So what did I love about the book's final hundred pages?
- There is an important exchange between two characters whom I didn't expect to have the occasion to speak to each other seriously or socially. And even if I had imagined their having an exchange, I would never have predicted the content and emotion of that exchange.
- The exchange is the real deal: the characters are products of a society that hardly encourages the "well-bred" to speak directly, personally, and seriously. But the two of them manage to do so, each for the benefit of the other. The character who's been generally self-centered throughout the novel, the one for whom the experience of sharing honestly and openly is like "walking in an unknown world which had just broken in upon her" (796), corrects an important misconception that has deeply burdened the selfless other character because "'. . . you have been very good to me'" (799).
- The emotion accompanying the exchange is tumultuous, genuine, and shared. The imagery is just right! When one of the two participants nearly drowns in "the waves of her own sorrow, from out of which she was struggling to save another" (797), the generally reserved other participant "involuntarily" kisses her forehead, precipitating a mutual embrace of several minutes during which they "clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck" (797).
- The exchange contains a poignant speech about the challenges of marriage that has fallen short of its imagined promise; it begins with the observation that "Marriage is so unlike everything else" (797). I was so moved by both its discussion of behaviors that potentially doom such marriages and the description of its speaker's delivery that I must have read it ten times before I read on.
- The exchange has a positive--but not magical--effect on the situations of both participants. Yes, it provides a sense of relief and a sense of hope. But it does not flip a great imaginary light switch that banishes dark immediately and completely and just as quickly adjusts the characters' vision to the "new" bright light: the dark emotion that has surrounded both participants is too authentic and weighty to be thrown off easily. George Eliot explains one character's emotion as "too strong to be called joy. It was a tumult in which the terrible strains of the night and the morning made a resistant pain:--she could only perceive that this would be joy when she had fully recovered her power of feeling it" (798). For the other, the positive outcome is simply a reduction in the level of her unhappiness: "'I was very unhappy. I am not unhappy now. Everything is so sad.'"
- Once the exchange is over, the world of Middlemarch is not transformed--though some transformation could be beneficial to all. We're plunged right back into a society that talks about marriage in terms of property and "propriety." And we're reminded of how easily those who think differently about marriage and other subjects become the topic of others' gossip. Dorothea Brooke is one of those determined non-conformists who's not widely understood and approved--and therefore widely discussed. As Eliot explains, Dorothea generally takes action "amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion" (838). More fodder for those whose practice is to talk about people rather than to them.
- Despite this situation, neither Middlemarch nor the broader world is hopeless--not when there exist people like Dorothea who are determined to increase the good in the world. As Eliot explains in "Finale," while Dorothea's active, helpful impulses are little known to others as her adult life unfolds, "the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill . . . is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs" (838). Goodness triumphs, if somewhat invisibly, in the novel and in our own lives.
* Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Edited by Rosemary Ashton, Penguin Books, 2003.
** Screen shot of page on The Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/technology/shipwrecks/3.html