Sympathy for the Grammarian

Maryanne Wolf writes in Proust and the Squid about a passage in Middlemarch where it dawns unpleasantly on Casaubon that Dorothea may be too flighty for him --

“I have read Middlemarch half a dozen times. Only when I read it last year did I see this passage about Mr. Casaubon in a different light. For three decades I identified completely and solely with the disillusionment of the idealistic Dorothea. Only now do I begin to fathom Casaubon's fears, his unmet hopes, and his own form of disillusion at not being understood by the youthful Dorothea. I never thought I would see the day when I empathized with Mr. Casaubon, but now, with no small humility, I admit that I do. So also did George Eliot, perhaps for reasons similar enough to my own. Reading changes our lives, and our lives change our reading.”

Wendy Lesser, in Nothing Remains the Same, finds herself similarly disillusioned with Dorothea, as with Anna Karenina. Lesser asks, ”Why am I now so unsympathetic to these two young women, Anna and Dorothea, whose fates once meant so much to me?” Of Anna Karenina she writes --

“If it is wrong to interpret the book entirely from the point of view of a twenty-two-year old single woman, it is equally wrong to view it from the position of a forty-eight-year old mother of a son. Still, since that is what I now am, I cannot entirely help it. (Like Karenin – like us all – I am not only trapped in my social role but also infused by it, changed by it, made into someone who is no longer a free agent.) And, as a mother, I find the last scene between between Anna and Seryozha well-nigh unbearable: first his unspoken hope that his absent mother will miraculously reappear on his birthday, then his dream-like happiness when she does appear by his bedside, and finally his terrible despair when she has to leave again.”

I guess you know you're middle-aged when you find your sympathies shifting to the likes of Casaubon and Karenin... another expression of this epiphany can be found in Philip Larkin's “A Study of Reading Habits.”

1 thought on “Sympathy for the Grammarian”

  1. Or when you start noticing things about Winston Smith from 1984? :))

    Wow, I love the comments for Philip Larkin's poem on "Poetry Connection." Makes you realize how non-obvious the irony in the poem is.

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