DIY MFA Reading List: “Middlemarch” by George Eliot

I read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” by the pool this summer, seeking relief from the soaring temperatures outside and the increasingly heated debate surrounding the U.S. debt ceiling talks, Rupert Murdoch’s phone hacking scandal, and the Grover Norquist tax pledge. I expected to be bored silly by this novel – a sprawling, Victorian epic concerned with the political, moral, and intellectual lives of the residents of Middlemarch, a fictional, nineteenth-century English community. But I was pleasantly surprised.

The story is as relevant today as when it first appeared, in 1871. George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, who adopted the sobriquet to ensure that her works would be taken seriously by a society in which women were viewed as second-class citizens. It’s a story where fiscal discipline is equated with morality, where uncontrolled spending forces the characters to downsize and live within their means, and where real communication and compromise are essential to the spiritual growth of the Middlemarch residents.

And so, without further ado, a mashup imagining an end-game to the U.S. debt ceiling negotiations, borrowing heavily from George Eliot’s masterpiece “Middlemarch”:

Middlemarch and the Debt Ceiling


Obama did not move, and Boehner came towards him with more doubt and timidity in his face than the President had ever seen before. The Speaker was in a state of uncertainty which made him afraid lest some look or word of his should condemn him to a new distance from the President; and Obama was afraid of his own emotion. The President looked as if there was a spell upon him, keeping him motionless and hindering him from unclasping his hands, while some intense, grave yearning was imprisoned within his eyes. Seeing that Obama did not put out his hand as usual, Boehner paused a yard from him and said with embarrassment, “I am so grateful to you for seeing me.”

“I wanted to see you,” said Obama, having no other words at command. It did not occur to the President to sit down, and Boehner did not give a cheerful interpretation to this kingly way of receiving him; but he went on to say what he had made up his mind to say.

“I fear you think me foolish and perhaps wrong for coming back so soon. I have been punished for my impatience. You know – everyone knows now – a painful story about my tax pledge. I knew of it before I went away, and I always meant to tell you of it if – if we ever met again.”

There was a slight movement in Obama, and he unclasped his hands, but immediately folded them over each other.

“But the affair is a matter of gossip now,” Boehner continued. “I wished you to know that something connected with it – something which happened before I went away – helped to bring me down here again. At least I thought it excused my coming. It was the idea of getting Rupert Murdoch to apply some money to a political purpose – some money which he had thought of giving me. Perhaps it is rather to Murdoch’s credit that he privately offered me compensation for an old injury: he offered to give me a good income to make amends; but I suppose you know the disagreeable story?”

Boehner looked doubtfully at the President, but the Speaker’s manner was gathering some of the defiant courage with which he always thought of this fact in his destiny. He added, “You know that it must be altogether painful to me.”

“Yes – yes – I know,” said Obama, hastily.

“I did not choose to accept an income from such a source. I was sure that you would not think well of me if I did so,” said Boehner. Why should he mind saying anything of that sort to the President now? Obama knew that he had avowed Boehner’s promise to him. “I felt that” – he broke off, nevertheless.

“You acted as I should have expected you to act,” said Obama, his face brightening and his head becoming a little more erect on its beautiful stem.

“I did not believe that I would let any circumstances of your birth create a prejudice in me against you, though it was sure to do so in others,” said the Speaker, shaking his head backward in his old way, and looking with a grave appeal into the President’s eyes.

“If it were a new hardship it would be a new reason for me to cling to you,” said Obama, fervidly. “Nothing could have changed me but –” his heart was swelling, and it was difficult to go on; the President made a great effort over himself to say in a low tremulous voice, “but thinking that you were different – not so good as I had believed you to be.”

“You are sure to believe me better than I am in everything but one,” said Boehner, giving way to his own feeling in the evidence of the President’s. “I mean, in my promise to you. When I thought you doubted of that, I didn’t care about anything that was left. I thought it was all over with me, and there was no grand bargain to try for – only pointless press conferences to endure.”

“I don’t doubt you any longer,” said Obama, putting out his hand; a vague fear for the Speaker impelling this unutterable affection.

Boehner took Obama’s hand and raised it to his lips with something like a sob.

“See how dark the clouds have become, and how the trees are tossed,” the President said, walking towards the window, yet speaking and moving with only a dim sense of what he was doing.

They stood silent, not looking at each other, but looking out at the Rose Garden, at the trees which were being tossed, and were showing the pale underside of their leaves against the blackening sky.


“Obama has reached a Grand Bargain, you know,” said Joseph Biden, nodding towards Nancy Pelosi, who immediately looked up at Eric Cantor with a frightened glance, and put her hand on his knee.

Cantor was almost white with anger, but he did not speak.

“Merciful heaven!” said Senator Chuck Schumer. “Not with young Boehner?”

Vice President Biden nodded, saying, “Yes; with Boehner,” and then fell into a prudential silence.

“You see, Harry!” said Senator Schumer, waving his arm towards the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Another time you will admit that I have some foresight; or rather you will contradict me and be just as blind as ever. You supposed that the Speaker was too indebted to the Tea Party.”

“So he might be, and yet still break with them,” said Harry Reid, quietly.

“When did you learn this?” said Eric Cantor, not liking to hear anyone else speak, though finding it difficult to speak himself.

“Yesterday,” said Biden, meekly. “I went to the Oval Office. Obama sent for me, you know. It had come about quite suddenly – neither of them had any idea two days ago – not any idea, you know. There’s something singular in things. But Obama is quite determined – it is no use opposing. I put it strongly to him. I did my duty. But the President can act as he likes, you know.”

“It would have been better if I had called him out and shot him a year ago,” said Cantor, not from bloody-mindedness, but because he needed something to say.

“Really, Eric, that would have been very disagreeable,” said Nancy Pelosi.

“Be reasonable, Cantor. Look at the affair more quietly,” said Schumer, sorry to see his good-natured friend so overmastered by anger.

“That is not so very easy for a man of any dignity – with any sense of right – when the affair happens to be in his own party,” said Cantor, still in his white indignation. “It is perfectly scandalous. If Boehner had had a spark of honour he would have gone out of the leadership altogether, and never shown his face in the debt ceiling talks again. However I am not surprised. The day after signing Norquists’s tax pledge I said what ought to be done. But I was not listened to.”

“You wanted what was impossible, you know, Cantor,” said Biden. “You wanted him removed from the role of Speaker. I told you Boehner was not to be done as we liked with: he had his ideas. He was a remarkable fellow – I always said he was a remarkable fellow.”

“I think that Boehner commits a wrong action in bargaining with Obama,” answered Cantor.

“My dear fellow, we are rather apt to consider an act wrong because it is unpleasant to us,” said Harry Reid, quietly. Like many men who take life easily, he had the knack of saying a home truth occasionally to those who felt themselves virtuously out of temper.

Eric Cantor took out his handkerchief and began to bite the corner.


Eric Cantor never ceased to regard the Grand Bargain as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Washington, where Obama was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine President who bargained with an unyielding Tea Party, and in little more than a year the Tea Party was dissolved, with no political clout,and a poor reputation indeed. And those who had not seen anything of the President sometimes observed that he could not have been “a constant statesman,” else he would not have bargained at all.

Certainly those determining acts of the President’s life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Lincoln will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a unified country, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brothers’ burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Barack Obamas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Obama whose story we know.

Obama’s finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. But the effect of the President’s Grand Bargain on those around him was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on bitter compromise; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a difficult life, and now look upon inflexible, hard-hearted rhetoric with disdain.


(This review was originally published at Zouch Magazine)

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.