The Pier Glass: Life Lessons from Middlemarch
A stressed out English Ph.D. student learns sympathy and more from George Eliot's masterpiece.
The first time I tried to read Middlemarch, I failed. It was one of at least seven sturdy novels on the syllabus for my undergraduate nineteenth-century British novel class. I think our professor assigned such a hefty reading-load knowing there was little chance most of us would finish everything. “They’ll make you better people,” he assured us.
His conviction in the reparative power of literature has stuck with me. As an English Ph.D. student, I have a tendency to overthink everything I do, and to frequently wonder why exactly I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the first place. Sometimes, especially when I’m masochistically reading about the corporatization of the university, or the optimization of education, I recall Oscar Wilde’s gauntlet-throwing-down declaration that “all art is quite useless,” and wonder if it’s unfair to burden literature with any expectations whatsoever.
My professor’s hope that we would one day read the books he knew we hadn’t given the attention they deserved chafed at my conscience until after I had graduated. Only then did I finally succeed in reading all of Middlemarch. I remember my practical takeaway: do not read this book too slowly. (I actually think this is the key to success for most long novels with large casts of characters; if you put it down for too long, you cannot remember who the hell everyone is or how they relate to each other, and you lose momentum.)
I kept this hard-learned lesson in mind when re-reading Middlemarch last year for my Ph.D. program’s comprehensive exam. Preparing for the exam entailed months of near-hermetic reading, a luxury I could not fully appreciate at the time, given the anxiety-inducing test that lay at the end. And even though I was supposed to be reading critically and preparing to discuss my reading intelligently, I was surprised by what one might call the uncritical emotional responses I had to many of these texts. Despite—or perhaps because of—the pressure I was under, I seemed to have tenuous control over my emotions. Bearing out everything that Victorians said about the dangerous affective power of sensation fiction, I had nightmares while reading The Woman in White. I laughed out loud during “She Stoops to Conquer” and Don Juan. And, like some pathetic sentimental heroine, I wept in public at various points during Villette and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
But it was Middlemarch that truly supported me through the experience, functioning as both my lodestar and my therapist. I read the novel about halfway through the exam-studying process, at a time when the isolation brought about by the seemingly endless reading was catching up to me, and when I found myself increasingly—and, more often than not, unfairly—frustrated by everyone around me.
Next, perhaps, to Jane Austen, Eliot writes the characters I would most like to punch in the face. Middlemarch is a tour-de-force of eminently punch-able characters, from Dorothea’s ill-chosen scholar-husband Casaubon, to Lydgate’s ill-chosen brat-wife Rosamond, to Middlemarch’s resident hypocritical moralist Mr. Bulstrode. But Eliot’s skill lies in almost egging the reader on to want to punch her fictional inventions in their non-existent faces, and then pulling the rug out from under us by exposing just what’s going on behind those frustrating faces. About Dorothea’s seemingly unfeeling husband-to-be, she observes: “Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined that his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment, and that large drafts on his affections would not fail to be honored; for we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.” Reflecting on the miscommunications that will lead to the unhappy marriage of Lygate and Rosamond, she comments: “Poor Lydgate! or shall I say, Poor Rosamond! Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing.”
During the days I was reading Middlemarch—and long after I finished it, too—I could almost hear the narrator saying “Poor so and so” in my head every time I found myself vexed with someone in my own life. Strangely enough, it would calm me down. As Eliot was clearly aware, sympathy can be difficult to sustain, and most of us require regular refresher courses. Not only do other people have reasons for doing what they do, but the world is also not conspiring for or against us, as she explains in one of the novel’s most famous passages:
An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent.
There’s plenty to unpack in this passage, and it is, perhaps, too easy to gravitate towards Eliot’s own unsubtle “parable” of the pier-glass. But there’s a reason this passage is so frequently discussed, and it’s at least in part because it begs us to consider not just our egos, but the optical illusions that give them their distorted shape.
If it seems like I’m simplifying Middlemarch, I am. Of course. As countless scholarly articles and essay collections on the novel make clear, there is much to be discussed, and plenty that invites disagreement. The novel is, among other things, one of the greatest realist works in the English language, a subtle exploration of politics and enfranchisement in Victorian England, a meditation on what history means, and a reflection on disappointment. We could talk about Eliot’s complicated relationship with Christianity, her radical politics, her dauntingly thorough understanding of German Idealist philosophers and Baruch Spinoza, her extensive literary knowledge, or her scandalous but loving relationship with the already-married George Henry Lewes. And that would just be warming up.
For my exam, I had to be prepared to talk about these things. But what I most wanted to talk about was much more simple and yet more pertinent fact that Middlemarch helped me navigate the rewarding but also painful experience of studying for the exam, and the even more rewarding yet painful experience of being a human.
Cailey Hall is an English Ph.D. student at UCLA, where she is working on a dissertation about Romantic-era literature and the alimentary.