Sunday, July 20, 2014

Judging Middlemarch

After a couple of weeks reading other things, I’ve picked up Middlemarch again. I’ve almost finished it now, but I still find it tedious for some reason. It could be that it just isn’t the right book for me at this time and in present circumstances. Maybe chilly autumn days would suit it better. Or maybe I need a retreat by a lake where I have nothing to do but to smell pine needles and to read. I don’t totally understand the problem. The characters, the themes, and the situations all pique my interest. But somehow it doesn’t add up to a pleasurable whole.

One theme that has especially caught my attention in the second half is the theme of judgment. Although no great trial takes place in the novel (or in the first 89% of it, anyway – some new criminal action has just taken place!), legal judgments play their part. Characters mention trials, for instance, and two characters experience the degradation of watching their belongings get loaded onto a truck as a result of unpaid debts. But civil judges aren’t the only judges important in the town of Middlemarch. Many minor characters appear only in conversations at the sewing circle or at the pub, conducting the business of the great court of gossip and public opinion. Every citizen of Middlemarch is a judge.

With the insufferably self-righteous Mr. Bulstrode, the topic of God as judge arises. Bulstrode talks enough about sin and Judgment with a capital J, but he thinks he has God figured out and isn’t as worried about Divine Judgment as he is about his own present comfort. He flirts with self-judgment and confession in his prayers, but as Eliot astutely observes, prayer is language, language is expressed opinion, and opinion of self is never based on unbiased contemplation of honest fact.

Speaking of the author reminds me that she judges her characters, too. And maybe I’ve just hit upon an explanation for my less-than-positive reaction to Middlemarch. I’m not convinced that George Eliot likes any of her own characters.

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