Stepping Away from Middlemarch as a Reader

As this epic story of minutiae, deep thinking, social networks, unfulfilled expectations and the incongruencies and patterns of human behavior continues to unravel, what I am most impressed by and even grateful for, is Eliot’s ability to continue to make space around the story, even though the plot seems to continually compound in degrees of character and plot. Eliot (and the omniscient yet distinct voice of the narrator) does this work in a number of ways.

One way that space around the story is made is through quotations before each chapter. By inserting quotations from real writers outside of the world of Middlemarch, Eliot asserts that the story, despite being fiction, is built around a very real culture, one that the reader might recognize as their own.  Some of my favorite moments in the book (and one of the most effective contextualization tactics that the narrator uses) are when the narrator takes the reader aside, inviting them to step away from the story and look back at it in some way. This might mean looking at a character that may deserve some judgment and pointing out to the reader that humans can often behave against their interest, or solely in their own interest, or without any idea of why they do what they do. These asides are psychological, historical and often humorous – sometimes the narrator even criticizes themselves. At the end of chapter XXXV, the narrator reflects on their duty as the teller of this strange story and the ways their reader might take the story on a whole: “And here I am naturally led to reflect on the means of elevating a low subject…It seems an easier and shorter way to dignity to observe that – since there never was a true story which could not be told in parables…whatever has been or is to be narrated by me about low people, may be ennobled by being considered parable; so that if any bad habits and ugly consequences are brought into view, the reader may have the relief of himself virtually in company with persons of some style. Thus while I tell the truth about loobies, my reader’s imagination need not be entirely excluded from an occupation with lords…” (320).

This strange reflection, like many others, inserted into a story of such complexity and depth is somewhat startling. At this point in the book, I have become so overwhelmingly invested in the characters, the stakes, the plot and what the book has in store, that it is startling to be told that this is a fiction meant to be taken with some grain of salt – that this story may act as a parable. After such care is given to describing the inner and outer lives of each character and the complex threads that connect them with one another, the narrator still takes time to remove themselves from the world of Middlemarch and invites the reader to do the same.

These insertions, however, do not deflate the story, but rather uplift it into the reality of the reader in a way – they force the story into the context of the reader’s life if they have not invited it in already. In this way, the narrator continually asserts that this epic story does not nearly capture a complete network of humanity – because it couldn’t. Social networks, like family trees, extend endlessly over time and earth, and to say that this story is complete in that way would be false and flat. People, places, histories, and ancestries and inherited chains of knowledge are infinitely deep and, as the narrator asserts earlier in the book, “all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.” (132)


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