A Serial Reading of Middlemarch

A Newberry Library Adult Education Seminar  

This Newberry Seminar is now concluded. It was held in the fall of 2019. 

To celebrate the author’s bicentenary, this seminar explores George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece Middlemarch in manageable weekly installments for serial reading and discussion—with no spoilers! The result is an engaging in-depth look at Eliot’s literary technique as well as her insights into culture, science, art, and psychology. Weekly discussions will be supplemented with slides and film clips. Nine sessions. 

Materials List

Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0198815518. Other materials will be made available by email and brought to the seminar sessions.

For the first session, please read only the novel’s Prelude and Chapter One. Do not read the introduction (yet).

Seminar Description

George Eliot’s Middlemarch has been a popular and critical success since its publication in 1872. In fact, it was a success even before its full publication in 1872, since it was serialized in eight installments beginning the year before. Victorian readers of this 800-page work enjoyed and absorbed the story for months, discussing its gradual unfolding with friends and family and anticipating the turns each new installment would take. 

Eliot divided Middlemarch into eight “books” of approximately 110 pages each, and these installments naturally form the framework of the seminar readings. For each of the weekly sessions (beginning with the second), we will primarily discuss the features, plot developments, and specific themes of the book-length installment at hand. I will also refer to shorter works of Victorian literature and make use of a/v equipment to show images and film clips specifically related to the features and issues of each installment. For example, Book 2 finds two of the central characters on their honeymoon in Rome, and to supplement the novel’s masterful depictions of history, memory, art, and hope, our seminar will see excerpts from other Victorian writers on Rome, including Tennyson and Barrett Browning, and look at some of the paintings, sculpture, and architecture mentioned in Eliot’s text.

In this way, seminar participants are able to build an ongoing dialogue with a tremendous amount of material regarding Eliot’s novel and Victorian culture. Previous serial-reading seminars have shown that this kind of dialogue simply isn’t available to readers who wait to finish a novel before linking it to other material. Serial reading invites more consideration and commentary on specific issues, recurring images, opinions that evolve over the course of reading, and even favorite lines. Moreover, since all good novels actually teach readers how to read them, installments allow readers to benefit from this early and make use the teaching when it counts—while reading. As the installments progress, readers naturally pick up on more details, and discussion becomes distributed among a broader variety of voices as readers gaining confidence in their reactions are prompted to contribute.  

Each seminar session will also include discussion of where we think the story is going—and why. This invites readers to consider not only where the plot is going but how the novelist enlists plot and character to make statements and ask questions about human nature. A particular character’s fate, for example, not only reflects what would happen to a “real person,” but also begins to be seen in light of the novel’s developing themes. 

In concluding each session, I offer suggestions (while avoiding spoilers) for upcoming plot points and issues that readers should keep an eye on. I will also indicate specific “must-read” portions of each installment in case a seminar participant is pressed for time but still wants to keep up and appreciate the flow of the novel. 


Week 1 

To be read ahead of time: The novel’s Prelude and Chapter One. Please do not read Felicia Bonaparte’s introduction yet.

Theme: How to Begin Middlemarch

Week 2 

Book One: Miss Brooke

Theme: Eliot’s philosophy of the web

Week 3

Book Two: Old and Young

Theme: Aspiration, memory, and art

Week 4

Book Three: Waiting for Death

Theme: Victorian science

Week 5

Book Four: Three Love Problems

Theme: Victorian poetry, part one

Week 6

Book Five: The Dead Hand

Theme: Women in the Victorian era

Week 7

Book Six: The Widow and the Wife

Theme: Getting personal (some discussion of George Eliot’s own life)

Week 8

Book Seven: Two Temptations

Theme: Victorian poetry, part two

Week 9

Book Eight: Sunrise and Sunset (and Finale)

Theme: Adaptations and criticism

Photo: http://www.earlywomenmasters.net/art/middlemarch.html