A Pointedly Unsocial Form of Intimacy

We discussed the narrative style of Middlemarch a bit during class last week but McWeeny’s “Comfort of Stranger,” seemed to parse it out in a way that better describes its use within the novel. While getting into the thick of the novel for this week’s reading I began to think of the narration’s free indirect discourse as a kind of mind-reading. The way the narrator jumps around from an omniscient presence to revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of a character makes the reader, or at least me as the reader, feel like I’m an invisible character who is privy to what’s happening in the minds of the other characters if it suits the story to reveal them a bit. McWeeny says that “In trying this form of narration to an impersonal intimacy or the well-socialized self, it is nevertheless important to observe that what free indirect style instances is a pointedly unsocial form of intimacy. It is, in fact, an intimacy predicted on the impossibility of anything like actual social contact between its participants,” (McWeeny, 90). What he put into words here is how that feeling we get while reading, of being involved and connected to each of the characters, is not felt by the characters in the book. While we may know what each of them is thinking and feeling towards the others, they have no knowledge of it. The “impossibility” of our viewpoint while reading relies on the lack of intimacy or feigned social contact in the world of Middlemarchers.

I’ve read other novels with this type of narration but its role here seems particularly important to what Eliot is doing with all the intersecting relationships and plots in Middlemarch. McWeeny describes how the narrative style helps the different voices of characters from various classes by describing it as transmuting “‘noisiness,’ the abstract or indistinct qualitities of strangers and their awkward fit with the socially codifying impulses of plot, into the central narrative,” (McWeeny, 89). Not only are the interjections of character’s viewpoints “unsocial” but also “awkward,” because of the improbability of them all being heard on the same level in the nineteenth century like the way we are reading them now. One instance that stuck with me where I saw this come through was towards the beginning of chapter 46 when the narrator sets the scene by saying “Middlemarch was becoming more and more conscious of the national struggle for another kind of Reform,” (Eliot, 431). Mr. Brook and Ladislaw are discussing another election, and during their chat, we get an inner-look at how Ladislaw is planning his future moves under Mr. Brook while they are together, “Mr. Brook might be in the Cabinet, while I was Under-Secretary…little waves make the large ones,” (Eliot, 433). In the same conversation the narrator provides a general opinion from the town about Ladislaw saying that he had lost “caste”  and his own relation, Casaubon, didn’t really like him (Eliot, 434). This kind of layering of personal thoughts and information characters would never actually share with each other, but do think about, connects them in a web of indirect discourse that links their individual plots together into one often unnoticed community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *