For a while, I thought my take on Middlemarch was going to be a simple one: “this is a very nice piece of literature that clearly paved the way for a certain genre of authorial postmodernism: Eliot was the first to do this flitting around between consciousnesses, the authorial voice here and there, the establishment of gestalt over individual”. And all of that was — is — true; I can clearly trace the lineage of many of my favorite authors (Vonnegut, Wallace, Woolf) back to this book and this writer.
And then the totality of what Eliot has done bore down on me a little further. I am sure smarter people than me have written about the genius of the book; what impressed me was that you just end up caring so much about each and every person, and you care about the little world that you’re spending all the time in. I can’t think of a single person you meet in this book that you don’t end up empathizing for at least a little — in this respect, Eliot was superior to many of her successors who can’t resist the urge to find someone to be a bit of a punching bag on behalf of everyone else. And her ability to dance between stream-of-consciousness and authorial wit feels so much less forced or arbitrary than so many other books!
(All of this is to say nothing about her flat aptitude with prose, as the many highlights I made should make evident.)
When searching around for contemporary retrospectives, I was surprised to hear some complaints about where we spent our time as readers. Some folks didn’t like all the drama around Bulstrode’s disgrace, but that felt vital both as an inciting action for the central characters and as what I thought was Eliot’s most trenchant social criticism. Some folks didn’t like all the time spent hearing random townspeople gossip; I thought that was the whole point of the endeavor, to understand these silly little characters’ interactions not as line segments in of themselves but as a constellation of movements and changes.
So, if you’re like me, and you get thirty pages in and think “this feels like a very nice version of a Jane Austen but that’s not what I’m in the mood for” — stick with it.
(Lastly, as mentioned on Twitter — this is, bar none, the greatest ending paragraph in any book I have ever read.)