Middlemarch, set in the years from 1829-1832, does indeed have many characters and subplots, but four stories seem to have significance:
- Dorothea Brooke, a bright young woman who chooses to marry an older clergyman because she believes him to be an intellectual whose work she can help with. When, on her wedding trip, she discovers that he has no interest in her help, she is crushed. However, she meets a young man on that same trip, Will Ladislaw, with whom she falls in love; her husband jealously writes in his will that she cannot inherit his property should she marry Will after the husband's death.
- Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor with dreams of advancing medicine. He marries the beautiful young Rosamund Vincy, but it is not a happy marriage. Nor does his practice go well; caught up in a scandal involving his wife's uncle, he eventually must leave Middlemarch to start over.
- Mary Garth and Fred Vincy are a young couple who love each other; Fred, however, is a ne'er-do-well who seems destined to end up in the church, the apparent sinecure for young men of decent breeding but no wealth or particular talent. Mary, however, says she will not marry him if he enters the church, posing the question: What else can Fred do?
- Nicholas Bulstrode, the afore-mentioned uncle of Rosamund and Fred, is the town banker. Although he puts forth a pious front, he has little empathy for others and has some serious bad behavior in his past. When a man from his past comes to Middlemarch, the resulting scandal has significant ripple effects.
Dorothea's story opens the book and when Eliot suddenly turns to another set of characters with little apparent relation to those who populate Dorothea's world, it is initially confusing--something like acclimating to a Robert Altman film. And, like one of those films, the stories of the diverse characters do eventually intertwine. These stories also reveal different facets of Eliot's numerous themes; among the most significant of these are the restricted roles of women and the ways in which they respond to those restrictions, the nature of marriage, religion and its functions, the ways in which gossip and social class shape provincial life, and reform in various spheres.
The book is often quite funny, particularly when addressing the question of gender relations. To wit: "And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better" and "Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy."
The third-person omniscient narrator also waxes philosophical with some regularity and many of these passages, which are in essence soliloquies from the author, are worthy of reflection (see Favorite Passages below for some truncated examples). While I could have done with fewer characters and even, perhaps, fewer chapters, I did find Middlemarch well worth the 25+ hours I invested in it (I listened to the Maureen O'Brien version at a slightly accelerated speed).
Random Notes: The history of Middlemarch is interesting--it started out as two books, one about Dorothea and one about Lydgate. The two eventually were woven into one book that was published in eight parts published over the course of a year. Published in 1872, the book was a historical novel, a fact often neglected or ignored.
Favorite passages (too many to note--just a couple samples):
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts--not to hurt others.
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.
The wit of a family is usually best received among strangers.