This Week in My Classes: Close Reading Middlemarch

You can’t really do it, of course, or not and finish the novel in a few short weeks. I’ve been rereading it for years and I know I still haven’t read it closely enough. Still, if you can slow down and really pay attention, I don’t know a book that’s more fun to try reading closely than Middlemarch–which is why I’ve been crazy enough to assign it in my Close Reading class.

We’re just starting up the novel this week, so on Monday I gave an introductory lecture on ‘The Interesting Life of Mary Ann Evans,’ part of my belief that humanizing the author will help give the students courage as they stare down what is one of the longest books they’ll probably be assigned during their degree. In that lecture I also lay out some general principles that are important to George Eliot’s philosophy of fiction in general and to Middlemarch in particular–ideas about realism and sympathy and morality. Though I worry a bit that starting with big abstractions will put students off the novel or make them approach it with something less than their usual enthusiasm for plot and character, I think it’s not a good idea to assume we can work inductively with such a big text. In this class especially, our work is on understanding and appreciating the literary techniques at work and how they support or convey such large-scale ideas. We will be able to talk better about what’s going on at the level of literary devices if I give them some shortcuts to themes and patterns.

On Wednesday, we worked on ways the novel teaches us how to read it. We talked about the title and subtitle, for instance, and how they let us know that we’re in kind of a middling community, marching along rather than wandering according to impulse (certainly not dancing!). We’re reading a “study of provincial life,” not, say, an exposé of the seamy underside of London: that sets up some expectations too, and it begins our education about the narrator, a learned observer, perhaps a scientist or philosopher, someone outside or above the action. That’s a good place to talk about what omniscient and intrusive narrators are good for: with other texts (such as Updike’s “A & P”) we had talked quite a bit about the advantages of first-person narration, but also about what a first-person narrator can’t usually do, such as provide historical background or critical perspective on himself. Exposition (or “telling”) sometimes gets a bad rap in contemporary talk about fiction, so it’s good to spend a little time on its  uses. One of the overall goals I have for the course is precisely this kind of attention to what different choices enable. In Middlemarch, one result of Eliot’s narrative strategies–not just her particular kind of narrator but also her attention to multiple points of view–is a lot of dramatic irony. We know a lot that the characters don’t know, or see things in ways they don’t. In the first chapters, we especially see more than, or differently from, Dorothea: we know that her marriage to Casaubon is a dreadful idea, and knowing that, we watch with shock and horror as she rushes ardently into it. But because we also get a lot of information from, and about, her point of view, we understand why she does it.

Today we had our first tutorial sessions on the novel. One of my goals was to get people started talking more about the novel, just to loosen everyone up. There’s a certain intimidation factor with such a big book, and we need to get past that and just start reading it and discussing it as soon as possible. But this is not a class on 19th-century fiction as such (in that class, we start Middlemarch next week, though, so yay, more!) but a class on close reading, so today I also wanted to help them see how and why to really pay attention. One of the most important stylistic features of the novel is precisely its constant shifting among different points of view, which happens at the level of individual sentences as well as paragraphs, chapters, and entire volumes. Eliot uses a lot of free indirect discourse, so some of the shifts are subtle. It can be fun but is also sometimes crucial to tease them out. If you aren’t paying attention to point of view, you might wrongly attribute observations or conclusions to the narrator, for instance (and thus take them to be the ‘position’ of the novel overall) that properly belong to specific individual characters or groups or communities.

Here’s one of the passages we read through today:

And how should Dorothea not marry? — a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles — who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Much of that paragraph reflects the perspective of that “wary man”; it’s certainly not the narrator who thinks it’s “natural” to think twice about marrying unconventional women, or who sees it as the “great safeguard of society” that women not act on their weak opinions–or, if these are the narrator’s views, they are ironically inflected ones, as the rest of the novel might reveal. Unconventional people and ideas are, after all, disruptive.

Here’s another paragraph just a little bit further on:

She was open, ardent, and not in the least self- admiring; indeed, it was pretty to see how her imagination adorned her sister Celia with attractions altogether superior to her own, and if any gentleman appeared to come to the Grange from some other motive than that of seeing Mr. Brooke, she concluded that he must be in love with Celia: Sir James Chettam, for example, whom she constantly considered from Celia’s point of view, inwardly debating whether it would be good for Celia to accept him. That he should be regarded as a suitor to herself would have seemed to her a ridiculous irrelevance. Dorothea, with all her eagerness to know the truths of life, retained very childlike ideas about marriage. She felt sure that she would have accepted the judicious Hooker, if she had been born in time to save him from that wretched mistake he made in matrimony; or John Milton when his blindness had come on; or any of the other great men whose odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure; but an amiable handsome baronet, who said “Exactly” to her remarks even when she expressed uncertainty, — how could he affect her as a lover? The really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it.

Again, we start with the narrator, but if you miss the slide into free indirect discourse at the end, imagine what an odd idea of the narrator’s values you’d have! The more familiar we get with the characters as well as with the narrator, the more assured our attributions become (different characters speak very differently, as we’ll get to have some fun with in class when we do my “Look Who’s Talking in Middlemarch” handout (if you follow the link and do the quiz, let me know!).

The other topic for today’s tutorials was diction–a small word with big implications for Middlemarch. Our textbook introduced the concept of “semantic fields” in the section on poetic vocabulary, and I’ve been encouraging students to work with the same idea here, starting with the vocabulary associated with Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon. I gave them one direct hint (watch for uses of “ardent”) and we’ve already started running into “petty”: those two words define one of the novel’s central thematic conflicts, so if they start paying attention to them–to who uses them or where they apply–they will start to find that the initial impression the novel gives of information overload is offset by an awareness of patterns the information falls into. I hope.

You see, this is why I think Middlemarch is a good choice for a class on close reading: it just gets better the more closely you read it. It’s not a book for rushing through (though I do remember reading along breathlessly to the end on my first time with it!).

3 Comments to This Week in My Classes: Close Reading Middlemarch

  1. February 17, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Your students may be interested in the Google Books portion (280-281) of Christopher Ricks’ essay on _Middlemarch_ from _Essays in Appreciation_ at http://tinyurl.com/7lc7yln

  2. February 18, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Oh, this is very cool. How I wish I were in that class. Thanks for taking the time to share the approach with your blog readers.

  3. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    February 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    @Veronica, thanks for the link. There are so many good things to read about Middlemarch, aren’t there?

    @Susan, as a novelist yourself, you’re probably already really attuned to the importance of this kind of thing. It is cool, definitely!

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