This Week in My Classes (November 14, 2007)

It’s a short week, thanks to the Remembrance Day holiday. It’s also the last week on Middlemarch in both my classes. My graduate seminar has already met; following a good presentation raising questions about the relationship of different characters (especially Dorothea) to political reform, we had some lively discussion about the feminist critiques (and defenses) of Middlemarch raised in our cluster of secondary readings for the day, and then moved to questions about the role of desire in the novel and about Rosamond and how far the novel realizes its ostensible project of sympathy where she is concerned. Inevitably there were topics we wanted to talk about but couldn’t. The same will be true in my undergraduate class this afternoon: it’s always a challenge deciding what to cover, with a novel so capacious in its interests and complex in its plot and structure. I’ll use some time to clarify ways the novel’s final events, especially, of course, the climactic encounter between Rosamond and Dorothea, work out the novel’s central ideas about egotism, altruism, and sympathy. Then I think we’ll debate whether Dorothea’s ending is a failure, and if so, of what, and with what effects. I like to bring in some of the many criticisms of Will Ladislaw, whom Henry James early on called “the only eminent failure in the book”: “he is, in short, roughly speaking, a woman’s man.” Then there’s Gilbert and Gubar’s rather different take: “Will is Eliot’s radically anti-patriarchal attempt to create an image of masculinity attractive to women.” In Approaches to Teaching Middlemarch, Juliet McMaster notes that “[her] students have strong responses to Will…and that their responses are often (though certainly not always) aligned with their sex. Usually, the women like him, the men don’t. As a way of setting the cat among the pigeons, I have sometimes suggested to my classful of young men and women that the male reader tends to object to Will because he is jealous of him.” I like to encourage students to look for thematic reasons why Will does (or does not) make the ‘right’ partner for Dorothea, at least of the options she has. And as for the debate about whether the ending is happy, I usually bring in other novels with less problematic romantic conclusions (Pride and Prejudice, for instance) and ask them to think about the effects of satisfaction vs. the effects of dissatisfaction. A. S. Byatt remarks (in the DVD feature we watched last week) that one thing Virginia Woolf may have meant by calling Middlemarch a novel “for grown-up people” is that it is a novel that does not “pander” to the fairy-tale form. And yet Dorothea herself is happy in her choice: it seems important to separate our own possible dissatisfactions from her judgment–as well as to think about the implications of or reasons for our differences of view (a very Middlemarch thing to do!).

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