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George Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History

By Mary Wilson Carpenter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

Transposing the Apocalypse
in Middlemarch

The scheme of the Apocalypse serves as epic design in Romola—a metaphoric structure for George Eliot's "historical romance" or prophetic vision of history in which she seeks to rewrite the "Law of the Fathers" of the church as a sevenfold history of the Woman clothed with the sun of righteousness. In Middlemarch, begun some eight years later, George Eliot returns to the apocalyptic landscape of time but now manipulates this fiction to expose it as a source of mystifying patterns that lock her characters into visionary castles of their own construction. 1 The "keys" necessary for escape from these prison-houses are both epistemological and musical: one must recognize ancient error in order to perceive new truths, one must eschew ancient harmonies to hear the new rhythms born of Romanticism. In particular, one must transpose the exalted melodies and universal harmonies of apocalyptic symphony into a "lower" key—the simpler rhythms of a "middle march," of a musical comedy rather than an oratorio, of an earthly rather than a heavenly music. Though Middlemarch is far from a simple work, many of the delightful complexities of its multiplot narrative depend on musical "plays" on the apocalyptic structurings George Eliot treated in more serious mode in Romola. What she labors to construct in the earlier work she seems to dance with in Middlemarch. 2

J. Hillis Miller has brilliantly elucidated not only George Eliot's awareness of "the irreducibly figurative or metaphorical nature of all language" but of the existence in Middlemarch of a subtle theory of signs and interpretation. 3 Moreover, he demonstrates that Middlemarch deconstructs traditional assumptions about the nature of history. The narrator demystifies the various illusions of charac

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