We all love a good hero story. They supply us with inspiration and hope. Many follow a typical narrative structure that we have become familiar with. An individual, against all odds, overcomes immense trials and tribulations to achieve their goal. From ‘rags to riches’ stories to the spectacular feats performed by our favourite superheroes, these tales continue to be pervasive in our culture.
But what about the ordinary? Those who gracefully perform small acts of goodness collectively transform the world we live in.
It was a quote at the beginning of the film A Hidden Life that captivated my interest and persuaded me to dive into the novel Middlemarch by George Eliot. 
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
The book follows the interconnected lives of characters experiencing the challenges, ambitions and societal expectations in a small rural town (Middlemarch) in the 19th century.
What drew me to the book was not the storyline per say, but rather the extensive time and effort spent on character development. George Elliot allows the reader to intimately view the psychology and thought process of many of the main characters in the story. These inner deliberations provide insight into their decisions which ultimately shape the course of their lives.
The Beauty of Ordinary Life
Middlemarch’s main protagonist Dorothea Brooks does not perform any grand feats throughout the book. Rather her virtue is exemplified in small cumulative acts of generosity.
Yes, like any human being, she makes errors of judgement. Her naïve idealism leads her to neglect the advice of others and results in the disastrous marriage to Mr. Casaubon. However, as the novel progresses, Dorothea demonstrates maturity and her depth of character learning from the many challenges she overcomes throughout her life.
Dorothea doesn’t leave her ‘mark on the world’ as many readers would have hoped for. Nonetheless, her acts of selflessness and courage help transform the lives of others. This is evident in her resolve to help the repair the marriage of her friend Lydgate when he is ostracized from society by false accusations of bribery.
Middlemarch reminds us that the real heroes are not only the individuals we see praised in the history books or tabloids. They are everyday ordinary people who inspire us with their grace, empathy and affection. In an interconnected world, our small insignificant actions end up having a greater impact than we may intend.
Our individual moral choices that we make day in and day out do indeed matter. Their consequences not only affect the lives of our friends and family, but spread like ripples throughout out broader communities.
If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morallyGeorge Eliot
I have written before that the beauty of great literature is that is enables the reader to glimpse into the mind of another, and open oneself up to broader perspectives.
It is far too easy to be critical and judgmental on people or circumstances that we do not fully understand. Moreover, while we often can offer sound advice to others, we never can fully appreciate how we would have acted if we really stepped into someone else’s shoes.
The narrator in Middlemarch enables the reader to step back and look at the seemingly rash or foolish decisions in a new light.
Take for instance the many personal disappointments and professional shortcomings of Mr. Casaubon. Examining his life based on his external achievements, he is judged by society as a failure. His wife Dorothea comes to the realization that he is not the man she once thought he was. The project he devotes his life to writing, The Key to All Mythologies, is ultimately unsuccessful and incomplete by the time of his death.
However, the narrator advises the reader to look at his faults from a different vantage point , where the reader can understand the workings of his psyche and have compassion for his shortcomings.
In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us
The narrator continues to plead for sympathy,
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 ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted
After three months and almost 900 pages later, I finally finished Middlemarch. While it was indeed a lengthy book, and at times the plot moved at a slow pace, the witty and charismatic writing of George Eliot kept me engaged throughout the novel.
Through its focus on viewing events from a myriad of different perspectives, Middlemarch encourages you to move beyond your narrow egocentric world view.
While the actions of certain characters in the novel may seem reprehensible, Eliot persuades the reader look more closely at the circumstances they find themselves in to evaluate the complexities of their inner life.
Middlemarch reminds us that the world can also use a bit more sympathy.
This article was originally posted on my personal blog alifeofvirtue.ca
All quotes taken from Middlemarch by George Eliot, Penguin Random House.
For those who aren’t aware, George Eliot was a pen name used by the writer Mary Ann Evans.
4 thoughts on “Looking Underneath the Surface: A Review of George Eliot’s Middlemarch”
It’s a very good and appropriate quote, the first one. Well done for persevering with the book -it’s no small feat – and thank you for the review.
I bought the book last summer and it’s been sitting on my dresser, sometimes my nightstand. It moves closer to picking up, then daunted by the size, away again, then closer. Your review and chosen quotes are simply wonderful…”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…” It will be my new summer goal to read. Thank you for the inspiration and powerful message you have captured here in summarizing Eliot’s work.
Yes, i remember reading Middlemarch and applying its wisdom to my own teenage life. Your review makes it seem like a good idea to re-read. Thank you!
Wow. Big book! Good work finishing it Andrew. I love the quotes you’ve chosen and the message you’ve conveyed. When done from/for love there is no ego involved. No desire to be noticed – only help the word become a better/more beautiful place. Thanks Andrew 🙏