Classic Couple

A Classic Couple: Middlemarch and Nervous Conditions

A few months ago I discussed Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 novel Nervous Conditions in the context of feminist writing and postcolonial literature. Today, I’ll like to talk about this remarkable novel in a slightly different context: coupled with George Eliot’s classic 1871 novel Middlemarch. Published over a century apart and set against very different backdrops, these two novels are nevertheless tied together by many surprising similarities.

+ Multiplicity. Like the widely read classic Middlemarch, Nervous Conditions emphasizes the multiplicity of women’s voices and experiences. Dangarembga takes this a step further, demonstrating that so-called “Third World women” also possess a multiplicity that deserves to be recognized. Tambu’s (the narrator) mirror-like statements framing this novel remind the reader that although the story may be her own, it is also that of others. There is multiplicity in wholeness, just as it requires a plethora of women’s voices in order to establish and maintain a thriving tradition of women’s writing.

+ Challenges facing women. Both novels discuss rather taboo challenges facing women that are not often brought up in everyday conversation. Through Dorothea Brooke’s tense relationship with her husband Edward Casaubon, Eliot shows that marriage is not always inherently satisfying and gratifying for women. In Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga tackles the ominous topic of eating disorders. Rather than generalize disorders in the same way that women’s experiences of colonialism have been reduced to inaccurate stereotypes in literature, Dangarembga imbues Nyasha’s “nervous condition” with nuance. Like Nyasha, Dangarembga refuses to remain under the restrictive power of the patriarchy.

+ Opposing idealogical norms. Eliot strives to present a certain form of “moral realism” in her novel and is therefore much more concerned with representing fundamental truths than with recounting the minute details of daily life. One aim of her moral realism is to expose overlooked moments, as seen when Dorothea is disappointedly sobbing on her honeymoon with Casaubon in Rome. The belief that marriage must be flawless and fulfilling at all times is therefore dashed to pieces by Eliot’s realistic gaze, exposing the commonly held romanticized view of this life event. Disenchantment is a vital component of Eliot’s moral realism due to its emphasis on the true representation of an experience rather than one’s idealized, preconceived notions of a situation.

Similarly, Dangarembga opposes the notion that the literary sphere must be dominated by male voices. There is no singular experience of being a woman, meaning that there should be more than one woman’s voice being heard–and read–in the male-dominated literary sphere. In writing Nervous Conditions as a novel about African women and largely for African women, Dangarembga has indeed asserted the perspective of women into the otherwise male-dominated literary sphere of postcolonial writing. By engaging with the idea of multiplicity in the present, Dangarembga strives to ensure a multiplicity of African women’s voices being heard in the future.

While obviously very different, Middlemarch and Nervous Conditions still possess many similarities that may surprise unsuspecting readers. I highly recommend both of these novels, particularly if you’re looking for more literature that focuses on women’s experiences in different socioeconomic classes and cultures.

Click here to check out other Classic Couples from past posts.

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!

Yours,

HOLLY

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Classic Couple

A Classic Couple: Middlemarch and White Teeth

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 MiddlemarchWhat are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: LONG Books I Can’t Believe I Read

Happy Tuesday!! Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic set by The Artsy Reader Girl features ten books that we can’t believe we’ve read. However, instead of talking about the actual content of the books, I’ve decided to take a different perspective on this topic; instead, I’ll be focusing on book length. Without further ado, here are ten LONG books I can’t believe I read (what a time commitment!).

What are the longest books you’ve read? What books are you surprised you read for whatever reason? What do you think of the books I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Oxford Reading List

Happy Tuesday!! As you read this post I’ll be spending my first day abroad in England as I move into my room at Mansfield College in Oxford. (!!!!) Since today’s TTT topic is about our fall TBR lists, I thought I would share the ten novels I was assigned to read for my English Literature 1830-1910 tutorial this fall. I read these books over the summer to prepare for the course and I can’t wait to work with these texts in the actual tutorial. Get ready for a heavy dose of Victorian literature!

What are your thoughts on these books? What books are on your fall TBR list? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot | Review

George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch has been on my bibliophilic radar for years, though I never found time to read it until it appeared on one of my required reading lists for Oxford. I once had a professor who described Middlemarch as being a “smarter Pride and Prejudice. This comment immediately intrigued me. What did he mean by smarter? His remark came back to me as soon as I started reading Middlemarch and now that I’ve finished I think I may understand what he was trying to say.

Middlemarch is about so much more than courtship, engagements, and marriages; of course, the same rings true for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but in a more subtle way. Eliot uses Victorian romance and courtly love as a vehicle for telling the story she actually wants to convey. The hierarchy of socioeconomic class is at the heart of nearly every decision each character makes, whether that be in the form of their access to money, their thriving or dwindling social network, and even judgment from others. Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist, is an embodiment of this message. Though she quickly marries, she does so out of an intense desire to serve the greater good, gain valuable knowledge with which to help others, and help her new husband in his theological studies. Her decision later on in the novel regarding another love interest may appear to be solely a display of affection; however, it is actually a statement about defying the expectations that correspond with the socioeconomic hierarchy. Rather than comply with the wishes of her family and friends, she chooses to follow her gut instinct and disregard societal judgement.

We see the influence of social expectations reflected in nearly all the characters in Eliot’s fictional town. Though Dorothea may be considered the protagonist, Eliot brings us into the lives of several other notable figures as well. The focus often shifts from Dorothea’s predicaments to those of her sister and other local families, giving the reader a close look at several different relationships and scenarios. I was impressed by how seamlessly Eliot connects them all via engagements, business negotiations, family ties, and unexpected events. However, even with a rotating cast of characters, the pace of Middlemarch felt slow in the middle five hundred pages or so. It’s natural to have ups and downs in pacing as the plot thickens and then problems resolve, but at times the pace of the novel felt almost glacial.

The basic story of the novel wasn’t what I was initially expecting, though I enjoyed it nevertheless. I was surprised to realize how interesting doctors and medical treatment was during this time period. Because doctors were often expected to treat patients in their homes, there’s an important level of trust and intimacy between the patient, family, and medical provider. The socioeconomic hierarchy also plays an interesting role in this dynamic because the doctor wishes to be perceived as professional and competent enough to be called upon by wealthy, respected households. I appreciate Eliot’s focus on a rather mundane aspect of daily life because it reveals a surprising amount about social circles in a town such as Middlemarch.

Overall, Middlemarch was well worth the long wait it took to finally be read. Was my professor correct when he deemed Middlemarch to be a “smarter” Pride and Prejudice? I guess that depends how you define “smarter” as well as how determined you are to categorize or rank novels by certain (and rather arbitrary) criteria. Though Eliot may be blunter than Austen when it comes to portraying the influence of societal expectations, but I believe that both novels contain valuable insights about Victorian society.

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes! Especially to those who enjoy the work of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Elizabeth Gaskell.

What are your thoughts on Middlemarch? Have you read any of George Eliot’s other novels? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Meant to Read in 2016 But Didn’t Get To

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Happy Tuesday! I hope you’re all doing well after the holiday season. I know that I always feel a bit blue, but Top Ten Tuesday never fails to cheer me up. This week I’ll be sharing the Top Ten Books I Meant to Read in 2016 But Didn’t Get To. My list of books was so long that it was actually kind of difficult to narrow it down… but I managed!

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What are some books that you meant to read in 2016 but never got around to? What do you think of the books I mentioned? Which one of these should I put at the top of my list? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY