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.
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