This Week in My Classes (October 29, 2007)

It’s all Middlemarch, all the time this week (and next week, and the week after that). And even so, I know I will end up worrying about all the things we didn’t talk about. In my undergraduate lecture class, we’ll focus today on the novel’s structure and how it reinforces important ideas and themes. In particular, we will examine the complex chronology of some key sections, looking at the way the narrative goes back in time in order to bring us to an event from a different perspective. One of my favourite examples is at the end of Chapter 27 (the chapter which, appropriately, begins with the famous pier glass passage). It’s a chapter mostly chronicling the developing relationship between Lydgate and Rosamond; it concludes with Sir James Chettam’s servant stopping Lydgate as he walks with Rosamond, to take him to Lowick. As we learn, he is needed there because Casaubon has had some kind of heart attack. In Chapter 27, the incident is important, not as part of Casaubon’s story, but as part of Rosamond’s (more evidence for her satisfied theory that Lydgate is a cut above her other Middlemarch suitors) and part of Lydgate’s (a sign that his practice is beginning to flourish, despite his having alienated some of Peacock’s former patients by his innovative methods). The incident (we figure out later) takes place in March. But Chapter 28 begins in January, taking us back to Dorothea and Casaubon’s return from their dismal honeymoon and then following the stories of her growing disillusionment, his creeping jealousy about Will Ladislaw, and his diminishing health–bringing us up to the attack in Chapter 29. “But why always Dorothea?” asks the narrator as Chapter 29 opens–and of course the novel models the morally necessary movement of our attention and sympathy among different points of view. I often invite the class to come up with some kind of graphic representation of many people arriving at the same event (our class meeting, say), but coming from many different perspectives and all having slightly different experiences. The results, usefully, tend to look either like a tangled web or a giant hairball (the latter once they realize the advantages of working in 3-D for showing simultaneous but different strands). How can a narrative recreate these effects? I usually end up quoting Carlyle’s remark that “narrative is linear, but action is solid.” The formal challenge for the novelist is substantial, as are the mental demands on the reader. Later (probably next week) we will look at another pattern of repetition in which a place (such as Dorothea’s blue-green boudoir) or an event (such as the first time Dorothea sees Will and Rosamond together) is revisited in light of new information. In these cases we have internal or mental movement working to the same ends as the chronological and other disruptions in today’s examples.

In my graduate seminar, the discussion will be less choreographed, which means I can look forward to some surprises–always refreshing with a novel you teach often. I know we will begin with a presentation on Dorothea and women’s education, which is a promising lead in to many key issues in the novel. Our secondary readings for this week are primarily contextual: George Levine on George Eliot’s determinism, and Bernard Paris on her ‘religion of humanity.’ We are certainly getting a third distinct model of authorship: we have worked with Charlotte Bronte, who (at least as quoted in Gaskell’s biography) emphatically demanded freedom for her imagination and refused to write except as the spirit moved her; then with Elizabeth Gaskell, whose strongest motivation is social reform and reconciliation; and now with a writer whose vision of fiction is highly philosophical. In her commitment to the novel’s capacity to cause change, even improvement, GE is closer to Gaskell than to Bronte. Levine argues that to GE “a belief in the possibility of some kind of occurence not usually produced by the normal workings of the laws of nature became to her one of the positive signs of moral weakness. . . . [she] believed it morally reprehensible to rely on the unlikely or unusual, even if there is a remote chance that it might happen” (272). I don’t recall any specific comments from GE herself about this aspect of Jane Eyre, including Bronte’s own defence of the mysterious communication between Jane and Rochester (about which Gaskell quotes Bronte saying, “But it is a true thing; it really happened”). (In an 1848 letter, young Mary Ann, having just read Jane Eyre, sounds a critical note: “I have read Jane Eyre, mon ami, and shall be glad to know what you admire in it. All self-sacrifice is good–but one would like it to be in a somewhat nobler cause than that of a diabolical law which chains a man soul and body to a putrefying carcase.” We might want to discuss how far her concept of the nobility of self-sacrifice has shifted by the time she gives us Dorothea’s “submission” to Casaubon’s needs, characterized in Chapter 43 as the reassertion of a “noble habit of the soul.”) The Levine and Paris articles are both from the early 1960s: given my recent fretting about the pressure to turn our critical attention to ourselves, or to a text’s unconscious aspects (the things it says without knowing or meaning to) rather than to the conversation it is overtly trying to have with us, these are interesting examples of rather different priorities. I certainly think that they are more broadly valuable than some of the more esoteric readings of Middlemarch: any responsible reader of the novel needs, or would benefit from, some grasp of its philosophical underpinnings. But we’ll be looking at some samples of other readings that work against the grain as well, including another “classic” with J. Hillis Miller’s “Narrative and History,” and we’ll ‘go meta’ ourselves when we consider the vexed status of the novel among feminist critics.

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