The Big Picture

It can be a great and revelatory adventure reading a book for the first time with a completely open mind – no preconceptions, no expectations, no set interpretations. On the other hand, especially with a long and complicated book, it can also be like wandering a new city without a map or a destination: the fun wears off if you start to feel lost. The questions and prompts here offer some ways to orient yourself as you get started; the other question pages focus on individual books of the novel (warning: they contain spoilers!). As you get deeper into the novel, it might be interesting to look back here and see if your ideas have changed, or if some questions seem more relevant at that point than they did at first.

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1. Titles are our first clues about how to read the book that follows. What ideas about the world of Middlemarch do you get from the novel’s title and subtitle (“A Study of Provincial Life”)? What are the connotations of “middle,” for instance, or of “march”? What’s the difference between a “study” and a “portrait,” or a “vision”? What kind of community does “provincial” suggest? (You could also think about how these other famous 19th-century titles set up their novels: Pride and PrejudiceGreat ExpectationsVanity FairJane EyreWuthering Heights. How is our attention directed differently in each case?)

2. The novel that we know as Middlemarch is actually the fusion (and completion, of course) of two different projects Eliot began at different times: a novel to be called ‘Middlemarch’ begun in 1869 (conceived of as the story of a reform-minded country doctor), and a story called ‘Miss Brooke,’ begun in 1870. Early in 1871, with about 50 pages of the first project stashed away and about 100 pages of the second completed, it occurred to her to fuse them into a broader narrative. What themes or problems do you notice that unify these two main strands of the novel? What do the stories of Lydgate and Dorothea have in common — and what differentiates them? How are these two characters alike or different? What are some of the factors that most influence their paths through the novel?

3. A central premise of the novel is that things look different from different points of view. This seemingly simple idea affects both the plot and the form of the novel. Which characters seem most attentive (or most blind) to their own biases? How do their (mis)perceptions affect their actions? What role does the narrator play in pointing out or compensating for characters’ limitations? What about the novel’s organization — how does it reflect this concern with perspective? (One thing to keep an eye on, in this context, is its chronology: there’s a lot of backtracking, often so that we can return to the same moment from a different angle.)

4. One of the central metaphorical patterns of the novel is that of the web. Watch for the many different ways web imagery is used — consider, too, how the novel shows society as a web, and the ways the novel itself is structured like a web. “We all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors,” says the narrator: what are the implications of webs — what do they enable, and how do they endanger? What other recurrent metaphors do you notice?

5. Two key words in Middlemarch are “ardent” and “petty“: the whole of the novel could almost be understood as a struggle between them! Watch for occurrences of them. Which characters show the most ardor? Is ardor necessarily a force for good? What are its risks? Where do we see the most pettiness? What are its costs?

Middlemarch Discussion Questions: The Big Picture (PDF)

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