Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Eliot, Middlemarch and Narrative Imagery

George Eliot uses the image of 'a surface of polished steel' brought close to a candle flame, where its scratches compose 'a fine series of concentric circles' (Middlemarch, p.248). How useful is it to regard this image as a model of Eliot's own narrative style?

  There are several ways in which this analogy can be applied to the methods used by Eliot to structure Middlemarch. The flame can represenrt the narratorial voice, bringing illumination and order to the fictional world being described. It can stand as a metaphor for the eponymous town itself, with the scratches representing the characters whose lives intermingle and revolve around its geopraphical proximity and social/economic influence. It can also be interpreted as a metaphor for individual characters, showing how the actions and relations of a particular character influence those with whom he/she comes into contact. The nature of the scratches, densely interwoven, often disparate and discrete yet together forming a greater whole, is related to the 'web' metaphor that recurs in the novel.

  Also striking is the illusory nature of the analogy - the scratches only seem to arrange themselves. It is the light of the flame as narrator that creates the effect of order in chaos; the narrator who has 'so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven' (Eliot, Middlemarch, p.132). In a notable reflection of the flame metaphor, the narrator goes on to claim that 'all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web'.

  The image of the flame and the scratches can be viewed as a scientific observation, and Eliot's interests in scientific theories such as Darwinism and biology are expressed through the mandate of the narrator to watch 'a slow preparation of effects from one life to another' (Eliot, Middlemarch, p.88). These theories include such concepts as cause and effect, and the 'interdependence of parts and whole in any organism' (Tomlinson, Realisms, p.237). Although these theories are fundamentally biological, Eliot's narrator transfers them to the characters in the novel, stating an intention to study 'the stealthy convergence of human life' (Eliot, Middlemarch, p.88). Essentially, everything in the novel has a relationship with everything else. The idea is interconnectedness, as opposed to isolation; the narrator can relate the traits, careers and vicissitudes of many diverse characters, but none stand aloof and uninfluenced by their social environment. The structure of the characters' interrelationships follow the definition of organic life put forward by Lewes: 'The whole exists only as a whole of its parts, the part exists only as a part of a whole' (Shuttleworth, Critical Reader, p.293). This theory can be seen in the pattern of the scratches on the polished steel: the concentric circles exist as the sum of a multitude of scratches which, while possessing their individual traits, together form concentric circles. When considering the characters as part of a whole, they can be seen as the scratches; when considering them as individuals, with their own personalities, they can be seen as the flame. Individually, we have Dorothea dreaming of broadening her intellectual horizons and bettering the lives of her tenants; Lydgate, hoping to become a great scientific researcher and theorist; Rosamund, wishing to live comfortably in marital harmony; Brooke, wishing to enter Parliament on a reform ticket. Their individualities are emphasised by the gaps that exist between their aspirations and their realities: Dorothea's philanthropy is vaguely defined, Lydgate's ambitions are offset by his arrogance, Rosamund's marital bliss is darkened by her selfishness, and Brooke's attempts to gain public office are stymied by his awkwardness at speechmaking and the contradictions between his ideals and his practice.

  Despite the detail of their individual characters, however, they exist as part of a whole. Brooke is Dorothea's uncle, Lydgate is their doctor and ultimately the recipient of Dorothea's beneficence, Rosamund is Lydgate's bride. Together they form a community, and the circles spread out to become the society that is Middlemarch and its hinterland.

  The relationship between these individual 'flames' and the 'concentric circles' of their social influence is revealed at the beginning of the novel, which 'clearly reveals george Eliot's organicist premises' (Shuttleworth, Critical Reader, p,297). Characters are described not only in the descriptive style of the narrator, but as how they appear to others; a description of Dorothea's beauty is followed by a shift in perspective to that of anonymous 'others', with 'she was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever...' (Eliot, Middlemarch, p.7). Her sister Celia is described from the perspective of 'close observers', her uncle Brooke from the opinion of 'this part of the county', and family friend Sir James Chettam is considered, by Dorothea, from Celia's point of view! In the first few paragraphs of the novel we can see our analogy at work on different levels - the narrator 'flame' is illuminating the character 'scratches', the character 'flame' in symbiosis with the community 'scratches', and perhaps another interpretation of the metaphor. The illuminated circles are concentric; could we see each circle as a 'perspective' being suggested to us by the narrator? If we take, for example, Lydgate as being represented by the concentric circles, we can find several different perspectives: a 'general impression' that he 'was not altogether a common country doctor'; the narrator's description of him as 'one of the rarer lads who early get a decided bent' (Eliot, Middlemarch, p.134); and further opinions of him from other characters, all reflecting their personal biases.

  Concentric circles, of course, increase in diameter as they spread from their central point, but this difference in size should not be taken to mean that some perspectives are more relevant or more veracious than others. In some respects, they are more like the circles formed by ripples.

  The circles as a ripple effect can be appreciated in the approach to the function of gossip in the novel. Sally Shuttleworth discusses what she terms 'relations of dependency' that link the characters in the novel through a 'shared linguistic medium'. In her analysis, the direction of the circles can be seen as inward (lateral structure) or outward (linear structure).

  An example of the former can be seen in the approach to railways described in Chapter LVI. The narrator describes the general opinion of this new form of travel, 'railways were as exciting a topic as the Reform Bill' (p.519), which can be seen as the outer circle, introduces the opinions of minor characters such as Featherstone and Waule, which represent a smaller, inner circle, and finally down to the opinion of Caleb Garth. This is the cue for the chapter to focus on Garth, the central point of the circle.

  The linear, outward structure is employed in Chapter LXXI. Here the central point is the relationship between Mr Bulstrode and the late Raffles. The circles/ripples in this instance represent the perspectives of the townsfolk, the ripples spreading outward in the form of gossip. By this linguistic medium, perspectives on Bulstrode jump from minor characters such as Bambridge, through Hawley, Farebrother, the clientele of the Middlemarch public house up to the influential members of the Board upon which Bulstrode sits, and from which, due to the nature of the gossip, he is exiled. Gossip, like ripples, is not static: while the circles never seem to touch, they nevertheless affect each other. As Shuttleworth remarks, 'the majority of characters scarcely know [each other]... they are linked together by the connecting chain of opinion' (Shuttleworth, 1984, in Regan [ed] 2001, p.294).

  So in what ways could the candle/flame analogy be inappropriate? One possibility could be the lack of objectivity on behalf of the narrative voice. A candle may shine on a surface, but it does so objectively - in has no conscious role in choosing what it should illuminate. the narrator, however, is subjective. A town and its environs are described, but not every inhabitant plays a part. Only certain characters interact with each other for the purposes of the various plot strands, and some minor characters are introduced to emphasise the impression of community. We learn much about Dorothea, Ladislaw, Rosamund tec., but very little about characters such as Mr Limp, Mrs Dollop or Mr Thesiger. Their roles in the novel, other than gossip-mongering or making up the numbers of a committee, are to help display the diversity of middlemarch life and to give an impression of the extent of social interaction. If they could be seen as scratches, the candle would illuminate them as clearly as it would illuminate the major characters. A narrator, however, is more selective. Choices are made. The major characters may be representative of provincial life, but they do not display all of it. They are, by and large, respectable members of the middle classes. Poverty, when it is briefly shown among one of Brooke's tenant families, is shown mostly to emphasise the contrast between the practical consequences of Brooke's farming methods and his zeal for reform. Provincial poverty is never explored in its own right as a feature of Middlemarch life. The narrator flame fails to illuminate every scratch on the surface.

  A further discrepancy in the analogy is with the overall sense of order suggested by the concentric circles. While the metaphor is striking when compared with the spread of gossip, it does not seem as appropriate when we consider some of the twists and turns of the story over the three years during which it is set. Momentum in the plot can be just as much the result of accident and coincidence as it can be from a sense of order. For example, Lydgate and Dorothea possess high ideals and - especially with the former - a clear sense of where their destinies lie, yet both are subject to unexpected vicissitudes which ultimately thwart them from fulfilling their full potential. Unforeseen circumstances and wrong choices force them to reassess their ambitions and work against the image of these provincial lives forming orderly, predictable patterns.

  Finally, the analogy seems too straightforward if we agree with David Carroll that the narrative voice 'foregrounds the uncertain nature of character' (Realisms, p.292). As character is not set in stone, and is subject to unforeseen pressures and changes due to both internal flaws and external influences, it can only be illuminated by the narrator to a certain degree, whereas the candle flame will always show the illusory sense of order.

  George Eliot was born in Warwickshire as Mary Anne Evans in 1819. She moved to London at the age of 30 where she met the journalist George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived for the next 24 years. Possessed of prolific interest in languages and sciences, she wrote six novels including Middlemarch, The Mill On The Floss, Adam Bede and Silas Marner. Eliot died in 1880, months after marrying the banker John Walker Cross, and was buried at Highgate. Middlemarch was originally published in 8 parts, 1871-2.
George Eliot, Middlemarch, OUP, Oxford
Sally Shuttleworth, Middlemarch: An Experiment In Time, in Stephen Regan (ed, 2001) The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical ReaderDelia da Soussa Correa (ed, 2001) The Nineteenth Century Novel: Realisms

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