WE'RE HAVING quite a run on Middlemarch," the clerk at the neighborhood bookstore told me as he took a copy of the novel by George Eliot, (Mary Ann Evans) from the window display. At $15.00 and 799 pages in Random House's new Modern Library edition, the 19th-century classic might seem an unlikely candidate for popular success. It's sudden popularity is, of course, due to the elegant adaptation by Masterpiece Theater. PBS's six-part series stays remarkably true to the novel's spirit, incorporating long chunks of dialogue and admirably re-creating the England of the 1830s, a tumultuous time of agitation and change, when political reform swept the nation and the railroad began crisscrossing the countryside.
If the series gives us a nostalgic glimpse of the past, the work (in eight magazine installments) did so for Eliot's original readers too: the novel is set almost 40 years before its 1871-72 publication date. But nostalgia has little to do with the novel's continuing ability to enrich and engage us. Part of Middlemarch's greatness lies in its extraordinary depiction of an interconnected community. As viewers of the TV series will have discovered, the narrative follows four interrelated plots involving characters from different social levels. This may be one reason why American students often liken it to a soap opera.
But Middlemarch is not at all like a soap opera. As Masterpiece Theater host Russell Baker points out, for Eliot actions have consequences from which characters must learn and with which they must live. Both Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, the main characters of the two central plots, make unwise marriages. Since divorce was not only a great disgrace but also almost impossible to obtain in 19th-century England, they must make the best of their choices. Eliot is especially strong in showing the effects our actions have not only on ourselves but on others. To her, a community is a web of interrelationships where our choices and actions profoundly influence the welfare of the whole. Thus, Middlemarch's four plots are linked not only through social interactions but through moral relations.
Dorothea, the orphaned niece of the local squire, marries a reclusive clergyman more than twice her age because she thinks he has a great mind and she wants to help him with his scholarship. She soon discovers that Edward Causabon is a narrow-minded pedant who will never bring his "key to all mythologies" to completion. Unable to love her himself, he is nevertheless vindictively jealous of her friendship with his young cousin, Will Ladislaw. Lydgate, the ambitious young doctor who comes to Middlemarch hoping to do valuable research and to reform the medical profession, is thwarted by the combination of his own character, his unwise marriage, and the suspicions and politics of the town. Another outsider, Nicholas Bulstrode, has become the town's wealthy banker, but hides a shady past under a pious exterior. Eliot balances these plots with the story of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, who are able to overcome both internal weaknesses and external pressures to achieve a fulfilling and useful life together.
Many of the novel's main characters begin as egoists who want a life simpler, easier, and more passively gratifying than is generally possible without sacrificing one's integrity or using other people as a means to one's own ends. For Lydgate, Casaubon and Dorothea, this desire is expressed primarily in relationship to what they want from marriage. Lydgate wants a wife who will worship, serve and amuse him while asking for very little in return. …