In her essay, ‘You’ll Never Be Famous, And That’s Okay,’ Emily Esfahani Smith writes for The New York Times:
Today’s college students desperately want to change the world, but too many think that living a meaningful life requires doing something extraordinary and attention-grabbing like becoming an Instagram celebrity, starting a wildly successful company, or ending a humanitarian crisis.
This thought process is not limited to college students but crosses the minds of most people, if not all; likely when things aren’t going well and the finances are dry, the chores list long, and meaning seems like a distant dream. We all grew up wanting to do great things. The moment a first grader is asked: what do you want to be when you grow up, the thought process sets in, mildly at first, then violently during the youths.
Smith continues to write:
There’s perhaps no better expression of that wisdom than George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” a book I think every college student should read. At 700-some pages, it requires devotion and discipline, which is kind of the point. Much like a meaningful life, the completion of this book is hard won and requires effort.
Smith’s essay introduced me to Middlemarch, and as an existential crisis struck youth, I walked into a bookstore and purchased the book. It must have been destiny, I concurred; the book was on sale.
Mary Ann Evans, writing under the pen name of George Eliot, discusses the lives of provincial characters through her Victorian novel Middlemarch. Written during 1871-72, Middlemarch is one of the greatest works of English literature. This mammoth of a book talks about lives – the unhistoric ones – the lives that thrived to be great but failed short of it.
I echo Smith’s words: it requires devotion and dedication, that too of a mammoth kind. Finishing the book is not a straightforward task, but as I arrived at the last few pages, the characters had become so familiar during the one and half months of reading, that parting with these fictional people gave me a bittersweet moment.
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
-Chapter 20, Middlemarch
Middlemarch is the story of many lives intertwined within a web, but mostly it is about Dorothea, Lydgate, Fred, and Bulstrode. It is the story of broken marriages, unsuitable professions, and the power of financial stability (or the lack of it). Both Dorothea and Lydgate have big dreams for themselves. The former wants to be of service to humankind, and the latter wants to leave a mark in medicine. Both fail to achieve their dreams, but Dorothea avenges her fate. She does so not in a grandiose manner but in the most silent and meek way she is capable of, while Lydgate succumbs to his life’s eventual trajectories.
The novel draws many parallels with the conditions of human life. The story unfolds without haste; there is no sense of urgency. The characters are many and they have strong opinions of each other that move the story. There is failure, there is breakdown, there is evil, and there is innocence.
If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new. We are told that the oldest inhabitants in Peru do not cease to be agitated by earthquakes, but they probably see beyond each shock, and reflect that there are plenty more to come.
-Chapter 55, Middlemarch
If we are to believe the words of John Piper – Books don’t change people; paragraphs do, sometimes even sentences, the line could not have been truer for Middlemarch, whose beauty lies in its slow, beautiful, and honest depiction of human life with occasional wisdom so profound it could move readers to the core.
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