04 May 2012


Character Connection 34

The only section in my entire library that could rival my collection of Young Adult and Middle Grade books is that which holds the Great Books. (You know, Books Written by Dead White Men.) If that fact is not reflected in my book blogging, that has to do with the latter not being as cheddary as the former by half. And we love cheese here, don't we?

But I've just spent the last few months rereading a rather hefty Victorian classic with some friends; and now that we're done, I find that it's the only book I really want to blog about this week. So much for cheese.

Dorothea Brooke
by George Eliot

. . . there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas . . .

. . . [This Dorothea's] 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.

Middlemarch could have easily been titled Dorothea--but I guess George Eliot didn't want to be too obvious about what she was doing with this novel. May she forgive me for "spoiling" it all for you now. (For it is possible to spoil a story while staying cagey about the plot--if you like reading for an experience as much as I do.)

The novel opens with a Prelude that makes an explicit comparison between a young Dorothea and an even younger St. Teresa d'Avila. Both are very passionate, very idealistic and very determined to change the world. But while the latter would go on to be, among many things, one of the great reformers of history; the latter would be nothing more spectacular than a wife to two very different men with nothing in common except society's conviction that neither would make a desirable husband.

Dorothea is just one, Eliot says, of "many Theresas" for whom circumstance denies the epic lives their spirits desire to live up to. Indeed, there's something of the mock epic in the way everything in this heroine's life falls short of her lofty expectations. The first man she chooses to marry, for instance, she imagines as a second John Locke or John Milton; she wants to be his wife because she believes he is about to write a great religious book that will ensure his own place in history and she wants to be the one who helps him. But her husband doesn't have the talent it takes to produce an actual manuscript, although he is probably the world's greatest writer of notes on index cards.

It is easy to lose track of Dorothea, as Eliot brings in the rest of her "ensemble cast," not all of whom have direct dealings with her heroine. A newcomer trying to set up a practice in a small town suspicious of strangers . . . a young man in love and in financial straits trying to prove he can be a good husband . . . some would-be reformers who will clearly never break out of small-time politics . . . one of the pillars of local society whose skeletons have started rattling in his closet . . . The provincial world of Middlemarch is hardly the backdrop for its own "Theresa" that medieval Avila was for the original St. Teresa, but why, Eliot asks, should we judge Dorothea by that? 

And in the very last paragraph of the novel, Eliot brings in a new metaphor for her heroine. Alluding to the great Gyndes river, which the Persian king Cyrus divided into 180 weaker streams, effectively diffusing its strength, she bids us to look back at all the subplots that seem to have nothing to do with Dorothea, and to see that none of them would have turned out half so well if she had not played some small role in them.

Image Source: Middlemarch by George Eliot


Jenny said...

I was glad to see you chose Dorthea because I'm not a fan and I knew if anyone could convince me to like her it would be you. ;) I read this last summer and I do remember understanding Dorthea better, if not coming to love her.

Enbrethiliel said...


Believe it or not, Jenny, all the time I was reading Middlemarch, I wanted to bring it up with you. But since you weren't blogging about it, I didn't want to go off-topic on any of your posts. So I'm so glad you commented on this one. =)

As I've mentioned to you, I liked Dorothea instantly, but I wonder now if your reaction is both the more common one and Eliot's intended one.

Eliot is so skilled at sketching characters that when I find myself disliking one, I feel that it's because I'm supposed to. But even the most talented writer can't account for taste, and if Eliot intended her readers to find Dorothea off-putting, then she failed with me! LOL!

But if she planned for Dorothea to be unlikeable, I think it was to send the message that most of the "Theresas" of the world are unrecognised partly because they seem odd rather than admirable to the rest of us normal folk.

Introverted Jen said...

I own Middlemarch but I'm intimidated by the sheer size of the thing. It's a beast! With tiny font! I will get to it some wintry day though (long books only in winter for me, please), and I will keep an eye out for Dorothea.

You have to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Seriously. I think you will love the characters as much as I do.

Enbrethiliel said...


I realise now that the main reason I got through Middlemarch the first time was that I had no other books at home waiting for me to read them and felt as if I had all the time in the world for a book that long. (There's something about a huge TBR pile that discourages the reading of lengthy, prosy books . . .)

Thanks for the recommendation. I likely will get to To Kill a Mockingbird soon because purposefully going through the classics means I'll get to read a whole lot of them. =)

amy said...

When I finished Middlemarch, I didn't quite know what to make of the ending, or Dorthea for that matter. I had greatly admired her, loved her, throughout, was not at all surprised by her attachment to Will... but in the end I wondered where her greatness had gone. It wasn't till I read this review that the analogy clicked... and I love it. Thank you En (and George Eliot).
Ps. I found the large size very intimidating and may never have read it without the nudge of a friendly book-lover.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, Amy! =) I'm glad to have provided the nudge. When all is said and done, Middlemarch is one of those classics you're glad to have read, aye?