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Cage Match: George Elliot v. Cormac McCarthy

posted Feb 8, 2015, 2:49 PM by Timothy Vienne
This fall I had the pleasure of reading works by two marvelously different authors: the 19th-century master George Elliot's Middlemarch and the epic dystopian novel The Road by 21st century master Cormac McCarthy. The striking contrasts between these books in terms of mood, subject and prose is so vast as to be trite. But the point I want to emphasize in this post are the similarities between the two more than the differences. Culture, setting and style change over the decades, but a well-wrought story endures.

Elliot's Middlemarch is a tome that fixates on the drama of an English small town during the tumultuous period of the 1830s. This era is known as one of the first examples of bottom-up movements for democratization in Britain; while the actual reforms implemented would look shallow by today's standards (essentially lowering the property qualifications to vote), they were revolutionary to the aristocracy that had long run Britain's electoral system. In the midst of this social mayhem, a young woman named Dorothy marries an old clergy man on the assumption that his scholarly prowess will give her life significance. She decides wrongly, and instead is trapped in a cold, lifeless relationship with a man who tilts at academic windmills. Dorothy gains a fervent admirer in Will Ladislaw, a relation of her husband who is classic gentleman adventurer without a fortune or a career. It is only when her husband dies that Dorothy can consider Will, although a cruel provision in her husband's will means that to marry him she must give up her wealthy estate. (Middlemarch in 500 words, not bad eh?)

McCarthy's The Road is a tale of man and his boy, both nameless, who journey through a post-apocalyptic United States. Fleeing marauding bands of cannibals, they survive on the last vestiges of civilization in looted supermarkets and abandoned root cellars. The bleakness of the landscape contrasts with the fervent love of the man for his son. They reach the coast, but the man dies before he can reach any traces of normal people. His son, though, is rescued from starvation by a local family, who adopt him as their own son. In that sense The Road is a story about redemption and sacrifice: a man lays down his life for his son, which secures his salvation from the perishing world around him.

In terms of setting these novels could not be more different. Yet the strength of these stories is not in their clever use of scenery but in the intensity of their characters' passions. The man in The Road will brave pneumonia and the savagery of lawless tribes if it will only give his son a chance to live. Dorothy in Middlemarch refuses to accept her husband's post-mortem judgment on her life, and instead chooses a life of obscurity because she loves Will Ladislaw. These characters choose not to let the overwhelming temptation of the easiest choice overcome their desire to redeem those they love.

A way to put it could be that a great novel examines why a human being is great, or at least can be great. Great not in the sense of daring escapades or ingenious schemes, but great in terms of shaping others' destinies. There is no one to one correspondence in either novel between good, evil and the characters in the novel: each one has dimensions which are unimpressive or reprehensible. But the main thing is to rush forward into the traps of life, not to remain in the comfortable obscurity of the might-have-been.