Study Guide

Middlemarch Literature and Writing

By George Eliot

Literature and Writing

I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe. (2.15.1)

This is an important passage for thinking about "Society and Class" because it describes the social "web" of interrelated characters in Middlemarch, but it's also important for thinking about the role of the narrator. Eliot uses the first person singular ("I") and steps into the story as though she were a character herself. She stops the progress of the plot to tell the readers what she's up to: she's showing how different lives are interrelated. Is this a distraction from the story? Why does she do this?

We belated historians must not linger after [Fielding's] example. (2.15.1)

Eliot describes herself as a "belated historian." Sure, she comes after Henry Fielding, who was an English novelist writing in the mid-eighteenth century, but why does she say "belated" instead of "later"? Doesn't "belated" imply that she's too late for something? What's she too late for? It's unclear. Another interesting thing about this passage is the way that Eliot relates herself to an earlier novelist. She's inserting herself into a genealogy of famous English novelists, but she's also claiming to be independent of it; she's not going to "linger after [Fielding's] example."

[…] character too is a process and an unfolding. (2.15.9)

This is another instance in which Eliot steps back and comments on the process of writing the novel. She's "unfolding" the story to us, a piece at a time, and each character is also changing and "unfolding" as the novel progresses.

In Rosamond's romance it was not necessary to imagine much about the inward life of the hero, or of his serious business in the world. (2.16.58)

Rosamond reads too many romances about chivalric knights and fair ladies. She wants her own life to play out like those romances, with herself in the role of the romantic heroine. She cares more about her own role than about that of the "hero," Lydgate, who isn't even mentioned by name in this passage.

"Language is a finer medium." (2.19.20)

Will Ladislaw's argument with his artist friend, Naumann, about the relative merits of language versus art is an important place to look at the theme of "Literature and Writing." Eliot is arguing, through Will Ladislaw, that "language is a finer medium" than painting or sculpture. Of course she thinks so – she's a novelist!

"Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere coloured superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment." (2.19.23)

This is the explanation of why "language is a finer medium" than painting or sculpture: it's because painting and sculpture only represent the surface of a person, while writing can describe their inner life. George Eliot is all about depicting the inner lives of her characters, so of course this distinction is very important to her.

"To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion – a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge." (2.22.81)

Will Ladislaw is explaining poetry to Dorothea during one of their first conversations in Rome. If you're reading a work of literature, it's important to sit up and pay attention whenever a character or the narrator starts talking about literature or writing – the author is often referring to him or herself. So Will's description of poets as having "soul[s …] quick to discern [and] quick to feel" could be read as a moment in which George Eliot stops and pats herself on the back, saying, "Yep, we writers sure have great souls!"

For my part I am very sorry for him. (3.29.3)

Here's yet another instance in which the narrator uses the first person singular ("I") and inserts herself into the story. Is this disruptive? Do you find it jarring when she does this? Or do you go along with it?

However slight the terrestrial intercourse between Dante and Beatrice or Petrarch and Laura, time changes the proportion of things, and in later days it is preferable to have fewer sonnets and more conversation. (4.37.18)

Dante and Petrarch were famous medieval Italian poets who were famous for writing love poetry about their ideal women (Beatrice and Laura, respectively). Eliot could be referencing them in order to make her own position in the same literary canon seem more legitimate. She's writing herself into the same literary genealogy that includes Dante and Petrarch, so she must be a great writer, too.