Friday, January 20, 2012

A and Z March through the Middle: Middlemarch Part 1

This year, Aarti and I have decided to wade deeply into a classic book of literature that we hadn’t been exposed to before. We thought it would be fun to break up our reading into sections and post a little bit of our conversation and reflections on what we’ve read. This is really different for me because I’ve never really shared a classic with anyone before, but I knew that if I had Aarti along for the ride, it would be much less intimidating and more of a full experience. So we have embarked on our read of Middlemarch by George Eliot with some eagerness, despite the fact that neither of us really knew what the book was about. I encourage you to hop on over to Aarti’s site today and see the first part of of our conversation, where we address some of the immediate perceptions that we had of the book. Our opinions differed, so there should be much there to interest you. Then head on back and read the conclusion to our discussion on Book 1 of Middlemarch. It’s quite a story, even though neither of us are exactly sure what’s happening yet!

Aarti: I also really like Mary. I hope that we get to see her interact with Fred more as I think those two would have very fun conversations. I also have a feeling there may be some romance brewing between Dorothea and Ladislaw, do you? The way he was introduced and their first thoughts toward each other make it seem very likely, in my mind.

Zibilee: I liked Mary too. She seems sensible and also very pragmatic and candid, which I like because she’s sort of the opposite of Dorthea in some ways. I do hope that there is some interaction between Fred and Mary as well. They both seem like they have a similar approach to the world, you know? I know it's specifically stated that they won't marry, but I sort of hoped that they would discover they were in love, or something like that!

Aarti: WHAT? But I want one between them! I will respectfully continue to hope for it, even if it’s not going to happen :-)

Zibilee: And yes! I do think that there will be some sort of relationship between Dorthea and Ladislaw. It just seems like Eliot is setting them up for that. I actually like Ladislaw but think he’s a little smug. Every time I see his name, my mind thinks coleslaw! The names in this book are sort of weird!

Aarti: I was also really drawn to the amazing turn for metaphor and simile that Eliot has. Some examples:
“…the remark lay in his mind as lightly as the broken wing of an insect among all the other fragments there, and a chance current had sent it alighting on her.”
“the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.” (Oh, I love the idea of an amorous rook!)
“the text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.” (So true, people read so much into things)
“He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James.
“No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader. (So witty!)

Zibilee: I have to say that some of the metaphors and similes are rather inventive, but some of them I haven't appreciated as much as you have. I love the one about the blood and the semicolons, and a few others have stuck in my mind, but I sometimes overlook those refinements of narrative when I’m reading a lengthy book. I tried to highlight a few of the ones that I liked, but it was a little difficult on the Kindle so I stopped doing it, and now I can't remember them! I also liked the one about the insect wings. I wish I could remember more of them!

Aarti: Really, I think what is going to keep me engaged in this book is how spot-on Eliot is in her description of people and their feelings (or lack thereof, in Casaubon’s case). I generally dislike long paragraphs of narrator descriptions, but in these cases, I really appreciate Eliot’s insights into a character’s thoughts and motivations. She understands and knows people so well, and it’s fascinating to read about them from her point of view. In particular, her long passage on Casaubon and how disappointed he is that he does not feel very happy about his engagement, and does not have great bursts of feeling, is wonderful. I felt so bad for the man (and terrified of him, quite honestly) because of the way he reacts. I unfortunately didn’t mark the passage I want to refer to, but there is a line that says Casaubon had read the great depths of feelings that poets confessed when they were in love, and decided that they were lying or over exaggerating because he, who had stored up so much happiness for his future and was marrying such a perfect specimen of a girl, did not feel those great depths of emotion upon his engagement, and therefore they didn’t really exist. I felt bad for him because I can in many ways understand the sentiment- there is obviously a feeling of, “I deserve this because I’ve waited so long for it.” But I was scared of him because it seems like he has no empathy in him- if he doesn’t feel something, he can’t conceive of someone else feeling it.

Zibilee: I also like the way she portrays her characters and think that she does a great job of delving deeply into their minds and getting to the very heart of what makes them tick. It's a little unusual but very very interesting. Casaubon's plight is really what I think a lot of people are like in some ways. Society has this driving force that sort of tells people that marriage and procreation are nonnegotiable facts of life, when the reality is that for many, it's not as simple as that, and sometimes it's even unwanted!

Aarti: YES. I know that you and I have had many detailed discussions on this very topic, but you voice it so well here. People have this feeling of inevitability about marriage- as though it’s bound to happen to everyone, and it’s going to be perfect, and all will be well if you finally have a ring on your finger. But you’re right- it’s so often very complicated and difficult and I’m so glad that Eliot respects that and delves into life after marriage, instead of ending with the “happily ever after” part.

Zibilee: I think in his case, he wants a wife to be a helpmeet to him and is marrying without passion, which is going to totally backfire. But it's hard to say, because Dorthea seems to know exactly what she’s getting into and is looking to be his helper and student. What I find irritating about him is that he’s pretending to feel all these nobler emotions and is feigning the softer feelings. Like you, I believe that could make him dangerous if certain things play out in a specific way. I think Dorthea will eventually have a passionate awakening and suddenly her marriage will be seen as the sham that it is. I’m intrigued and can’t wait to read further!

Aarti: Also, the characters seem to refer to a political situation a lot, so I did some digging and found this to describe the Reform Act as it relates to Middlemarch, with some good external links. Hopefully you find that helpful to you, too!

Zibilee: That did help, thanks! I have no idea what's going on in the political sections of this story, so reading that sort of gives me a little more of an inkling of what's going on.

Aarti: Well, that was a very detailed look at Book 1 of this novel! I’m so glad we’re reading this together - already, I feel like having the discussion has made me think more about the themes and characters than I otherwise would have. Looking forward to the rest of it, too!


JaneGS said...

Middlemarch is one of my very favorite books, and I'm looking forward to rereading it later this year. I really enjoyed your conversation, and I couldn't help smiling at some of your thoughts, knowing what is to come.

I love the quote you pulled out with the metaphors. I think Eliot has one of the best narrative voices ever--wise, compassionate, incisive.

Enjoy. Looking forward to more of your discussions.

Oh, and Mary Garth and Fred Vincy are among my all-time favorite characters.

Darlene said...

I've always wanted to read this one. I hope you gals enjoy reading it together.

Andi said...

Love this idea and looking forward to following your discussions!

Harvee said...

Great idea to have a discussion about the book. New insights...

Brooke said...

Looks like y'all are going to have so much fun with Middlemarch - and it's such an excellent book to discuss. Enjoy!

Suko said...

Great discussion, ladies! I have Middlemarch in my bookshelf but I haven't opened it since my college days--maybe I should reread it; I think I'd understand it better now.

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

what a fun way to read through Middlemarch!

Aarti said...

It was so fun reading this with you (as always). I am really excited to discuss the rest in great detail, too, and get much more from the book than I would have if I had read it alone.

Marie Cloutier said...

wow, this is great. I really want to read Middlemarch this year so I'm going to skim your conversations so I don't get too much information and I think it's wonderful you're doing this!

Athira said...

So glad to see that you and Aarti are reading Middlemarch. It's on my wishlist, so I will be looking forward to catching up with your thoughts on this book.

Ana S. said...

The fact that Eliot goes so far beyond the "happy every after" is one of my favourite things about this novel. Very interesting discussion, I can't wait for the next instalment :)

Unknown said...

I have always meant to read Middlemarch because I blew it off in one of my college classes. It was the last semester of my senior year and I just couldn't get into it.
I thought the comment you and Aarti made about the strictures put on women and how they are portrayed as not being smart or made for serious thinking. I remember learning that George Eliot was angry about that and wanted to fight it but was also aware that she had to be smart about how she fought those beliefs or else she would just be laughed at and ignored.

What struck me as interesting is the women in Villette, set in a girls school with both male and female teachers, were treated as if they weren't very smart, were only capable of simplistic thinking and focusing on lesser subjects like the arts and not the more difficult ones like math and science. I found that so irritating!

I looked it up and Middlemarch and Villette were written and published around the same time, the mid 1800s.

You and Aarti are having such an amazing discussion and you're making this book so interesting and I'm not even reading it!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

My hat tips to you and Aarti - this is quite an undertaking!

Jenny Girl said...

Oh so that's what all the political bots are about? When I read these passages I read into them, like how they are cutting at each other, kind of. And I guess they are. Now I will be able to understand the rest properly. Great part 2 girls :)

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