Study Guide

Middlemarch

by George Eliot

Middlemarch Themes

Themes

Marriage

Middlemarch intertwines three courtship and marriage plots. The courtships of two couples, Dorothea and Casaubon and Rosamond and Lydgate, illustrate how the illusions, impressions, and expectations reached during courtship are shattered by the day-to-day familiarity and difficulties of married life. The initial misconceptions these characters have regarding their partners lead them to project onto their partners the qualities they seek in marriage. Dorothea wants entry into the world of male knowledge, and she sees Casaubon's book project as a worthy cause to serve in her hunger for action that will improve the world. Casaubon seeks a nurse, secretary, and reader, all menial jobs he believes Dorothea can handle. Rosamond seeks wealth and prestige through aristocratic alliance and believes that Lydgate offers the means by which she can be lifted out of the embarrassingly unrefined society of her family and social circle. Lydgate thinks Rosamond's physical charms and musical skills will create a perfect haven in which he can rest after a long day of medical practice and scientific research. In his eyes, Rosamond's submissive manner indicates that she is a woman who knows the man is boss in marriage and will rely on his good judgment. Once married, each person learns much more about the partner and sees that person more accurately. Sadly, for these couples, that subsequent clearer vision proves the marriage union cannot fulfill initial expectations.

In each case, others see quite easily the early signals the infatuated person fails to recognize. One illustration occurs in the first exchange of letters between Casaubon and Dorothea. His marriage proposal, which consists in his affirming her "fitness" to supply his needs, shows in every convoluted sentence his solipsistic concern for his own welfare. But Dorothea, eager to hear what she longs for, reads this letter as a confirmation of her hopes. Her direct and far more concise response begins: "I am very grateful to you for loving me," which in fact he never said he did, and he is unable to do. Another irony here is that he is a scholarly author, but she at nineteen writes far better. At the news of this sudden engagement, the less ambitious but in some ways more perceptive Celia responds with "shame mingled with a sense of the ludicrous."

While Dorothea and Casaubon have a cerebral and probably unconsummated union, sexual chemistry colors the courtship and early marriage of Rosamond and Lydgate. Regarding this self-deluding intoxication, the narrator comments: "Young love-making—that gossamer web! Even the points it clings to … are scarcely perceptible." The educated and sexually experienced Lydgate should know better, but even he "fell to spinning that web from his inward self," and Rosamond "too was spinning industriously." Still, Mr. Vincy cautions Rosamond that Lydgate does not have the potential of a good income, and the connection to his uncle cannot be depended upon to compensate for it. Older women in Rosamond's circle recognize Ned Plymdale, a local man from a manufacturing family, as far more financially well placed. But Rosamond's desire to move up and out of Middlemarch blinds her to the reasonableness of marrying Ned. Mr. Brooke...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)