Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Rethinking Things (Middlemarch book 3, chs. 28-33)

Hello all! After a long absence, some of you may be wondering whether the title refers to me rethinking my decision to take on this book. No! I'm finally getting to appreciate much about it, despite my issues with the pacing. I'm loving the sly asides and observational wit (mostly from the narrator). I'm even loving, in a melancholy way, how we are seeing what remarked to a friend this weekend was "watching the death of idealistic aspirations in real time." It's sad. But it's also so beautifully drawn that I can't help loving it.

I will rethink one thing, though: I've been very bad about getting to posts weekly, and I don't expect that the back half of the semester will make that any easier. So I've rethought how often we'll meet to discuss what. From now on: Every other Monday, and we discuss a whole book. These are usually 10-12 chapters, so a chapter a day is still the right pace. But putting together the posts really takes some time and thought, and the books are meant to cohere as a whole, so taking the analysis book by book makes sense.

But this week, we're still talking about the back half of book three "Waiting for Death." Cheery title, no? I like it, because it refers directly to the Featherstone chapters, but indirectly to the experience of death-in-life that seems to hang over several of our characters, who are doing a lot of rethinking on their own. The quick synopsis, then the themes. Dorothea is back home with Casaubon, and seems to be reconsidering her choice of life and husband: everything at Lowick manor seems dull to her, and the portrait of Causaubon's disgraced sister (or was that his aunt?) -- the one who made the supposedly "bad" marriage -- is the only thing with life in the place. Likewise, Casaubon himself is sort of wondering why marriage isn't solving all his problems and making him automatically happy. The mutual dissatisfaction comes to a head during a minor passive-aggressive non-argument between the two over whether Ladislaw can come for a visit (C has said no before consulting D), and Casaubon has a heart attack. Lydgate is called in to treat him and prescribes restful diversions, for which Causaubon has nothing but contempt. Dortothea shows real concern about Casaubon, though in the context of what we've seen so far, I have to admit I'm not sure why. Also rethinking things is Lydgate, who, after being cautioned that Rosy is actually attached to him, decides that he is attached to her as well, and the two get engaged. (Oh! I forgot to mention that Celia and Sir James are engaged, too, and seem to be the only genuinely happy people in this whole mess at the moment). Finally, Featherstone is rethinking things on his deathbed. Turns out that he has made two wills, and as he lies dying, he orders Mary Garth to unlock the box and bring him one to burn... and she refuses. Good for you, Mary!

Okay, on to the themes:

Transcendence and its Opposite: This is a so-far-minor theme in Rosamund Vincy's goals with Lydgate: he's not just handsome; he represents something that it Not-Middlemarch. But the search for transcendence looms largest in the whole Dorothea/Casaubon pairing (and maybe with Ladislaw as well, once he comes back in). Dorothea, for all her intellect, is starved for something to take her beyond a too-average present. She thought she had that with Casaubon, but he's taking her in precisely the opposite direction. In fact, there's a passage from chapter 29 that I think is one of the saddest in the whole book: "For my part, I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy, to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self -- never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted."
Control: This is all over the place in these chapters. Casaubon asserts his control over "his" household by peremptorily refusing to invite Ladislaw; Dorothea accedes but does not submit by telling her husband that he was wrong to assume that she'd argue -- that is, to presume to know her mind. Featherstone tries to control everyone around him, even as he lies dying. His relations try to control the outcome of his testament by hovering around, making skeptical noises about the "outsiders" who might be taking everything away.

Rethinking the conventions of the romantic novel: This is probably my favorite thing about these chapters. When I started out, I wondered if this would be a slightly more intellectual Jane Austen novel: who-marries-whom with a dollop of cultural critique. But these chapters have put the final nail in that coffin, in several ways:
  • Marriage is not the climax and happy fulfillment; rather, it is something we place too many romantic hopes in: "Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman's oppressive liberty;[1]  it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape,[2] with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight." [ch. 28] 
  • Mary Garth! In a typical romantic novel, she would be the long-suffering model of virtue who sits quietly and patiently until some pleasant-but-secondary character recognizes and falls in love with all these things. Instead, she resists Fred Vincy's advances, and even is the one person to stand up to bullying Featherstone. Best of all, the narrator makes it clear that even her inner heart is her own: "She had always seen the most disagreeable side of Mr. Featherstone: he was not proud of her, and she was only useful to him. To be anxious about a soul that is always snapping at you must be left to the saints of the earth, and Mary was not one of them." [ch. 33]  I heart Mary sooo much.

That's what I've got, so feel free to comment on any of these, or jump in with your own ideas, quotes, complaints... And two weeks from now (that's Monday the 19th) we meet to discuss Book 4: "Three Love Problems." When I saw this title, I was sure that this would mark a return to the dreaded "who will the girls marry?" plotlines. But with these past chapters behind me, I am certain that Eliot has something else in store for us. And if nothing else, we'll get to see what's in Featherstone's will! Will Fred Vincy get a big settlement that gets him out of debt and saves Mary Garth's family from the debt he imposed upon them? Will it all go to the grasping relations? Stay tuned..

[1] Note to self: make this a theme later. I kind of love it.

[2] OMG, this, too.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

How did your travels go?

Lily said...

I am really struck by the consequences of getting what you want, especially with Dorothea and Casuabon, but all over the place. Casuabon, for example, wanted help and attention -- but now that he has it, it seems to be showing him his own limitations. And so on. And Dorothea's noble desires haven't saved her one bit .... in contrast to what one might expect from a moralizing tale. Mary Garth (who I love also!) looks to be the most realistic in her outlook, and also to have the best chance at a happy life ....

Amstr said...

Chapter 28:
The opening where Dorothea returns to Lowick is fascinating! I love how the narrator spends extended time on Dorothea’s perception of the rooms after her disappointing honeymoon. They have grown smaller and more ghostly (the ghostly stag in the tapestry). (See your first quote above.)

Her sorrow and disenchantment contrast with the news of Celia’s engagement to Chetham.

Last line: Celia regards “Mr. Casaubon’s learning as a kind of damp which might in due time saturate a neighboring body.” He is quite a drip!

Kudos to Eliot for a great use of a cliffhanger at the end of Chapter 33--we get the nice closure of Featherstone dying (after so much description of the dreaded relations hanging around, descriptions that prolong the inevitable death), and yet THE WILL! And OBSTINATE MARY!

She seems so sure of her decision to resist Featherstone's orders. I can see how it is a self-protective move--no one can accuse her of meddling if everything's still locked up--but I'd have been tempted to burn one and lock the other back up just to eliminate the possibility of a drawn out legal proceeding. I suppose because Mary (in her humility) doesn't expect nor care about money from Featherstone, she doesn't expect to be present for any legal proceedings.

The Lydgate-Rosamund engagement: poor clueless Lydgate. Thank goodness for a matron who is willing to spell things out for him. It does seem as if neither one will actually get what they want.

On Casaubon's heart problems: good luck to Dorothea nursing this one back to health-ish! She still seems a somewhat self-conscious martyr. I suppose I mean she does good things not for the sake of the things themselves, but for the way they contribute to her self-perception as a humble wife (and earlier as a humble maid).

I like your idea of every 2 weeks. I hope the trip went well!