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Middlemarch: The Greatest Novel Ever Written?

We have grown quite used to seeing numerous lists ranking books, movies, and television: "The best television shows of all time," "The worst series finale of all time," "The best books ever written," "The top movies of all time." They are fun to read, and at times infuriating when you disagree. As for Middlemarch (1871), written by George Eliot, there has yet to be a list in which this novel is not included, or even at the top of the list. Yet, so many people are quick to say, "I’ve never read Middlemarch." What makes this novel immensely appealing to a wide range of individuals, critics, avid readers, and literary theorists? Why are there so many readers who have yet to tackle this novel consistently noted as one of–if not the–best novels ever written? Is it the size of this novel? Could it be the fact that people are so tired of Victorian Literature, which has constantly been viewed as "a one size fits all," style of writing? Is Middlemarch really the greatest, or just another example of an over-hyped medium of art?

  • There is an interesting comparison that can be (and often is) drawn between Middlemarch and Anna Karenina, two novels which frequently and well-deservedly compete for the "greatest ever" title, though the latter seems to have garnered a greater appeal from the general reading public. The key point of comparison lies in their structural congruency; as the great Russian literary scholar, Gary Saul Morson, has noted, "Like Middlemarch, Anna Karenina tells three stories, but unlike George Eliot's novel, it is named after one of them" (Morson, 2007; p.37). Though the two share a disunity of action that was rare among the predominantly character-driven novels of the day, Eliot did not grant readers the same pointed guidance as to which plotline required the greater focus, thus obscuring its narrative from easy distillation. Tolstoy's novel has thereby had better luck at receiving stage and screen adaptations (most recently in the 2012 film, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard), because of the unspoken rule that the story is all about Anna, thus resulting in an unfortunate suppressing of Levin's story, not to mention the Oblonskys who are frequently treated as mere cogs in Anna's downfall. Due to its lack of such centralisation, there have been far fewer (successful) adaptations of Middlemarch - which, unfortunate as it may be, has a massive impact on exposure to contemporary audiences. In a similar vein, the British dramatist, Helen Edmundson, who is best known for her ambitious adaptations of 19th century novels, was able to adapt Anna Karenina for the stage in a way that effectively represented the importance of Levin to the plot. Though she has also done an adaption of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss - whose plot is much more central to a single grouping of characters, that being Tom and Maggie Tulliver - she has not ventured to broach Middlemarch, likely for many of these same reasons. – ProtoCanon 5 years ago
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