Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The end

Okay, nobody seems to want to touch it, so I'm going to be brave and jump in.

A little history here -- I saw the BBC Middlemarch on Masterpiece Theatre before I ever read the book, so I got to hear Russell Baker's commentary before and after each episode. After the last episode, he said something along the lines of this: generations of readers have felt vaguely disappointed by the ending of Middlemarch, and wished that Eliot had somehow been able to get Dodo and Lydgate together.

I don't remember what else he said because I was shocked. Of course Dodo and Ladislaw belonged together! Ladislaw was HAWT. And Romantic. What else could a girl possibly want? (I was 22, let it be remembered).

Reading the book shortly thereafter did not change my mind.

Fast forward 11 years to this past Christmas. I was on the phone with an old friend who had finally gotten around to reading the book (inspired by my gushing long ago). She hated the ending. Her points were these:
  • Clearly, Eliot intends the reader to think Ladislaw is a much better catch than any sensible modern reader would think he is. He's self-absorbed and mediocre. All Dodo's wants and ambitions are subordinated to his career. She should not have married him.
  • Dodo should have married Lydgate.
  • The ending, therefore, is either lame or tragic, or more likely both. If you fall in love with the wrong person, you are pretty much doomed to limp along, never achieving what you might have, and that's just depressing.
Oh dear. It had been so long since I'd read the book, that I had no rebuttal. What she said made sense to me, and made me worry that this book I had loved so long was, in fact, nothing but a big disappointment. That's one of the reasons I leapt at the chance of reading it again, with other people! I needed to know which was right -- her pessimistic reading, or the rosy interpretation of my youth.

I have concluded NEITHER.

This time through, I like the ending. Not in a "how romantic, they're together!" kind of way, I mean, and not without a certain somber understanding. It's not a buoyantly happy ending for Dodo; not happy at all for Lydgate. Fred and Mary fare a bit better. But let's have a look at what Eliot is trying to say.

One of the big themes in Middlemarch, to my mind, is how to make peace with your ordinariness. Everyone wants to be special: Fred wants to be exempt from work; Bulstrode wants to be part of God's elite, without having to follow the rules himself; Lydgate wants to make a big splash in the medical community; Rosamond wants to rise in society; Casaubon wants to do exceptional scholarly work. (The exception to this, it seems, are some of the peripheral characters -- Celia, Sir James, Mrs. Cadwallader -- who are extremely interested in keeping everything exactly as it is. Similarly, much of conservative Middlemarch society).

Inevitably, characters who strive for, long for, and chase after specialness run up against setbacks and disappointments. There are good ways and bad ways to deal with setbacks. Our bad models include Bulstrode (who bribes, cheats, and possibly hastens death), Casaubon (who hoards and hides), and Lydgate, who basically gives up (we can debate this, if you like). There are two significant good models: Farebrother (who I've discussed before), and Caleb Garth. Caleb's strategy is especially instructive: he works hard. Success comes only slowly, specialness perhaps never, but that doesn't really matter. Work is its own reward. He never stops moving, and he never stops believing in work for its own sake.

Work is one thing that saves us from despair in the face of obstacles: love is another. Fred and Mary have both, and I think they end up the happiest. Lydgate ends up with pale shadows of both, and I think his fate is unambiguously tragic.

Then we have the problem of Dodo. She is presented from the beginning as special -- and she is. She is kind and courageous, able to step forward and save Lydgate when no one else (even my dear Farebrother, *sob*) will do it. Under the right circumstances, she could have been St. Theresa. But these aren't the right circumstances, and the question Eliot asks in the ending is Is that a tragedy? Is it enough to marry someone you love? Is it enough to work diligently at the myriad invisible, unappreciated tasks of everyday life?

I think it is. I think Eliot thinks so too. We work, we love, we do our best, and we can't let the specter of how much better we could have done (maybe! under the right circumstances!) recast our stories as tragedies. Dodo's story is still worth telling. So is yours.

Let me just end with the very end, barely remembered from my first read-through, that now gives me chills:
...[For] the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who have lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.


Blogger Raehan said...

I liked the ending and found it very complete.

I thought Elliot made it clear that there was no physical attraction between Lydgate and Dorothea when she mentioned that he thought of her as a friend. I can't remember the line exactly.

In addition of the theme of coming to terms with your ordinariness is the them of entrapment. Dorothea escapes her entrapment (with a little luck--the death of her husband) but also by taking a leap (Ladislaw) and in some ways that makes her life extraordinary. In the end, she is free.

12:45 AM  
Blogger gina c said...

This passage resonated at first reading and has since remained with me:

"She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving--perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining."

This is a significant moment. Did anyone else see the Henchards moving on toward their destiny with the help of the frumenty-woman? or it could the Holy Family on their way into Egypt? And the shepherd with his dog, could be the Good Shepherd. Its a liminal moment, from which there's no going back, she must go forward into what's not known, and the only certainty is movement.

I really liked the thunder-and-lightning storm when Will and Dorothea finally acknowledged their feelings, I havent seen that part of the BBC production yet, but I hope they put it in. Raehan is correct, Dorothea is free in the end.

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Danielle said...

Great post, and great comments. I think you really nailed it when you talk about the character's ordinariness. This was my first reading of the book, but I am sure I could not have summed it up so well. I was happy when Dodo and Ladislaw got together, but a little disappointed in the finale when after such a "burst" that Dodo started out as, she sort of fizzled in the end (sorry, not explaining it well). But the last sentence did put it in perspective and actually makes me feel better. I always feel like I am going to die (not to be grim) without ever having left my mark in any tangible way on the earth, but somehow reading this last sentence made me feel so much better. I just found out that the BBC adaptation is waiting for me at the library, so I hope to watch it soon!

1:28 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

"the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts" — oh, that chokes me up, every time.

I LIKE the ending. It strikes me as very REAL.

I never saw Dodo and Lydgate as a good match — compatible, but Eliot bases their relationship on respect, no glimmer of passion. Lydgate with his past, and his attitudes to women, could never really fall for Dodo, even as he sees the errors of his ways.

Lasislaw — self-absorbed and mediocre? Not quite. He's young still, jack of all trades, a bit directionless, but I don't think that resigns him to a fate of mediocrity. He's intense, he has ideas. He takes everything personally, but I don't think he's significantly more self-absorbed than most.

Dodo chooses love, and the community continues to regard it a mistake.

Lydgate's end — definitely tragic. Particularly that he regarded himself a failure, whereas an outsider years later seeing his family, practice, etc, might not come to that conclusion. Remember too he couldn't just leave Rosamond — he had an obligation.

I read somewhere (transcript of Baker's commentary?) that most readers come to Middlemarch at about the same age as Dodo is (20-ish), and MM's status of classic enourages it to occur then. I wonder if THAT is the reason so many readers are vaguely disappointed. I can't tell you how glad I am I read it for the first time now (age 36) and not at 18 (when someone first raved about it to me)! I think this is what Woolf meant when she called it a "novel for grown-ups" (I meant to write a post on that, but it ties in here). At 18, I'm sure I could appreciate the obligations, ordinariness, in theory, but at 36 I really get it. At 18 I suspect I would've seen the end as a warning, don't let this happen to me; my romantic ideals very definitely would've been disappointed that everything could turn out so "wrong." At 36, it's less tragic, more poignant, and I KNOW the burdens of my obligations, the consequences of my choices, and I have in my way come to terms with ordinariness/ambition/my place in the world, the way an 18-year-old never could.

BTW, I recently saw the library scene listed as one of the sexiest moments in literature. I have to agree.

Saw the first half of the BBC production last week, but it'll be another week before I have time to watch the end. Will post notes when I can.

Thanks for being brave, Rachel.

9:54 AM  
Blogger piksea said...

The library scene is noted in a book called Literary Lust that I spied on a shelf in Barnes and Noble, so I guess Elliot wrote a steamier scene than anyone gives her credit for.

I sort of thought that Dodo and Ladislaw together would make the future limitless for them. They were in love and free to live out their lives as they see fit.

10:28 AM  

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