Monday, June 17, 2013

Coincidence?. . . I think not.

". . . and a novel called Middlemarch, as to which there had lately been interesting things said in the reviews."

Chapter 15
  My heart leapt with joy when I read this phrase. I read Middlemarch in college and was completely floored.
Surprisingly, others weren't.
I still remember the first day we had a discussion in class about it. I was completely in love with the main character, thinking her valiant, brave, idealistic, though a bit of a masochist. I felt like we could have been kindred spirits.
Everyone else hated her.
As I sat in class, stunned, my peers stripped Dorothea down and labeled her as an unhealthy idealist who sought suffering instead of joy and was determined that life should be holy instead of happy.
I just wondered if we had been reading the same book.
As I kept reading though, my eyes were opened. . . and so were Dorothea's.  I ended up writing my senior paper on the danger of ideals. Dorothea was a semi-saint who had painted a picture of happiness in her mind and fastidiously climbed towards it, even when it didn't actually make her happy.
Raise your hand if you've done that.
My hand is up.
Perhaps Newland's is as well. That is why I don't think it a coincidence that Edith Wharton dropped Middlemarch in at this moment.  Newland is wrestling with desire right now. He has not fully admitted his feelings for Countess Olenska, but he is painfully aware that the worshipful glow for May Welland is dimming.  His ideals have gone fuzzy.
Ideals do that.
First, Newland was blissfully in love with a flawless May. Then the dark Ellen entered, first to his embarrassment, and then as a beautifully honest refreshment, who "doesn't care a hang about where she lives---or about any of our little social sign-posts." He is torn.
One is all he thought he wanted for his entire life. The other is now what he thinks he might want for the rest of his life.
Decisions, decisions.
How do we face decisions like this? I think too often we make decisions based on what we are sure should make us happy, and not what actually does.
We all did this in middle school, right? (I pretended to like the band Poison and wrestling. . top that.) But I don't think it ended there. We hesitate to admit what we really like and perhaps play along with what we think we should love to do/watch/eat/enjoy.
Toss the ideals and go for the honesty.
Edith Wharton and George Eliot were really on to something.
And I think Newland is going to catch on.  Eventually.


  1. My hand is raised too.

    I love Dorothea, but I must admit, I was yelling at her not to marry the stuffy creep. "No! Don't go in there!"

    Mary Anne Evans' character sketches are flawless. I love the contrast of Dorothea (truly righteous) to Casaubon (truly self-righteous).

  2. Morgen, (and Amelia!) Have you heard of the book, "My Life in Middlemarch" by writer Rebecca Mead? I think I'm number 87 (or some such tedium) on the hold list at our local library. But, it will have to do, as the book sounds like a delicious read.

    Here's a snippet for a review about the book from the NY Times :

    "The book’s theme, 'a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life,' was 'certainly one with which Eliot had been long preoccupied. . . . And it’s a theme that has made many young women, myself included, feel that ‘Middlemarch’ is speaking directly to us. How on earth might one contain one’s intolerable, overpowering, private yearnings? Where is a woman to put her energies? How is she to express her longings? What can she do to exercise her potential and affect the lives of others? What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?”

    You can check out the full, if somewhat criticle, article at:

    Anyway, if either of you has read, or does read "My Life in Middlemarch," we'll have to chat about it together sometime. In the meantime, we can all enjoy the fact that our own busy lives probably most closely resemble dear Susan Garth's life.

    And I too will have to admit to siding with Dorothea's view of finding meaning in life through chasing unattainable ideals. Foolish, but idealistic dreamers are we. But my favorite characters, hands-down, were Susan and Caleb Garth--with their busy, bustling household of sponge-like children. So glad to read that you ladies love this book as well.