As promised, I return again to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The following post will be full of **SPOILERS**, so stay clear unless you are a Middlemarch initiate or, I suppose, someone who relishes being spoiled on major plot points and character arcs.
In my previous posts on Middlemarch, I have talked about overarching stuff, like themes and the writing style and in general, what I thought of the book. Now it is time for me to get specific, and to get detailed about what I thought about the parade of characters in Middlemarch.
This list is somewhat in order of appearance:
– At first, I thought she was too severe. It took her post-marriage disappointment to make her a more accessible character to me, and eventually I found myself empathizing and also admiring her. I also love stoicism in a heroine – that ability to take life’s knocks with a steady air. It doesn’t mean that emotions aren’t allowed of course. There is that great climactic scene where Dorothea says out loud to herself, “Oh, I did love him!” and then sobs and sobs until she falls asleep on the floor. Then she gets up the next day, not ashamed of her emotion, but determined still in her desire to do right. And the thing is, while there is this saintly martyr aura about Dorothea, it somehow doesn’t make her insufferable as a heroine, as fictional saintly martyrs can often be, if not handled right.
I really liked Celia at the start, for being clear-eyed and seeing how Mr. Casaubon would be an ill match for her sister. But alas, good judgment from the start does not equal good judgment always. George Eliot turns Celia into a silly creature by the end, insipidly obsessed with her infant son. It’s funny, I think because I liked Celia at first, I felt strangely defensive of Celia when the author would make Celia do or say something foolish or ignorant. I had this irrational feeling that Celia’s character traits were something unfairly foisted on her by the author.
He was a well-drawn character, but his political ambitions were not one of the more interesting plotlines, at least not this go-around.
Sir James Chettam
I liked the guy. He might have been misguided at times, but I liked how he sought to be a good manager of his estates and land and again, though he was misguided, his righteous indignation on behalf of Dorothea was rather touching. Also, random side note: did anyone else notice that the tiny dog Sir James has and that Dorothea is contemptuous of in Chapter 3 shows up in chapter 55, referenced as Celia’s Maltese? I loved that little detail.
Erg. George Eliot did make me feel bad for him when she describes his fear that his work will come to nothing. But my goodwill was eroded by his automatic irritation whenever Dorothea ‘dared’ to put a question to him or his actions. And then my goodwill was erased by his wish to control her after his death. Pitiful man, really.
Ah, the bohemian, passionate Will Ladislaw, fond of lying on rugs while visiting with his friends the Lydgates, nice to ragamuffin children and little old ladies. Oh and completely devoted to Dorothea Casaubon, his relative’s wife, though he knows it is without hope. I haven’t seen the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch yet, but I know one of my favorite actors – Rufus Sewell – plays Ladislaw and that seems to me an ideal casting.
Dorothea and Will’s conversations and interactions were definitely my favorite parts of the book. I love the following passage about Dorothea and Will particularly:
But her soul thirsted to see him. How could it be otherwise? If a princess in the days of enchantment had seen a four-footed creature from among those which live in herds come to her once and again with a human gaze which rested upon her with choice and beseeching, what would she think of in her journeying, what would she look for when the herds passed her? Surely for the gaze which had found her, and which she would know again.
p. 490 (emphasis mine)
That passage makes me think of Jane Eyre somehow, in that it is a relationship where the love is propelled by two people feeling truly discovered and recognized by another person.
Yes, he brought his downfall upon himself, though with the tremendous aid of Rosamond who I will talk about shortly. But I was definitely engaged in his story arc and the way his dreams get whittled away. Those chapters toward the end of the book where he is in a battle of wills with his wife were fascinating to me.
Out of all the ‘bad’ characters in the novel, she was the most infuriating. Of course, there were characters who did worse (I’m looking at you Mr. Bulstrode), but her passive-aggressive attitude made me want to throw things at her. Did this mean I didn’t like reading about her? By no means! There was a shuddering familiarity about Rosamond that had me riveted by her failure to grasp reality.
Like his sister, Fred also fails to grasp reality. Unlike Rosamond, when he hits bottom, he takes it as a wake-up call and starts changing his ways, with the help and generosity of others. I loved that part where he saves Lydgate from completely making a fool of himself at the gambling hall. I especially loved it as we had hardly seen the two characters interact before: it was unexpected and a gallant save by Fred.
What a pathetic, terrible old man. Enough said.
Just as there are an abundance of foolish people in Middlemarch, the book certainly has its fair share of splendidly honorable people and Mary Garth is one of them.
If you made her smile she would show you perfect little teeth; if you made her angry, she would not raise her voice, but would probably say one of the bitterest things you have ever tasted the flavour of; if you did her a kindness, she would never forget it.
I was a bit surprised that she ended up with Fred. I thought Mr. Farebrother had her for sure, but the plot does a little tuck and twist at the end, and Fred and Mary get a homey and rather modest denouement for their story.
The Garth family
The Garth family is made of awesomeness. There is a naturalness to their interaction that is heart-warming without being saccharine. Caleb Garth is one of the best fictional fathers.
Mr. Farebrother and family
Mr. Farebrother is also ‘good people’. Mr. Farebrother’s female relatives seemed like they had been transplanted from Cranford.
There didn’t seem to be a wrong thing that this man couldn’t justify to himself eventually. That said, the scene where Mr. Bulstrode weeps after Will rejects his offer was one of the most poignant in the book. There’s something about characters who are distraught and lonely over feelings of shame or regret that makes my heart go out to them. I think of Emma (“Badly done, Emma”) and Briony from Atonement. Unlike with Emma and Briony, however, I never liked Mr. Bulstrode, even if I momentarily felt sorry for him.
Other assorted shady characters:
Joshua Riggs – man, though he is not in the book long, he definitely made an impression. That part when he puts his stepfather Raffles in his place is pitch-perfect.
Raffles – totally scuzzy guy, but I like the small detail of him suffering from a painful dream. It makes even him seem more human.
I can’t say I always enjoyed the chapters devoted to town gossip and discussion, but without it, the main characters may have seemed like they existed in a landscape populated with silent extras.
So there you have it! If you’ve read Middlemarch, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on particular characters.