George Eliot was a very controlled writer – just look at how neatly all the pieces of the plot fall together at the end. But she was also a very self-conscious writer. She frequently calls attention to what she's doing as a novelist. Sometimes the effect of this is to remind us that we're reading a work of fiction, and sometimes it seems to do something else. In addition, Eliot liked to reference other, earlier famous writers (Shakespeare, Dante, Plutarch, Spenser, etc.). Every single chapter of the novel starts with a quotation from an earlier work of literature (these short quotations are called "epigraphs"). All these references and quotations help to put Middlemarch in the context of all of its literary predecessors.
Questions About Literature and Writing
- Which characters are associated with literature and writing, and what does this show about them?
- Which characters read novels or poetry?
- What is the effect of the narrator's occasional interruptions of the story to explain the relationship of the individual experience of her characters to some universal human experience?
- Why does each chapter open with a literary epigraph?
Chew on This
Eliot's epigraphs do more than set the mood for each chapter. By invoking her literary predecessors, they insist on her own place in the literary canon.
Characters who read 19th-century British literature generally exhibit more common sense than those who prefer French or classical literature; Eliot thus suggests that literature has a powerful influence over the reader's personality.