inner lives of its zealous hero and heroine struggling to hold on to their lofty ideals in the face of sobering reality and suffocating marriages, everything moves at a breakneck speed. I never knew when I ran out of pages to tear through. There are few happy coincidences here and certainly no deus ex machinas to bestow easy resolution on conflicts. Characters do not stumble upon gentrified fulfillment accidentally, those persecuted because of their 'lower birth' do not magically acquire status and wealth, thereby proving beyond doubt that Mary Ann Evans meant to contravene the most fundamental of tropes created by her more celebrated contemporaries. Instead they wrestle with their own conscience, hypocrisies, prejudices, mortal desires and fatalistic judgments. The day to day grind deepens their spiritual crisis, derails their noble mission of being a part, however insignificant, of the progress story of the world at large, makes them realize the futility of the individual's struggle against the forces that govern society. Some emerge victorious, able to cling to the passions and ardors that drive them ahead in life despite the inclemency of their circumstances. While others flail and flounder, succumbing to the tyranny of material wants and demanding, selfish spouses. If that's not bitter reality served up on a plate I don't know what is.
If I am asked to pick one flaw with the plot and characters, I must confess I had considered withholding a star initially because of the book's treatment of Dorothea and the infuriating Ladislaw-Dorothea arc which made me want to quit reading out of pure frustration. Evans' fascination with subjecting every character's mental makeup to her trenchant irony seemed to expire every time her beloved heroine came into the picture. Frequent comparisons with the Virgin Mary and St Theresa and references to her queenly grace made me skeptical about her credibility as a character of flesh and blood in a narrative otherwise populated with believable, fallible men and women. Is she merely symbolic then of a life dominated by a 'soul hunger', completely immune to the mundane concerns of quotidian living? Why must her womanhood be almost deified and worshipped? But thankfully Dorothea is salvaged and humanized in the end, when she lets her own romantic passions overpower her altruistic zest.
...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.
Many may disapprove of the choice but if I had to name one book very similar to 'Middlemarch' in thematic content and in terms of a multiple-perspective narrative structure set against a modern backdrop, then Rowling's The Casual Vacancy comes to mind. In fact, it is hard not to figure out the connection after having read both books. If the slew of unfavorable reviews on GR and elsewhere nipped your interest in the bud, I urge you to give it a shot. Unworthy of literary immortality as it maybe, perhaps, it still offers an intricately detailed portrait of a small town and how individual choices shape the destiny of a society. Of course it is no Middlemarch as no book ever will be but it is where Rowling shows her true calibre as a novelist. And really, it is not as horrid as most reviewers made it out to be. Far from it.