Wednesday, June 29, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH: Week One Thoughts

Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and colored by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge.

- Ch. 3
Our topic for this week's post is interpretation -- a theme that Eliot comes back to again and again in the opening of the book, especially in her descriptions of Dorothea's view of Casaubon and her faith that he is a profound source of wisdom who will guide her into the world of the mind.

Eliot repeatedly compares Dorothea's understanding of Casaubon to a devout believer's (perhaps overly) generous interpretation of a text she takes, a priori, to be a sacred text. For example:
Dorothea’s faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon’s words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.

- Ch. 5

All appeals to her taste she met gratefully, but saw nothing to alter. His efforts at exact courtesy and formal tenderness had no defect for her. She filled up all blanks with unmanifested perfections, interpreting him as she interpreted the works of Providence, and accounting for seeming discords by her own deafness to the higher harmonies. And there are many blanks left in the weeks of courtship which a loving faith fills with happy assurance.

- Ch. 9
The foreshadowing is not all that subtle. We watch Dorothea give in to her immature obsession with Casaubon, rejecting younger, livelier, and less pompous suitors, knowing, from the get go, that this is probably not going to end well. Casaubon is so dry, so smug, so old, and so deeply unsexy. And his reasons for wanting Dorothea -- that she will be some kind of perfect young female trinket to match his accomplishments and position -- feel slightly vampiric, as if he hopes to suck some life out of our young heroine.

The repeated metaphor of Dorothea reading Casaubon as a believer would read an imperfect text, with the believer importing meaning, significance, and even perfection into her reading of the the all-too-human text, is somewhat peculiar. It makes sense that Casaubon is compared, several times, to a dry and lifeless ancient text -- much like the texts he spends hjs days poring over, trying to piece together all of the world's fractured mythology into one perfect, master Ur-myth. Dorothea, I guess, is then the anxious believer, convincing herself that she sees answers and truth revealed in a sacred text (here, Casaubon). It's worth noting that Eliot spent a lot of time in her youth reading and translating theological works.

(Sidenote: Eliot's description of Dorothea's faith in Casaubon and the blanks her faith filled is a nice description of the approach we're sometimes in danger of taking when tackling these Great Works of Literature -- where we go in knowing that readers for hundreds of years have claimed to have found these works to be Life-Changing, Profound, Totally Mind-Blowing. We don't want to be the morons that just don't get it, who just aren't blown away by what other people claimed to find so incredible, so we sometimes fill in the blanks, and assume there must be something we're missing; we grant the works profundity or depth they don't have, etc. See, e.g., WAR & PEACE.)

All of the build-up to Dorothea and Casaubon's marriage sets up a crisis of faith (perhaps paralleling the crisis of faith Eliot had in her youth). During the first week of reading, I found myself getting pulled ahead through the book, wanting to find out if Dorothea and Casaubon would actually end up together, what Lydgate was up to, whether he was going to be ensnared by Rosy Vincy, etc. There was a whiff of soap opera to the introductions and interactions of the characters, but Eliot's sly observations and asides added some type of thoughtful heft to the proceedings. The book is not really ever out-and-out hilarious, but Eliot's humor and snarkiness show through again and again, and the reader occasionally finds herself snickering at some casually vicious depiction of an unlikable character (often Casaubon, or one of Middlemarch's gossips or busybodies.)

Overall, I'm finding the book to be a wonderful summer read. Entertaining, moving along at a brisk pace, thoughtful and wry, absorbing. Are you all enjoying the book? Will you be sticking with it for the long haul? Initial thoughts?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH Reading Schedule

Hope you have by now gotten your hands on a copy of our next selection, George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH. My copy of the book is a Bantam Classic, featuring an introduction by Margaret Drabble. (It's an old, beaten-up copy I got at Read Books for three dollars; it looks much like the copy pictured above.) The Bantam Classic edition is 766 pages long.

MIDDLEMARCH is helpfully broken down into eight Books, with a Prelude and a Finale. Each Book is about 100 pages long. Our plan will be to read one Book every week, for eight weeks. All versions of MIDDLEMARCH (including electronic versions) will be broken down into these eight Books, so everyone should be able to follow the schedule.
Week One (6/19-6-26) Prelude & Book One

Week Two (6/26-7/3) Book Two

Week Three (7/3-7/10) Book Three

Week Four (7/10-7/17) Book Four

Week Five (7/17-7/24) Book Five

Week Six (7/24-7/31) Book Six

Week Seven (7/31-8/7) Book Seven

Week Eight (8/7-8/14) Book Eight and Finale
Hope you'll join us. Rope in your friends.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Final Thoughts on BLEAK HOUSE

It's been a few days since I finished BLEAK HOUSE in one final bout of late-night reading, staying up until 3:45 in the morning, ripping through the last hundred pages or so.

It's true that, after spending weeks reading a ridiculously long book, we can find ourselves wanting to come up with reasons to justify spending so much time on the book. We begin to tell ourselves (and everyone else) that the book is profound, incredible, life-changing.

I do feel as though, with our previous two selections, WAR & PEACE and DON QUIXOTE, we came upon the sad truth that the books, for the most part, did not live up to the hype. Those books had such outsized, legendary reputations: one expected one's world to be completely shaken. Sadly, the actual books, when read, turned out to be bloated, often boring, and meandering -- just not so great.

BLEAK HOUSE was different. This was a book where nearly every page offered some marvelous turns of language, delicious detail. As I complained about in my previous post, Dickens's characters could at times come off as cardboard cut-outs, but his descriptions of London, and of the places his characters inhabited, were absolutely spectacular. The book was funny, profound, gripping, weird, dark, and sweet.

After complaining about not being moved for much of the book, I found myself moved when Esther finally comes upon her mother at the burial ground. By Jarndyce's release of Esther and his gift of the miniature Bleak House to Esther and Dr. Woodcourt. By George Rouncewell's reunion with his brother and his family. By Ada's living on with her son Richard. And, perhaps most of all, by Sir Leicester's forgiveness of Lady Dedlock. In Sir Leicester, perhaps beyond all of the other characters in the book, did we finally have an example of some psychological depth. Prior to Lady Dedlock's departure, Leicester had been a pompous, narcissistic fool. The shock of the news about Lady Dedlock changed him completely; he comes off as a noble and generous soul, loyal to the very end to his beloved wife.

All of these endings for these characters felt well earned. Despite my previously expressed misgivings, it turned out that I was invested in these characters. And after eight hundred and something pages, I found myself sharing Esther's happiness in starting a life with Dr. Woodcourt. Dickens was, in the end, very generous with most of his characters, and this generosity felt, somehow, like generosity to the reader. It felt a bit like he was rewarding us for having hung in for so long and followed these characters for so long. It all may have been a bit cheesy and over the top, but I didn't mind.

And of course, the lawsuit that opens the book comes to a close in the final pages of the book. The passage describing the end of the lawsuit is remarkable:
Our suspense was short; for a break up soon took place in the crowd, and the people came streaming out looking flushed and hot, and bringing a quantity of bad air with them. Still they were all exceedingly amused, and were more like people coming out from a Farce or a Juggler than from a court of Justice. We stood aside, watching for any countenance we knew; and presently great bundles of papers began to be carried out -- bundles in bags, bundles too large to be got into any bags, immense masses of papers of all shapes and no shapes, which the bearers staggered under, and threw down for the time being, anyhow, on the Hall pavement, while they went back to bring out more. Even these clerks were laughing. We glanced at the papers, and seeing Jarndyce and Jarndyce everywhere, asked an official-looking person who was standing in the midst of them, whether the cause was over. "Yes," he said; "it was all up with at last!" and burst out laughing too.
(Ch. 65.)

In this passage, Dickens describes once again the farce of the Chancery proceeding, the suit's senseless and seemingly endless production of words, and its empty, meaningless ending. The final, ridiculous fate of the Chancery suit seems to be purposely set up against the emotional import and memorableness of the book we've just finished. As Esther writes in Chapter 67: "The few words that I have to add to what I have written, are soon penned; then I, and the unknown friend to whom I write, will part for ever. Not without much dear remembrance on my side. Not without some, I hope, on his or hers."

This novel is also an "immense mass[] of paper," comparable in bulk to some of the pleadings in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Yet the power of writing is in its purpose. The endless writing in the Chancery suit is to no end; it is a symptom of the law making business for itself. The hundreds of pages we've just finished serve to burn the characters in the story into our minds, to leave us affected by the sympathies we've grown to have for them, the concern we've developed for their fates. These characters are, in the end, as fictional and unreal as the rules and standards and legal fictions bandied about interminably in the Chancery suit. Yet, this novel does not end up thrown down onto the pavement, cast aside. The novel is a device for winning our affections, for reaching us, and that's why, 158 years after publication, we still bother to work through the hundreds of pages of BLEAK HOUSE.

If you've made it all the way through, congratulations. I hope the experience was a good one. Onward and upward, to MIDDLEMARCH, starting this Sunday.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Week 7 (Chapters L-LVIII)

Sunset in the long drawing room at Chesney Wold.

As always, this post comes with a hefty SPOILER ALERT. Read no further if you haven't yet read through Chapter LVIII.

One week left in our reading now. I come here to make a confession: for the most part, I'm just not very moved by this book (so far). This is going to be one of those posts where I will fixate on some of the flaws I perceive in the work we're reading. (Too often, perhaps, we feel the need to justify our project by continually singing the praises of the work.)

Don't get me wrong: I really do love the writing in this book. I love the meditations on the obscurantist nature of the law, the monomania of litigants who have lost their bearings, the bizarre depictions of the power and fascination of writing, etc. I've covered some of that in earlier posts.

However, I find myself oddly unmoved by the portions of the book that I assume are meant to be moving. Lady Dedlock's meeting with Esther didn't do much for me. None of Esther's interactions or feelings about Ada really move me: Ada seems to be a plastic cut-out figure. Esther herself, and her anguish about her weird proposal from Jarndyce didn't really affect me. George's reunion with his mother -- nothing. Maybe I'm unfeeling, or too cold. Maybe I haven't opened myself up to the characters. Maybe.

Dickens's characters, as I've noted before, tend toward the cartoonish and two-dimensional. They are generally stock figures, unchanging, cast in black or white, depicted in absolutes and extremes, drawn with unbelievably sweetness or grotesqueness (see, e.g., Ada and Smallweed), etc. It's rare to come across the Dickens character with much interesting psychological depth or complexity. After a while, this can leave the reader feeling a little numb toward the characters, as they come across as impossibly sweet or bad or dumb or silly caricatures careering around the plot lines.

The novel as a form or medium, we recall, was in its first stages at the time Dickens was writing. Psychological depth and complexity for characters in novels would develop later on.

Interestingly, sometimes, Dickens's descriptions of the city of London, or of buildings, or rooms have more depth and feeling to them than his descriptions of his often cartoonish characters. For example, I found this passage about the post-chaise making its way through the night full of depth that is sometimes missing when Dickens is describing his characters:
Railroads shall soon traverse all this country, and with a rattle and glare the engine and train shall shoot like a meteor over the wide night-landscape, turning the moon palet; but, as yet, such things are nonexistent in these parts, though not wholly unexpected. Preparations are afoot, measurements are made, ground is staked out. Bridges are begun, and their not yet united piers desolately look at one another over roads and streams, like brick and mortar couples with an obstacle to their union; fragments of embankments are thrown up, and left as precipices with torrents of rusty carts and barrows tumbling over them; tripods of tall poles appear on hill-tops, where there are rumours of tunnels; everything looks chaotic and abandoned in fell hopelessness. Along the freezing roads, and through the night, the post-chaise makes its way without a railroad on its mind.
(Ch. LV.)

The image of the "not yet united piers desolately look[ing] at one another over roads and streams" is so powerfully evocative and expressive -- much more so than many of passages about actual characters. Similarly, this passage depicting the Dedlock town-house is full of life:
Impassive, as behoves its high breeding, the Dedlock town-house stares at other houses in the street of dismal grandeur, and gives no outward sign of anything going wrong within. Carriages rattle, doors are battered at, the world exchanges calls; ancient charmers with skeleton throats, and peachy cheeks that have a rather ghastly bloom upon them seen by daylight, when indeed these fascinating creatures look like Death and the Lady fused together, dazzle the eyes of men.
(Ch. LVI.)

Again, the delight and loving care Dickens bestows on these passages about places, buildings, rooms, things, suggests, to me, that Dickens's true joys, in writing this book, were in the opportunities he had to describe places, settings, interiors, warrens, etc. Think back to his descriptions of the slightly bizarre interior of Bleak House, of Tulkinghorn's chambers, Krook's shop, Tom's-all-Alone, etc.

Perhaps, while Dickens was very good at describing characters, his real genius was in painting the settings and places in which he placed those characters. The mud and fog of the city, the dark and hidden rooms of Chesney Wold, the burial yard, the hovels by the river, etc. Or maybe I'm just being too hard on the characters.