Hardcover, 191 pagesBorrowed from the library
Read June 2016
by J. Hillis Miller
Let's start with what this book is. I was inspired to pick this monograph up after my examination of the metaphor of "animated tax-pennies" in Middlemarch, as J. Hillis Miller had one of the only sustained discussions I could find of it. Miller's book is a detailed close reading of George Eliot's Adam Bede and Middlemarch, specifically those parts of those novels about reading itself. Miller argues that both books are about the reading of signs and signs to be read. The discussion of Adam Bede is mostly there to buttress that of Middlemarch, which takes up half of the chapters, but about 70% of the text.
Miller argues that Middlemarch is about our tendency to want totalizing systems that let us understand the world, and about the fact that those totalizing systems tend to break down and not encompass as much as we would like. Miller finds a pattern in Middlemarch of those who are “mystified by a belief that all the details she or he confronts make a whole governed by a single center, origin, and end”-- and this pattern is lethal, causing problems for Casaubon, Lydgate, Bulstrode, Fred Vincy, Rosamond, and Dorothea (49). But that failure is okay, Miller goes on to argue, so long as we are aware of the limitations of the system. Dorothea seeks a totalizing system when she marries Casaubon (of course I like this guy, he's got my argument basically), but does not find one. She doesn't find one when she marries Ladislaw later, but his incomplete system yields useful action at least, unlike Casaubon's, plus Ladislaw doesn't care about origins (50). He's willing to accept the shortfall in the system if it lets him accomplish something.
Miller also argues that the novel (both as a general concept and Middlemarch in particular) is an incomplete but useful system as well, a series of signs that allows us to learn something about the interpretation of signs from the way that its characters and narrator interpret series of signs. Metaphors are slippery and don't have a real base; the torturous tax-penny metaphor, Miller argues, is designed to reveal that. Its complexity is a feature, not a bug: “The meaning of Middlemarch is indeterminate not in the sense that useful commentary may not be written on it, or that one can say anything about it one likes, but in the sense that no commentary can be exhaustive or wholly coherent. It will be the less coherent insofar as it yields to the richness of the text” (137).
As a guide to the complexity of Middlemarch (and Adam Bede), Reading for Our Time would be difficult to surpass. His own totalizing system of how to understand the novel is compelling and comprehensive, taking in numerous aspects, and not being beguiled. For any reading of Middlemarch to be compelling, it must reconcile the epilogue where Dorothea gives up on reform and sticks to being Ladislaw's wife-- probably the most disconcerting part of the novel, especially to a contemporary reader. But I reckon he just about manages it, arguing that it's a true decision, as it derives from Dorothea's emotions, not her feeling compelled to live up to totalizing system of society/morality that probably doesn't exist.
Where the book falls short is in its stated mission, in arguing that Adam Bede and Middlemarch are relevant to our time and our lives. While I agree with the premise, his examples are facile, complaining about American partisan politics of 2012 in a seemingly un-self-critical way, with jabs at the Republican party for its stance on Obamacare and tax cuts. Miller seems unable to step outside the totalizing system of contemporary American liberal discourse; as a result, his book provides only the most banal of insights. But despite its prominence in the title, it's actually a very minor part of the book, so it doesn't drag the book down. It just caused me to make the occasional eye-roll.