Published Nov. 29, 2018
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
— George Eliot, Middlemarch
Invisibility. Inaudibility. The impenetrability of other minds. These preoccupations animate the narrative of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which is the story of a provincial town and the intersecting lives of its inhabitants, and the “web” of social life in the English countryside. So what does this novel have to do with infrastructure studies? The invisible and inaudible are key qualities of functional infrastructure in reality, and within the narrative of Middlemarch, infrastructure does edge into the background. For some critics, this is a problem. Terry Eagleton’s critique of Middlemarch as a historical realist work, indeed, pivots on the invisibility or periphery of the ‘real,’ frequently infrastructure-related, elements of the novel: “[t]he Reform Bill, the railways, cholera, machine-breaking: these ‘real’ historical forces do no more than impinge on the novel’s margins” (p. 120, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory).
This starter kit seeks to not only illuminate areas where infrastructural elements enter the narrative imagination of Middlemarch, but to explore the ways in which critical infrastructure methodology can expand the literary critic’s conception of Victorian realist fiction. The idea invoked in the title — that infrastructure can be ambient in a novel, which I use instead of Eagleton’s marginal, derives largely from John M. Picker’s observation that the central metaphor of Middlemarch, the “roar on the other side of silence,” is symptomatic of a cultural shift towards close listening which arose with infrastructural changes of the time. Through the sources and framework below, this starter kit should be the jumping off point for the reader to decide whether Middlemarch, as a work of realism, fails or succeeds to meet that definition in its engagement with infrastructure.