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Middlemarch by George Eliot

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Summary: Again, this is one of those novels that is very difficult to summarize. It follows the lives and circumstances of the inhabitants of Middlemarch, a provincial English town in the 1830s. Perhaps the two most major characters are Dorothea and Lydgate, both idealists whose lives turn out much differently than they anticipated. Dorothea has grand intellectual and philanthropic ambitions, but traps herself in an unfulfilling marriage with the dusty and unloving Casaubon. Lydgate aspires to be an influential doctor, a researcher and discoverer of cures, but is drowned in small-town politics and debt. The characters around them struggle with their own private tragedies, disappointments, and challenges. What the novel really strives to show us is how interconnected all their lives are. It urges us, and the characters, to open themselves to sympathy for those around them, to live as full human beings by acknowledging that they are not the center of the universe. It's also deeply interested in the tiniest of interactions, in the small causes that turn our lives in one direction or another.

Review: I will admit, I was a little confused by Middlemarch at first. It was by no means unpleasant or uninteresting, but I couldn't understand all the rave reviews listing it as the greatest English novel of all time. After a little time has passed, and I have had time to digest the story, I can see a little clearer where everyone was coming from. Eliot is a master at isolating the inner workings of her characters' minds, of showing the route of their decision-making from station to station, as no writer really had before her. It is a novel which requires quite an investment of time and attention. You have to be looking for the details, for the tiny moments of human connection and tragedy, to appreciate it.

That being said, this novel is heartbreaking in its realism and truth. It is so hard to see the missed meanings and boundaries that keep the characters from connecting to one another. No one is evil and no one is good. Everyone is needy and precious and alone.

Quotations: "Nor can I suppose that when Mrs Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life , it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity."

"Namely, that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it, and like the rest of us, felt how soothing it would have been to have a companion who would never find it out."
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