Hey there, Sisters Book Clubbers!
How are you enjoying Middlemarch? I confess, I’ve not finished Book II yet, but I’m close, and I’m confident I can catch up over the weekend. I’ve also carved out nearly three hours of kid-free time this evening, and I’m betting I can make some headway during that time, so long as I keep my computer turned off.
As promised, here are three questions to get us talking about the Prelude and Books I and II. These are all from Middlemarch for Book Clubs; they are not my words but the words of Rohan Maitzen, the author of that site.
Feel free to answer these questions or visit the site and pick one of the other questions. Or you can ignore the questions entirely, and just tell us what you think of the novel so far.
The Prelude is our first meeting with the narrator of Middlemarch. So far, how would you characterize her*? What kind of relationship does she establish with us here? As you read on, be aware that one of her favorite tricks is to use free indirect discourse – that is, to channel other characters’ points of view through her own voice. She’s also prone to irony: you might notice an ironic inflection here, for instance, in the lines about levels of “feminine incompetence.”
*It’s important not to confuse the narrator with the author, and there’s no particular reason to assume the narrator is either male or female – but in that case, a male pronoun is no more the obvious choice. I prefer to use a female pronoun partly because I don’t see why ‘male’ should be the default.
“Signs are small measurable things,” remarks the narrator, “but interpretations are illimitable.” This principle applies to many aspects of Book I (and, indeed, to the whole novel), but the varying interpretations of Mr. Casaubon provide an especially good case study. He is seen very differently by different characters, including not just Dorothea and Celia but also Mr. Brooke, Sir James Chettam, and (memorably) Mrs. Cadwallader. What do these characters’ views of Mr. Casaubon reveal about them? What do we actually know about Mr. Casaubon’s own point of view? What are other scenes that highlight problems of (mis)interpretation?
We meet yet more people in Book II — and meet some people again. What do you think about Mr. Bulstrode? Reverend Farebrother? Will Ladislaw? Have your reactions to any characters changed substantially since Book I? If so, have they changed, or have you?
I’ve not read enough of Book II to answer that question, but I’ll take a stab at the other two.
In other news, my four-year-old has been dropping f-bombs (In public. To adults.) and just had a monster tantrum as we were leaving the orthodontist’s office because I insisted we walk down one flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator. So if you sense weariness and/or a lack of concentration in my check-in responses, that’s why. It’s also the reason I’m making statements without supporting them with citations from the novel. At least it kind of relates to Middlemarch in that I’m sure my neighbors have some opinions about my son’s recent exhibitions.
Prelude: The impression I get of the narrator so far is that she’s like one of the neighbors herself, even though she acts like someone outside of the action. She feels herself to be separate—and probably above—the interactions of the other characters, but she’s really just as much a part of things as they are, if only because she’s got her own opinions about their actions. She’s also a rather funny person. I enjoy listening to her, but I also feel a little guilty listening, like I do when someone’s gossiping to me.
Book I: I can relate to Dorothea. Although I wish I were more like Celia, I do derive pleasure from self-deprivation. My spouse accuses me of being anhedonic, and he does have a point. I think because I relate to Dorothea, I had a fairly positive view of Casaubon to start with, and I found myself hesitant to give up on that view of him in light of other evidence (especially his disinterest in the cottages). I do, however, enjoy reading other characters’ opinions of Casaubon, especially Chettam’s. His jealousy came through in his assessment, for sure, but so did his focus on physical appearance. He’s a man who feels confident in his own attractiveness and youth and can’t quite understand how someone so old and with such unattractive legs could have become his romantic rival.
On a side note, I really like Chettam. He seems a good egg, even if he does resort to criticizing Casaubon’s physical appearance. I’m not sure Chettam would have been a good match for Dorothea, though. Maybe over time, but initially, I think it would have been very difficult for her to accept the less spiritual things about him. I actually think Mrs. Cadwallader was on the right track in suggesting that Mr. Brooke make Dorothea wait until she was of age to marry. I think a little more time, reflection, and maturity would have helped her to know herself and other people a little more clearly and so be better prepared for choosing a mate and being married.
What do you think about these first three sections of the novel? Leave a comment below, link to your blog, or visit the Sisters Book Club Goodreads group…or do all three!
Next Thursday (May 15), I’ll post discussion questions for Books III and IV, but comments will still be open over here and you can join the discussion any time, unfettered by my fairly arbitrary reading schedule.