Eliot and Networks

One of the points that stood out to me in the McWeeny reading was the discussion of maturity. McWeeny suggests that “maturity” consists of a narrow focus. Children get distracted, whereas adults live in a world that consists of “more focus,” and of “monogamous modes of interest and desire (63).” This is why, according to McWeeny, Middlemarch is a paradox; Eliot, for a good portion of the novel, focuses largely on Dorothea — a seemingly mature decision — only to have Eliot completely turn that pattern on its head. Clearly Eliot did not see a narrow focus as “mature,” or “correct.” Either that, or, more likely, she had no interest in being “mature,” and “correct.” Her decision to add “ — but why always Dorothea?” appears, in the context of these ideas, to be self-deprecating and childish. However, to me this feels like a more calculated, bold, and transparent move. She is indicating to the reader that they should expect a shifting focus for the rest of the novel. She is also expressing, very directly, how she believes a story should be told or how the explanation of a network should be approached — through detailed perspectives of the many rather than the few. To do it another way would be to take the easy way out, and to offer an incomplete telling. 

This pushed me to consider Eliot’s own ideas about networks and how they should be approached manifest themselves in the story. On one hand, there is Casauban, who dedicates his life to writing “The Key to All Mythologies.” Eliot chose this title to indicate to readers that Casauban took on a project that is impossible to complete. The scope is way too wide; he is attempting to dissect and explain a never-ending network. This impossible task drains him, and eventually, he dies. Here Eliot demonstrates that one cannot approach a web of relations with the intention of fully understanding and explaining every part of it. She also illustrates, through Mr. Brooke, that an attempt to enter a network with too narrow, or shallow an understanding of that network will be unsuccessful. Mr. Brooke’s speech with which he attempts to enter the political sphere illustrates this fact. “I am a close neighbour of yours, my good friends — you’ve known me on the bench a good while… (474).” Soon after, “an unpleasant egg broke on Mr Brooke’s shoulder (475).” Mr. Brooke, in addition to lacking political knowledge, also lacks genuine connections with the people in his audience. Therefore, when he tries to connect, he fails, and if he tries to understand, or explain, he will also fail.

Although I undoubtedly lack a full understanding of Eliot and the way she thinks, these characters, as well as her interjection about Dorothea, give insight into complex way in which she thinks about relations. To fully account for all the parts of the network, one cannot narrow their focus too much, but too broad of a focus is impossible to achieve. Instead it is necessary to go in depth on a number of “parts,” or in this case, characters — an idea, which, if true, helps explain the length of Middlemarch.

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