Friday, June 6, 2014

Networks of Webs

Retiring, packing, house-selling, and house-hunting have been taking up a lot of time lately. It takes a lot of work to quit working! I’m dismayed at how slow my progress through Middlemarch has been. But I’m about a third of the way in and thoroughly enjoying it. It’s dense in language and in subject, and that contributes to my snail’s pace. But the density also gives me plenty to think about.

People write about the web of society in Eliot. And she does call society a web in Middlemarch. But that’s not the only thickly interconnected system she refers to. She (or her characters) also calls the business world a machine and the human body a network of tissues. Everything finds its way into these networks of webs, and so everything ends up connected to everything else. So the novel itself and its topics form yet another web.

Take beauty and plainness. The narration sets pretty Rosamond Vincy and flat-faced Mary Garth together and compares their looks several times. Hearty James Chettam and sallow Edward Casaubon provide another example. But then what does the outward appearance suggest about the inward person? Some characters judge others by their looks, which brings up the topic of assumption and interpretation. In a different arena, Dorothea Brooke talks about her struggles interpreting art, wishing it were pretty, but usually finding it ugly. Other arts – literature and music – find their way into the story, especially with regard to education. Some of the men believe that girls are only fit to learn music and such things, but Dorothea would like to learn Latin. Languages then play a part in the discussions about Casaubon’s study of myths. The study of myths touches upon religion, which in turn brushes up against business, love, and politics. The election of officers for the hospital has its political side, too, and health care brings in the subject of old and young in its comparison of physicians from different generations. And so the narrative thread goes, on and on, twisting itself into a knot. Whether the book ends up as a Celtic knot or a Gordian knot, the next couple of weeks will tell.

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