My favorite work from the English literary canon would be George Eliot’s Middlemarch. There are other contenders within the Victorian canon, specifically Dickens’s Bleak House or Dombey and Son. As great as these novels are, however, I do not feel they match the scope of achievement in Eliot’s masterpiece. The novel is by no means an “easy” read; it demands that the modern reader fully enter into the range of life and experience of this town from another era, and relate to the characters as motivated by causes largely without meaning in today’s world. Then, Eliot digresses here and there, sometimes pausing the story to express ideologies and views on nature and mankind. Nonetheless, Middlemarch remains the most richly rewarding novel I have ever read.
This work stays with me because there is a level of reality and dimension to the characters that is, in my opinion, genius. Her primary characters are so fleshed out, and behave in ways so true to human feeling and thinking, they stay in my memory like people I have actually known. Dorothea, for example, is heartbreaking because her ambition to be a finer person dominates her real desires and feelings, and the trajectory of how she finally comes to an understanding of her real self completely echoes a real woman’s course in such a journey. Similarly, Eliot is “big” enough to add the tragedy deserving of pity in Casaubon. He is consistently blind to Dorothea’s nature and a small man, yet the reader can never despise him because his own reality, as known to himself, is perfectly presented. Beyond this, however, is the brilliance of how Lydgate’s and Rosamund’s sad story unfolds, and here Eliot reveals as much insight into male and female relations as I have ever encountered. Every single aspect of Lydgate and his wife rings true, and their own story follows precisely the path two such people in life would take, never knowing the other and locked in ideas of knowing. I must repeat that Middlemarch is, beyond anything else and apart from its time and setting, profoundly real and relevant.
Eliot actually adds to the Victorian canon by defying it, and through nothing more than her consistent commitment to authentic human experience. For example, she elevates the canon with her treatment of Bulstrode’s disgrace and his wife’s forgiveness of it. This is amplified by Mrs. Bulstrode’s willingness to live out her life in a reduced class and station (Ellis 172). The Victorian world is very much reflected in the canon, in that the works within it essentially obey the restraints of the era. Even when they violate these restraints, the force or presence of them remains. Consequently, Eliot adds to the canon by working within it to break free from its restrictions. All of her provincial people exist in terms of their culture but, in exposing the true human feeling in each, Eliot then renders the canon parameters irrelevant. She writes an epic Victorian novel and perfectly conforms to the canon, but she elevates the level of it.
I personally think truly great artistic achievement cannot be limited by any definition of it, or inclusion within any parameters. More exactly, I think the literary canon may limit Middlemarch only by virtue of its designation within it. As critics have pointed out regarding the Victorian canon, it is essentially comprised of white male authors of a certain, and privileged, class (Young 25). This translates to a likely perception that Eliot’s work conforms to this standard, despite the author’s gender, and consequently suggests that it is limited in its expressions of a larger humanity. There can be no more unfair definition and Middlemarch, in fact, stands as good reason to question the existence of a canon at all. If it exists to classify a certain level of achievement, it still must then rely on shared characteristics of the works within it, and real art is too individual to be assessed in this way. Put another way, the Victorian canon limits the achievement of Middlemarch only in terms of how it unsuccessfully seeks to categorize it. Fortunately, Eliot’s genius is not so easily classified. If the existence of the canon has put off potential readers because they expect only a skillful representation of Victorian life, the quality of Middlemarch cannot help but overcome this handicap.
- Eliis, D. Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
- Young, T. Studying English Literature: A Practical Guide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.