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.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.
- Ch. 3
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.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.
- 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 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?