Monday, August 2, 2010

"For My Part I am Very Sorry for Him": Special Pleading (Chapters 22-33)

(To the left: Victorian novel on the mantle of my bedroom in a Victorian mansion in S.F.).

My fellow reader has noted that he sometimes finds the narrator of Middlemarch invasive: he described her as another character. It's certainly the part that feels the most antiquated to the contemporary reader. The philosophic commentating of the Russians is more understandable to us than the character and situational commentary we get here. And yet. Most of the lines I find myself underlining in this section fall into this category. Witness chapter 29, which my correspondent also pointed to as a favorite. Dorothea is barely back from her honeymoon but already miserable enough t0 identify with the suffering evident in the photograph of an old aunt who had mad a bad marriage. There are multiple story threads in the book, of course, but Dorothea is a if not the central figure, certainly the closest thing to an Eliot stand-in. But the narrator positions herself in this chapter as the one who keeps us honest, who doesn't want us just to sympathize with the young Dorothea but with her not young and in many ways unappealing husband: "I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect." She wants us to understand his predicament, how he will give in to convention by marrying Dorothea but has no idea what to do with her, no idea that there is something to do. This is a result of convention, of course, but her judgments are also those of character: "His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity."

Elsewhere the narrator says: "People were so ridiculous with their illusions, carrying their own lies unique while everybody else's were transparent." In every other interview you read with a contemporary author or filmmaker, they talk about how they don't want to judge their characters, just to understand them. Now, if by this one means that you don't want to see them as simply bad and there fundamental different from the rest of us, or give your reader a quick dose of moral superiority, this makes sense. But in practice what it means is that the author will not trust herself with the non-moralizing kind of judgment, that is, discerning observation that looks at the character from the outside. Without this it's hard to have something like Austen's piercing but compassionate satire. (And of course, certain kinds of description, interior monologue and characterization invite the reader to far harsher and less compassionate judgement than what Eliot leads us to, but with less honesty about what they're doing.)

A lot of other stuff happens in this section, of course: its title, "Waiting for Death" refers to the machinations as the family waits for old Mr. Featherstone to pass. But more on all these threads later. In the meantime, to underline this point, a couple gems of narrative intervention:

- "The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots."
- "For the old man's dislike of his own family seemed to get stronger as hot less able to amuse himself by saying bitter things to them. Too languid to sting, he had more venom refluent in his blood."
- And one she gives to a character, just for balance: "Oh my dear, when you have a clergyman in your family you must accommodate your tastes: I did that very early. When I married Humphrey I made my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn't have the end without them." George Eliot pre-channels Oscar Wilde!

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