What’s this?? Another Classic Couple feature after months of nothing? That’s right! A Classic Couple is back with a whole new round of classic-contemporary pairings. Today I’ll be comparing two lengthy but worthwhile novels: Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2) and White Teeth by Zadie Smith (1999). Although there are countless differences between these novels, there are numerous surprising similarities that are fascinating to uncover. Let’s begin!
Sprawling cast of characters || Both of these novels have enormous webs of characters with multiple generations and new faces appearing throughout the story. I love stories that are primarily character-driven rather than purely motivated by plot, so these books pass the test for me! However, there is a significant difference in the kinds of characters these authors choose to focus on. In Middlemarch, Eliot writes about white middle-class families, whereas Smith’s novel incorporates people of all sorts of socioeconomic classes, nationalities, religions, and backgrounds.
Context || These novels may be set in completely opposite locations– Middlemarch in rural Victorian England and White Teeth in urban late-twentieth century London– yet their contexts are nevertheless essential and integral components of these stories. The settings almost feel like characters themselves because they are referenced so often and in great detail.
Importance of reputations || Since both of these novels focus primarily on family dynamics and relationships between different individuals and groups of people, there is a huge emphasis on one’s reputation in society. Smith’s focus on race adds a complicated yet fascinating layer to “evaluating” people’s “status” in society. Are the younger generations staying true to their different cultural backgrounds, or are they adopting the religions, ideas, practices, and behaviors of their peers?
Questioning truth || Although the contexts of these novels are incredibly different, both pose important questions about what we should take as fact in life and what we should view as fiction. Eliot writes from a perspective of moral realism, meaning that she was challenging accepted notions that Christianity dictated everything rather than burgeoning scientific thought. Likewise, the younger generations in White Teeth start questioning the validity of their parents’ dedication to religion and the belief that there is a set date that the world will end and everyone will be judged for their actions. While Eliot seems to suggest that there should be only one version of truth, Smith asserts the exact opposite.
What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with Middlemarch? What are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!