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George Eliot was born on November 22, 1819.
Baptized Mary Anne Evans, Eliot chose to write her novels under
a male pseudonym. She scorned the stereotypical female novelist;
rather than writing the silly, unrealistic romantic tales expected
of women writers, she wrote according to her own tastes. Her first
attempt to write Middlemarch—now her most famous
novel—ended in failure and despair. Shortly after this initial failure,
she began a short novella entitled Miss Brooke. The
writing proceeded quickly, and she later integrated the novella
into Middlemarch. The novel was published serially
in eight parts.
Middlemarch is a novel of epic proportions,
but it transforms the notion of an epic. Epics usually narrate the
tale of one important hero who experiences grand adventure, and
they usually interpret events according to a grand design of fate.
Every event has immediate, grand consequences. Kings and dynasties
are made and unmade in epic tales.
Middlemarch's subtitle is "A Study of
Provincial Life." This means that Middlemarch represents
the lives of ordinary people, not the grand adventures of princes
and kings. Middlemarch represents the spirit of
nineteenth-century England through the unknown, historically unremarkable
common people. The small community of Middlemarch is thrown into
relief against the background of larger social transformations,
rather than the other way around.
England is the process of rapid industrialization. Social
mobility is growing rapidly. With the rise of the merchant middle
class, one's birth no longer necessarily determines one's social
class for life. Chance occurrences can make or break a person's
success. Moreover, there is no single coherent religious order.
Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Anglicans live side by side.
As a result, religious conflicts abound in the novel, particularly
those centering on the rise of Evangelical Protestantism, a primarily
middle-class religion that created heated doctrinal controversy.
Middlemarch readers will be astonished
by the novel's amazingly complex social world. Eliot continually
uses the metaphor of a web to describe the town's social relations.
She intricately weaves together the disparate life experiences of
a large cast of characters. Many characters subscribe to a world-view;
others want to find a world-view to organize their lives. The absence
of a single, triumphant world-view to organize all life is the basic
design of Middlemarch. No one occupies the center
of the novel as the most important or influential person. Middlemarch
social relations are indeed like a web, but the web has no center.
Each individual occupies a point in the web, affecting and affected
by the other points. Eliot's admirable effort to represent this
web in great detail makes her novel epic in length and scope. Unlike
in an epic, however, no single point in the web and no single world-view
Ace your assignments with our guide to Middlemarch!