Friday, July 15, 2011

Middlemarch: George Eliot's Guide to a Good Marriage

I guess I haven't told you this, but I plan on reading the 100 best books of all time, and the first book on my list was Middlemarch by (a woman named ) George Eliot.  It was 896 pages of good ol' Victorian age British writing about three provincial couples who lived around 1832.

I grew very attached to the characters in this book, particularly to the characters of Lydgate, Fred, and Dorothea.  All three of these characters had goals that were somehow frustrated by outside forces like death, debt, and social position. What these three characters had in common was that people had trouble understanding them.  Dorothea wished to marry the man of her choice, but others did not feel he was a good match.  Fred wished to marry his childhood sweetheart, but others felt that he is unworthy of her love.  And poor debt-stricken Lydgate tried to maintain a happy marriage in the face of poverty, but his wife did not support him.  The story of Lydgate is probably the one I responded to the most.  There were points while I was reading it that I became simply enraged at the character Rosamond.  She had no conscience whatsoever, and just could not see what a little brat she was.

This book stresses on a particular idea that I am pretty obsessed with: What makes a good marriage?  All three of the major plots in Middlemarch revolve around picking good matches for marriage and then remaining loyal to them in the face of trial.  Each character handled the task differently.  From the start, headstrong Dorothea picked a man who may not have been perfectly suited for her.  Mr. Casaubon was old, cold, unfeeling toward his wife's passions and feelings. And once Mr. Ladislaw entered into the picture, he became jealous and suspicious.  Dorothea could not be truly happy with him, but she maintains her love for him almost like a victim of abuse.  There's this attitude women have -- even today -- where they allow men to walk all over them.  When Mr. Casaubon dies, Dorothea has to make a choice:  Will she remain faithful to her dead husband's wishes, or will she make her own decisions in life and choose to be with the one she truly loves, the one who sees her as an equal.
Rosamond has the opposite problem.  She doesn't do anything her husband asks her to do.  This is also undesirable in a marriage.  I felt like Lydgate was wronged by Rosamond because she made herself an enemy to him by being secretive and cunning.  The MOST IMPORTANT thing in marriage is TRUST.  If you aren't able to trust your spouse, then the marriage completely falls apart.  It can also easily be seen that Lydgate and Rosamond had different priorities for happiness, and I personally feel like Rosamond's need for a big house and a lot of furniture was an irrational one.  There are more important things than material wealth.  Your love for your husband should transcend the earthly tribulations that come.  "For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health..."  George Elliot points out directly that the problems faced by Rosamond in a marriage are not unique to her relationship with Lydgate.  Every marriage has its level of sacrifice, because you're not just looking after yourself anymore.  It's a two-way street.  It's a compromise.
As for Miss Mary and her Fred, I feel like the lesson I pull away from them is that I shouldn't judge a book by its cover.  Fred was definitely not the cream of the crop when it comes to being a suitor for marriage.  Mary could have chosen many other men -- including Mr. Farebrother -- who could promise a lot more than Fred ever could.  But Mary saw through the worldly qualities of her potential husbands and looked on the love that lay within.  Fred loved Mary truly, and Mary saw this.  So, despite the almost certain poverty and ill opinion of her family, she went ahead and married Fred.  She, like Rosamond and Dorothea, put aside her worldly desires and married out of love.
That, I think, is the moral of the story.  You don't choose to marry someone because they are rich or powerful or because your parents want you to.   You choose to marry someone because you love them and you want to be with them above all else.  Marriage is a risk, but I believe it to be a risk well worth taking.

My favorite quote by Eliot in Middlemarch:

Our deeds still travel with us from afar,
And what we have been makes us what we are.

I give it...

Four out of five stars.  Amazing, approachable characters, good plot flow, great lessons to take away, but tends to drag at certain parts and somewhat difficult to read if you don't have a good sense of Victorian vocabulary.  If you choose to read this book, please remember that it was first published in 1871.

Listening to:  THUNDERRRRR!!!
Things Going On Today:  I see DAUGHTRY in concert, I wake up late, thunderstorms.
Blessings:  A bed.  The internet.  Three bathrooms in one house.
Lessons:  George Eliot did not like being compared to other "contemporary teen novelists" that were popular at the time, such as the Bronte sisters.  She wanted to be known as "one of the greats," who were primarily men.

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