When the editors asked me to ponder the question “Is this all there is?” my mind went immediately to the prospect of my second child’s looming departure for her first year of university, in a city five hours away. The experience of my oldest daughter leaving home four years earlier had shocked me by its intensity. The online advice-givers say that empty nest syndrome is really another name for grief, and I think they are right. When a person you have loved with daily proximity leaves your orbit, you lurch off balance. You start looking at the world and its meaning and meaninglessness in new, often bleak, ways.
My daughter’s leaving home left me with a scar, but thankfully it had mostly healed over as we found our way into a new kind of mother-daughter relationship, without the quotidian comforts of eating together and daily nagging. The prospect of going through it again with my second daughter felt both foreboding and uncertain. She is, of course, a different person than her sister; we orbit each other in different patterns of attraction and repulsion. Nevertheless, in what was perhaps a soothingly superstitious attempt to control both fate and emotions, I thought I should try to replicate the best parts of her sister’s earlier departure.
The summer before my oldest daughter, Magdalene, left for university she suggested that we should read a book out loud to each other, in honor of the many hours we had spent together, lying on beds and couches, sitting in kitchens or on porches, reading together. She chose George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72), an almost nine-hundred-page novel framed as “a study of provincial life” in the middle of England. Eliot’s uncanny ability to combine telling dialogue with social criticism and psychological speculation is surprisingly riveting when read aloud. By the time we reached the end of the book, even my daughter’s younger sisters and cousins would drape themselves on the couch to hear what would happen to Dorothea, to Mary, and to the obstinate Rosamond.
Middlemarch is a profound reflection on the possibility of whether a woman can realize her desire to have a life of the mind at the same time that she realizes her passion to better the conditions of life for the people around her. Marriage plots abound, being nearly inescapable in nineteenth-century England (although George Eliot—a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans—herself blazed an unusual conjugal path). The heroines of Eliot’s tale, however, are not only oriented by the pursuit of a lover or husband. Young women who did not have the option of going to university, who are driven by their passion for knowledge and their fervor for a kind of justice that is political, spiritual, and relational, Dorothea and Mary are rooted in both local bonds and a love for the world.
Eliot’s goal was to write the stories of these women in order to show the significance of human lives orbiting around each other even at a proximate, or provincial, scale. As she writes in the prelude, with St. Theresa of Avila as her exemplar,
Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.
Giving herself the task of being the sacred poet who could write the lives of Dorothea, Mary, and many others, Eliot ends the book with a prescient call for a history of unsung women. Referring to Dorothea’s “young and noble impulse” as she lived in an imperfect world, Eliot concludes:
But 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 with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully in a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Combining her ability to convey the spiritual grandeur of the untold life with her brilliant talent for social satire at once empathetic and clarifying, Eliot’s book is a good place to ponder the question of “Is this all there is?”
Eliot’s Middlemarch was also the perfect book for a mother and daughter grappling with the leave-taking that comes with growing up. As we read it aloud, we gasped at Eliot’s insights into the human condition, underlining passages that struck us as so true and articulate. One of these lines, “I know no speck so troublesome as self,” became part of my Christmas gift last year, when Magdalene cross-stitched it for me. (See image.) Middlemarch became a book that bound us to each other, to which we could return as a source for thinking and feeling the meaning of our lives and those of others. George Eliot’s words still have incalculably diffusive effects, almost 150 years after they were written.
Trying to make the summertime read-aloud into a tradition, I asked my daughter Isabel if she would like to do the same as she prepared to leave home. Though a reader herself, she was not convinced. We did not need to pick such a lengthy tome, I suggested, and eventually we settled on a short story, or at least a chapter of a novel, but I would have to do the picking. Alice Munro’s The Lives of Girls and Women (1971), a book I had read many years ago, seemed like a good choice to me. Writing one hundred years later, Munro shares a similar sensibility with Eliot, studying the provincial life of seemingly everyday women and men and laying bare the pain and pleasure that they give to each other in ways both fraudulent and sincere. As I reread the book to select one of the chapters to read aloud, I quickly realized that I might have chosen poorly. Munro may be within Eliot’s tradition of giving ordinary women epic lives, but she does so with an intimacy and frankness about sexuality, pleasure, and violence that Eliot politely avoided.
The Lives of Girls and Women tells the story of Del, a girl becoming a young woman in a largely white Protestant town in southern Ontario in the mid-twentieth century. Her mother is not a believer in God, and pays for it with social exclusion in the town, but she is a believer in the search for knowledge. An encyclopedia seller who desperately wants her high-achieving and intelligent daughter to win a scholarship go to university in the city, Del’s mother tells her daughter that if she had the chance, she would have studied Greek or astronomy in university.
But Del has become distracted from her rigorous habits of study and her love of great literature. She puts her university entrance exams in peril as she devotes all her time to being with or fantasizing about her new boyfriend, whom she met at a Baptist revival meeting: “I talked to myself about myself, saying she. She is in love. She has just come in from being with her lover. She has given herself to her lover. Seed runs down her legs.” Though my daughter may well have been fine with it, I felt uncomfortable with the thought of reading aloud the story of Del’s sexual awakening in a pick-up truck hidden in the woods by the river. I resolved that I would pick a chapter from an earlier point in Del’s life, focused on the school play.
Just as Eliot was able to give an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual life to her women characters, so too was Munro. But she went further, intertwining the emotional, the spiritual, and the intellectual with the sexual, depicting violence, constraint, desire, and possibility. Swimming in the river after one of their trysts, Del refuses her boyfriend Garnet’s decree that she be baptized, as a first step toward marriage. As he pushes her underwater, insisting that she consent to be baptized, a game becomes deadly serious, and Del is awoken once more:
. . . I saw his face streaming with water I had splashed over him and I felt amazement, not that I was fighting with Garnet but that anybody could have made such a mistake, to think he had real power over me. I was too amazed to be angry, I forgot to be frightened, it seemed to me impossible that he should not understand that all the powers I granted him were in play, that he himself was—in play, that I meant to keep him sewed up in his golden lover’s skin forever, even if five minutes before I had talked about marrying him.
Reading Del’s resistance this time around, I felt not only profound relief but also gratitude toward Alice Munro that she gave Del the fortitude to fight her way out of Garnet’s hands. Eventually, Del finds the wherewithal to leave town even though she had squandered her chances for a fully paid university scholarship. My relief and gratitude helped me to realize that I was reading The Lives of Girls and Women this time around as a mother—though I still identified with Del the daughter in many ways, I also saw myself in the hopeful, worrying, contradictory, and embarrassingly outspoken mother. Munro’s words also helped me to see the beauty in what Eliot called the noble impulses of youth, giving me a story that could acknowledge the bleakness of another child leaving home, while accepting its necessity and possibility.
Isabel and I never did read the story out loud to each other—we had planned to in the car journey on the way to university, but she slept most of the way. I gave her the book to read on her own, and like to think of it as a gift that might serve as a guide to growing up in a manner both self-aware and cognizant of the complex lives of others.
I have four more years to ponder what book might be a good choice for the summer of 2021, if my daughter Georgia wants to keep our quasi-tradition alive. In keeping with the theme of young women’s search for knowledge, one possibility would be Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friendship, but that might be an ambitious choice. As I faced Isabel’s departure this summer, however, I did find it gripping to finally read the fourth volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child (2015). The novel offers what, as far as I can tell, is a rare depiction from a mother’s point of view of the process of children leaving home and the reckoning that comes with it.
Ferrante, like Eliot and Munro, sets herself the task of telling the epic lives of women in their relationships to friends, mothers, children, and lovers across a backdrop of social and political analysis. Her main character, Elena, is a writer who struggled to emerge from a childhood of poverty in Naples to attend university and who becomes a well-known novelist and mother of three daughters. Along the way, she makes choices to pursue her vocation and her romantic life that are sharply at odds with expectations for the duties of motherhood and wifedom, even in the supposedly radical political circles in which she lives.
At the conclusion of The Story of the Lost Child, Elena is conflicted about the value of her writerly contributions, especially in comparison to her imagination of the unrealized brilliance of her friend Lila. After a visit from her adult daughters, during which one of them had read aloud from Elena’s books in a mocking manner, she comes to doubt herself anew:
Those books originated in the climate in which I had lived, in what had influenced me, in the ideas that had impressed me. I had followed my time, step by step, inventing stories, reflecting. I had pointed out evils, I had staged them. Countless times I had anticipated redemptive changes that had never arrived. I had used the language of every day to indicate things of every day. I had stressed certain themes: work, class conflicts, feminism, the marginalized. Now I was hearing my sentences chosen at random and they seemed embarrassing.
Feeling at once the fear that her life’s work might be deemed irrelevant and the intimate pain that came with her daughter’s jeering reading, Elena comes face to face with the question of insignificance: “. . . something inside me changed. Occasionally I took down one of my volumes, read a few pages, felt its fragility. My old uncertainties gained strength.”
But Ferrante does not leave her reader with only bleakness. With less admonition than Eliot and less economy than Munro, Ferrante tells stories that reveal the virtues and vices of her characters and their sometimes implausible, sometimes impossible, need for each other. She recommends: “Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them.”
When asked at a cosmic scale, the answer to the question “Is this all there is?” may often be yes. Measured by the secular—in the sense of very long duration—ages that predict the heat death of the universe, the prospects for eternal meaning look dim. Measured by the storytelling genius of George Eliot, Alice Munro, and Elena Ferrante, the answer is also a kind of yes. All that there is can be found right in front of you, in the people whom you encounter in your everyday lives, on the street, in a classroom, in your home. Human relationships are not the only force in the world for change, redemptive or evil. But they are, I hazard, required for our existence. We need to take care of them, sometimes airing out their injustices and inequities, other times preserving their intimacies and histories. As we orbit each other in a world that sometimes seems to be spinning out of control, we need our storytellers to bind us together in our beauty and our ugliness, in our profound and mundane existence.