Course Description

English 3301, “George Eliot’s Middlemarch

Professor Margot Backus

Spring 2013


When asked what he felt the central insight that his notoriously complex theory of deconstruction should have for all students of literature, Jacques Derrida responded: “slow down!” This section of English 3301 will apply Derrida’s advice in a very specific way, by deliberately emulating the reading of a Victorian novel as it would have been read by its original audience, who read each of the novel’s eight books as a serial installment.


Eliot’s 800-page masterpiece has been celebrated as the literary realist novel’s fullest realization, and as such, Middlemarch is frequently invoked as a touchstone against which various prior and subsequent developments in the novel are defined. Yet as a work understood as the fulfillment of several literary traditions, including fiction, the novel, the marriage plot, the historical novel, and realism, and as the standard from which subsequent developments such as naturalism, symbolism, modernism and meta-fiction depart, Middlemarch currently poses as least as many problems for English majors as it resolves Most fundamentally, given its enormous size, in our busy and information-inundated world, Middlemarch is increasingly difficult for faculty to assign, or for students to carefully read when they do. Furthermore, Middlemarch’s status as the epitome of the high realist novel, when accepted unquestioningly, with little or no serious investigation into such far from obvious questions as what the novel, fiction, and realism are, can turn not only this novel but “the realist novel” as a whole into something that seems deceivingly straightforward and naïve. To the contrary, however, a “slowed down” examination of Eliot’s realism raises very sophisticated questions concerning the relationship between an objective, external world, if any, and Eliot’s intricate verbal construct. Such a deliberate, disciplined reading of the novel lends itself to an “Introduction to Literary Studies,” because we will have room for readings in biography, close reading, aspects of Victorian culture and history, and in generic issues including fiction, the novel, and realism, and also for weekly workshops aimed at developing majors’ abilities in the areas of close reading, the application of source materials to a text, library and archival research, and the drafting and revision of critical essays. As a class that will meet on a MWF schedule, we will spend our Friday class meetings working on specific reading, invention, research, and writing skills, so that the final course grade will reflect, roughly equally, the informal writing exercises and in-class participation the course will require, and half on the final, polished critical essay these each course participant will produce.


Monday Jan 14          Course Overview

Wednesday Jan 16    “Forward” and close-reading essay           

Friday Jan 18             Close reading exercise


Monday Jan 21          Martin Luther King Junior Holiday

Wednesday Jan 23    Book I and Biographical Essay


Friday Jan 25             In-class writing, discussion


Monday Jan 28          Book II, 19th-century social class: E.P. Thompson,

Nancy Armstrong

Wednesday Jan 30    Discussion

Friday Feb 1              In-class writing, discussion


Monday Feb. 4           Book III, 1832 Reform Act

Wednesday Feb. 6    Discussion

Friday Feb 8              In-class writing, discussion


Monday Feb. 11        Book IV, Intertextuality: Elizabeth Gregory

Wednesday Feb 13   Discussion

Friday Feb 15                        Meet at Library to look up one nonfiction source cited in



Monday Feb 18         Book V, Genre: Fiction. Sean Latham, introduction

Wednesday Feb 20   Discussion

Friday Feb 22                        In-class exercise with nonfiction text


Monday Feb 25         Book VI, Genre: the Novel. Northrup Frye and Ian Watt.

Wednesday Feb 27   Discussion

Friday March 1          In-class exercise: developing a research question


Monday March 4       Book VII, Genre: realism. Ian Watt.

Wednesday March 6 Discussion

Friday March 8          In-class exercise reading a passage of Middlemarch in terms of

its realism.


Monday March 11     SPRING BREAK                     

Weds. March 13        SPRING BREAK

Friday March 15       SPRING BREAK


Monday March 18     Book VIII and essay on Victorian religion

Weds. March 20        Discussion

Friday March 22       Draft Workshop


Monday March 25     Victorian attitudes toward gender and class

Weds. March 27        Discussion

Friday March 29       Visiting speaker on Victorian periodicals


Monday April 1         Victorian periodicals, Laurel Brake, Benedict Anderson, Simon Potter

Weds. April 3             Discussion

Friday April 5                        Visiting speaker on archives


Monday April 8         Library research, secondary sources

Weds. April 10           Discussion

Friday April 12          Meet at library, tour archival resources


Monday April 15       Final class discussion

Wednesday April 17 Final class discussion

Friday April 19          Meet at library, workshop on finalizing bibliography


Monday April 22       In-class essay workshop

Weds April 24           In-class essay workshop

Friday April 26          In-class essay workshop


Monday April 29