April 14, 2013 · 3:00 PM
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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 reigns triumphant.