Friday, April 29, 2016

George Eliot on Living a Good Life

A month ago, I'd have been finishing Middlemarch, a reading experience which took much of the month of March.

I first read Middlemarch long ago, in grad school, as a young woman, just 24 years old.  It was the last novel in our Victorian novel class, so I read it just after Thanksgiving, in a mad rush to get to the end.  I appreciated many things about it, but I most appreciated being a female in the 20th century, when I wouldn't have to marry to be able to fulfill my destiny.

Of course, I read it as a woman who had just gotten married 15 months earlier, but I saw that as a choice.  And I was sure that I would have a wonderful career, because after all, I was in grad school, in full control of my destiny.

Oh, the hubris that is special to the young!

And now, here I am, having just read Middlemarch at age 50, and seeing my young self in Dorothea, although my marriage choice has been a wiser one.  Honestly, none of the marriages in the book would make me want to be married, but what else was a woman to do?

When I was young, I saw the book as an exploration of how the world stymies women.  But at this  point, I see it as an exploration of what it means to live a good life--even if we're not exactly sure what that would look like.  Early on, Dorothea leads the way. 

I first saw this glimmer early, on page 392 (chapter 39) when Dorothea explains her philosophy to Will:  "That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil -- widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

And at the end of the book, her life is held up as a model of the good life, although it may be a surprising model, not the traditional life we hold up as one that is true and good:

"Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

I found this ending so moving that I almost wept.  For obvious reasons, I love the idea that we can live our faithful lives, and that even our unhistoric acts can be important, even if the scope of that importance is not vast.

I am now reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, a true delight, with its mix of memoir and literary analysis and history.  And I came across this essay by Francine Prose.  Here is her wisdom:

"Even as our inner children are reading to find out what happens, Eliot's taking the grown-ups on a dizzying tour past the landmarks of adulthood: the uneasy truce between ambition and limitation; how we satisfy our desires for love, excitement, and money; the compromises we make with ourselves; how hard it is to admit a costly mistake.

Unlike a history book or tract, Eliot shows us what it was like, from the inside, to live in an era in which female intelligence was considered a serious handicap, and she tells us precisely what it's like to weigh the longing for simple happiness against the desire to be a good person and lead a meaningful life."

I didn't see all of these elements when I was a younger reader.  I always tell my students that you know that a piece of literature is good when it bears rereading.  By this standard, Middlemarch is great.

And those questions about what constitutes a good life--those shall always be with us.  And George Eliot has interesting answers.

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