Just about a third of the way into George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke returns home from her wedding journey to Lowick Manor with her new spouse, the dry, elderly scholar and minister Mr. Casaubon. It is the middle of January. Dun-colored clouds hover close and the fields are frozen. The world feels flat and drained of color. Dorothea stands at her bedroom window and considers her life. By this point the reader has been well prepared for her impending disillusionment. She has married a man more than twice her age, drawn so cold and brittle by Eliot he sends a winter chill through every scene he enters. In the early days of their courtship, however, Dorothea idealizes him. His very lifelessness she deems a sign of his lofty nature. “He seemed even unconscious that trivialities existed,” she muses.
Yet from the beginning, we are granted—reader and other characters alike—the perspective to see the marriage itself as a prison sentence and Dorothea’s views, though the product of noble desires, as hopelessly naive. Thus, by the time she has returned from her honeymoon, she does not need to utter the sentence, “Is this all there is?” for us to hear it as the expression of a claustrophobia whose very circumstances have been created by a yearning for transcendence.
Even before Dorothea has met Casaubon, the tacit question “Is this all there is?” resonates in the novel’s opening. The prelude commences with the musing that “here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances.” Eliot’s English Protestant Theresa, Dorothea, manifests her restlessness in the novel’s first scenes when she shows impatience with the small-mindedness of her sister and grasps at any available form of self-abnegation. This restlessness is there as the sign of a religious temperament that seeks both to better the world and to find something better than it, and there as well when her commitment to selfless devotion proves to be just another form of enclosure. Thus the question stays the same even as the site of disappointment shifts.
This summer I imagine the same was true for all of us. Questions about the very point of it all were hard to hold at bay. It was difficult to focus on the tasks at hand when a giant chunk of the arctic shelf broke off and drifted away; difficult when Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un traded threats of nuclear devastation, no less scary for their cliched word choice; and it did not get any easier when our charming president refused to recognize the moral differential between neo-Nazis and civil rights activists. Then came the deluge in Texas and devastation in the Caribbean. Amidst all this, that encyclopedia entry I was tasked with writing seemed more pointless than it would have otherwise.
I had begun reading Middlemarch in earnest six months earlier. I had picked it up numerous times but had failed to make it past the first fifty pages, so frustrated with what I viewed as Dorothea’s naive idealism that I did not trust that it would evolve into something else. But this summer, when my usual forms of internet news seeking became a more heart-wrenching pastime even than the self-loathing that comes with staring at a blank page, the novel became my sole satisfying distraction.
In the novel, Dorothea’s restlessness is partially a function of feeling helpless—the fact that she has enormous resources but no means to employ them. Despite a fine mind, nobility, and plenty of material resources, the choices she makes for much of the novel reinforce her constriction. Quickly it becomes clear that that religious ardor of hers is no escape at all. Despite his destitution, Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s poor relation, whom Dorothea meets in Rome on her honeymoon, has far more freedom—freedom of movement, of expression. His intelligence, at least, does him some good.
It is only after getting to know Ladislaw that Dorothea finally comes to the realization that her marriage is suffocating, though she does not yet understand that Will is her future. As the novel progresses, opening out into its alternative stories, the obstacles build between them. Casaubon seems to have prevented Dorothea and Ladislaw’s union even in death through a special codicil to his will that cuts her off, but only if she marries Ladislaw. It is not the money, though, that keeps them far from one another, but the shame implied by the insinuation that something was already there between them. That and Dorothea’s failure to register the connection already forged. The question then of how these two will find a way to get together drives one flank of the story forward, even as others begin to take shape around it.
Among my impulses this summer were two that are contradictory. One was the constant hunger for more information, a manic combing of websites in the hope of finding the story or expert opinion that would give me a clue to how all this will end: in apocalypse, impeachment, mass suicide? The other was to look away entirely. There is in the former something like the desire that animates a certain kind of striving for belief: the wish for someone out there who knows, some final authority. The internet dangles the hope of such a thing—the sense that if I only keep looking I will find something satiating—but makes it structurally impossible to satisfy. There will always be another site, another perspective, another “expert opinion” to consult.
Before turning to the novel, I had found few means of satisfying the impulse to look away, few escapes from the constant need to press refresh on the browser in hopes of a new development or some sign that the current political regime was nearing its imminent demise. The need itself felt like a vice, and for that I experienced a sense of recognition in Eliot’s depiction of a character whose restless energy cannot find a productive outlet. But my restlessness did not come from a sense of the smallness of the world, a restriction of the field of possibility, as is the case for Dorothea, for whom the labored copying of Casaubon’s trivial manuscripts serves as her only available means of mental exertion, but rather from the overwhelming proximity of so much and the realization that the information itself does not increase our capacity to act. There is so much of it, but none of it provides the assurance of security, shelter, or the means to make enough of a difference.
By contrast, the information provided within the space of Middlemarch is utterly reliable. Not in that it is real, or true, but reliable rather in the way the beams in my roof are reliable. Even what looks decorative turns out to be part of the infrastructure. The narrative develops into a complex form that the reader does not at first have the perspective to see in full view. But its totality is visible at the end, when the book is through. In the meantime, while reading, we learn not only about Dorothea but also about the equally idealistic doctor Tertius Lydgate, who marries the charming and frivolous Rosamund and begins to wrack up household debt; about the seemingly upstanding banker Bulstrode, who stands in judgment of others but harbors a terrible secret; and about the hardworking and honest Garth family, whose sheer presence in the novel provides a reprieve from the greed and gossip that proliferate elsewhere in the town.
At first the strands are seemingly independent of one another, but they are slowly exposed to be interconnected, as Lydgate gets tied up in Bulstrode’s secret and risks losing everything, including his reputation, and Dorothea finally has an opportunity to demonstrate her goodness and act selflessly, not as she had imagined and envisioned, but in a modest demonstration of sympathy, kindness, and generosity. Each piece, doled out slowly, comes to accrue meaning, to explain action, and to make possible and comprehensible lines of development between characters that had seemed disparate and unrelated.
The world depicted is far simpler than our own, its dangers more mundane, but the sense and logic of it are not only a product of what is represented. I came to see the very form of the novel as the source of my satisfaction. Within the novel’s confines, information serves a function and time unfolds with a purpose. It is a closed universe. It is this feature, entailed by the promise of a universe fabricated by a creator and the promise of meaning and order concomitant to it, that gives the novel its theological echoes. It is also the reason why, thirty-five years ago, theorists such as Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault were touting the end of the Book, emphasizing the death of the author, and teaching us to see how textuality resists mastery. But for all that deconstruction reveals about the myth of authorial intention and the play of language, it also does not deny the persistence of our theological expectation and the function that it provides. We cannot help it—we long, not only for transcendence but also for certain forms of totality, structures in which all the pieces fit.
Maybe this is why we want now more than ever to read novels with all their conventions intact, even if it is the television series that seems more prominently to be playing this role. I have not seen Game of Thrones, but I have heard an awful lot about how its pieces fit together. In both the novel and the series, narratives happen simultaneously, and the viewer or reader switches between them with the ensuing promise of interconnection. In Middlemarch the scope actually narrows rather than expanding as it progresses. As it does, we see its characters in all their ambivalence as well as how their virtues and faults shape their destinies. In Eliot’s hands, the unfolding of time provides insight, if not always to the characters then to the reader. Out in our own world, it seems only wishful thinking that such would be the case. The more we know, the worse it seems to get.
The question “Is this all there is?” presupposes the desire for more, for a window into the infinite. This is certainly Dorothea’s longing at the novel’s opening. By its end she has transferred her energies and learned to use her gifts toward more finite aims. For Eliot, no doubt, this is a mark of her maturity. I cannot say that following her this summer I cured my own malaise, or even achieved lasting relief from my own nagging internal questions, but the novel’s enclosure gave me a mental room for reflection. It took those questions and transposed them elsewhere, to a space with shape and reliable form. Our capacity to reflect on narratives may be endless, but the novel’s finitude is not merely one of its features; it is the very means by which reflection on it is made possible. In the end, dear reader, sometimes we need to be able to close the book and say with some satisfaction, that is all there is.