(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
By George Eliot
Book #68 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Written in the middle of the long reign of Queen Victoria but set at its beginning, Middlemarch by "George Eliot" (the masculine pen name taken by Marian Evans so that she'd be taken more seriously as a writer), published serially in 1872 and then as a single volume in 1874, is a sweeping and multifaceted look at a fictional town in roughly the center of England; so as such, it can be thought of in very similar terms to such modern historical television dramas as Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey, an uber-story that tracks half a dozen interlocking small plots taking place among literally dozens of related characters. Chief among them is that of haughty wannabe intellectual Dorothea Brooke, who glibly blows right over a seemingly perfect romantic match with neighbor James Chettam to instead marry a doddering, antisocial professor named Edward Casaubon, because of believing that his perpetual work-in-progress The Key to All Mythologies must be brilliant (why else would it be taking him so long, after all?), and that it's important for her to marry a brilliant scholar so that she can actually learn from them; but then we also have the running story of young medical reformer Tertius Lydgate, his financial patron Mr. Bulstrode with a secret past, and the bad marriage he enters with Bulstrode's niece Rosamond Vincy; and let's not forget the adventures of Rosamond's brother Fred, headed against his will into a career in the church, under financial pressure from bad investments and in hot water with his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth; and then there are the efforts of Dorothea's father to enter Parliament as a radical liberal, the sudden appearance of a shady figure from Bulstrode's past, and all kinds of other digressions both large and small, the whole thing ending in good Victorian "and then here's what happened to all of them thirty years later" style.
The argument for it being a classic:
Middlemarch, its fans argue, mostly should be considered a classic because of the enormous effect it had on the shaping and maturation of the novel format itself; for while up to her time, novels had been seen as not much more than vehicles of escapist fluff for bored housewives and overactive kids, Eliot was one of the people in these years (along with Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Emile Zola and more) to start bringing a grown-up sensibility to the medium, and to use the full-length three-act format to talk in a subtle and nuanced way about character, the human condition, and the latest political developments of the day. As such, then, it paved the way for the full academic bloom of literature in the Early Modernist period, and the development of all our current literary awards and university MFA programs; without writers like Eliot and books like Middlemarch, its fans claim, novels to this day might still be seen with the kind of juvenile disdain that we currently look at first-person-shooter videogames.
The argument against:
Ironically, the main argument this book's critics make is essentially the one its fans make, that Middlemarch was one of the first popular novels to introduce an academic sensibility to the format; but far from this being a good thing, they claim, it was instead a blow to what had been up to then an always fun and lively artistic medium, basically the first time in the novel's history that large amounts of people started having to say to themselves, "When is this punishment finally going to freaking end?!" And indeed, as much as this novel is loved (and believe me, it's much loved), there's still a large smattering of people at Goodreads.com who find this book an unreadable chore, and find it indicative of what's now an entire unfortunate wing of literature; and that's "MFA literature," not to put too fine a point on it, the kind of banal yet convoluted messes that seem to be so inexplicably popular among the NPR crowd. Fine for what it is, these critics argue, that's still not enough to call it an undisputed classic that everyone should read before they die, making Middlemarch important historically but not a part of the official canon.
As I've come to realize while doing this essay series, even during the Victorian Age there were actually a whole series of different kinds of book lovers, and that writers of the period can be generally categorized like they are today based on what kinds of crowds they appeal to; so if you want to compare it to our modern era, you might think of someone like Charles Dickens as the Victorian Stephen King (massively popular among the mainstream, and with only a grudging respect among a few academic intellectuals), while someone like Mark Twain is more like Michael Chabon or John Irving (equally popular among the mainstream and academes), while Eliot here might be thought of more like John Updike, certainly with her mainstream fans but by and large only loved by college-educated fans of philosophy and political subtlety. And so while that absolutely makes Middlemarch the classic that its fans claim it is, a historically important and well-loved title that really did have a profound impact on the entire future of the arts, I have to confess that I myself was personally not much of a fan of it; and in fact, if you look at the various writers over the decades who have declared Middlemarch one of the most important English-language novels in history -- including Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes -- I tend not to be much of a fan of any of these other writers either, all of them belonging to a wing of the arts that is absolutely a valid and important one, but just not my particular cup of tea. Definitely a title to pick up if you are one of these people, and certainly a undeniable classic that's worth trying out if you're curious about it, it can also be fairly safely skipped by those who feel like it wouldn't appeal to them. If you're feeling that way before even picking it up, chances are most likely that you're right.
Is it a classic? Yes, but you might want to skip it anyway
The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)