I've been rereading Middlemarch for months now. Walking to and from work means my reading has slowed; my old commute time was always used for reading. And maybe it's because of this pace, or perhaps it's because of Eliot's prowess, that rereading Middlemarch this time has had a profound effect on me. Eliot is sympathetic to all her characters, but in her plain portrayals there's a mingling of light and a shadow; we're shown what each person is at their best selves and how those same traits can lead them to be their worst. Fred Vincy, Lydgate, Dorothea, even Casaubon have daubs of deep and distinct humanity that yield just as many moments of sympathetic exasperation when they undo themselves.
Perhaps I was craving a moral story too: with ideas of good character, of nobility (moral not class) and of holding oneself accountable to a standard rather than simply relying on an unarticulated and roaming sense of goodness. Whether it's external or internal, each character in Middlemarch holds a moral compass that builds into a system of ethics by which they live and shape their lives. They do so imperfectly. When the real world and real people meet a code of conduct, there's inevitable failure. But Eliot doesn't let the inevitability of failure undermine the endeavour.
And while my quiet moments have been spent with these characters and in gentle regard of their foibles, I turn online and find moral outrage blaring at me. I see it on my Twitter feed, from Gamergate to Gaza and everything in between. It is fully justified a lot of the time. We should be outraged, we should use our voices. But it's also a constant negative articulation; we're all hyper-aware of what we find offensive. We're all sunburnt by certain words and ideas, ready to flinch as soon as they're mentioned. And, while the outrage is often an appropriate response, I can't help but wonder where's the positive counterpoint?
Perhaps it's our agnosticism or relativistic sort of morality that means we don't articulate our positive moral goals as much. Maybe it's because we're so steeped in skepticism. After all, these are times when ethical concepts like "authenticity" are transformed into hollow marketing terms... articulating something as positive as a description of a "good life" might seem naive, pitiable even. Or maybe we're just selfish - focused on what we want and need out of the system, that we don't think about what we want to put into it.
But why not frame something positive — like saying out loud how we think things ought to be, or describing the moral code by which we want to live — in ways that actually hook up to our actions? So that, for example, instead of voting strategically to prevent the worst outcome, we vote for the candidate we actually want. And instead of spending our days offended and outraged, we keep some energy for doing and saying and contributing to how we believe things ought to be.
I don't mean to say we should lie to ourselves and only speak when we have something nice to say. But I don't want us to forget that passive outrage doesn't move us closer to a "good life". I, for one, have felt so intermittently jaded in recent years; cynical about successful people, bitter about the kinds of endeavours I see thriving, at times lost in my own malaise, feeling stacked against because I'm a woman, an emigrant, single, childless and unwealthy — all things that make me feel voiceless in certain contexts (and, yes, at the same time acknowledging that I'm also very privileged because I'm white and European and living in Canada and have free healthcare and gainful employment and so many nice things).
I can't put my finger on precisely how reading Middlemarch made me think about all of these things differently. But some of its effects include a trivialization of materialism, a newfound patience for the things I want, a tempering of daydreams and romantic idealism. The timing of this reading has been a factor too: This isn't my first read of Middlemarch and while I've always loved it, it never moved me quite as deeply. It s a mature book and, at 38, I found something in every character to love, to admire, to pity. And, perhaps, what I'm really talking about is really just that; seeing the world with those same sympathetic eyes. Knowing that it's how I would like to be seen too, for all my many flaws and follies, past, present and future.
P.S. I reread Middlemarch this time after reading Rebecca Mead's wonderful My Life in Middlemarch, which I also loved.
Image credit: Pierre Mornet, The New Yorker