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Last Updated on July 11, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1376


Middlemarch is a novel written by George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) and published in 1871-1872. Eliot, an author from the Victorian period in England, wrote Middlemarch to explore the lives of a diverse cast of characters in a fictional English town, shedding light on social dynamics, gender roles, and the pursuit of individual fulfillment.

Plot Summary

Dorothea Brooke is a beautiful young woman from a good family; she has an earnest, spiritual nature and a deep desire to do good in the world. Her parents have recently died, and she lives at Tipton Grange, near the town of Middlemarch, with her uncle, Mr. Brooke, and her younger sister, Celia. When Dorothea meets Edward Casaubon, a scholarly clergyman of more than twice her age, she is enthralled by his erudition and his ongoing work to write a book that will provide a key to all the mythological systems of the world. Casaubon proposes marriage, and Dorothea accepts—against the advice of Mr. Brooke and her friends. 

On a visit to Lowick Manor, Mr. Casaubon’s home, Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw, who is sketching the grounds. Will is Casaubon’s young cousin, and Casaubon has agreed to support him for a year while he travels in Europe. Dorothea and Casaubon marry and take their honeymoon in Rome, where Will is also living for the time being. Will speaks to Dorothea and tells her that Casaubon’s key to all mythologies will probably be useless because he knows nothing of the latest German scholarship in the field. 

A young doctor named Tertius Lydgate has recently arrived in Middlemarch and briefly encounters Dorothea before her wedding. He finds her too earnest and prefers the company of Rosamond Vincy, the beautiful daughter of a prosperous manufacturer who has just been elected mayor. Lydgate has no intention of marrying for at least five years, as he has ambitions to make scientific discoveries and reform the medical profession. He soon makes the acquaintance of Rosamond’s uncle, Mr. Bulstrode, a rich and influential banker who secures for him an appointment as superintendent of Middlemarch’s new hospital.

Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s brother, is in debt to a horse dealer and has asked Caleb Garth, a friend and relative by marriage of the Vincy family, to put his name to a guarantee. When Fred cannot pay the debt, the Garth family faces serious financial difficulties. Fred expects to inherit a fortune from his uncle, a wealthy old landowner called Peter Featherstone, who lives at Stone Court.

Mary Garth, Caleb’s daughter, is nursing Featherstone; Fred has fallen in love with Mary, who likes him but sees him as irresponsible. Mrs. Bulstrode hears an unfounded rumor that Lydgate and Rosamond are to be married and speaks to them separately, advising against such a match. However, her interference backfires, and the two soon become engaged. 

Casaubon and Dorothea return from Rome to find that Celia is engaged to Mr. Brooke’s younger friend and neighbor, Sir James Chettam, who once wished to marry Dorothea. Soon after they return to their home at Lowick Manor, Casaubon collapses, and Lydgate is called in to examine him. Lydgate advises rest and relaxation, but Casaubon soon resumes his studies. 

Peter Featherstone dies, leaving Stone Court and all his land to an unknown young man named Joshua Rigg—who is rumored to be his illegitimate son. Fred’s hopes of living an idle life as a rich landowner are dashed, and Mr. Vincy, angered by the family’s reduced circumstances, forbids Rosamond from marrying Lydgate. However, Rosamond takes no notice and, after talking to Lydgate, decides to push the wedding forward. 

Mr. Brooke,...

(This entire section contains 1376 words.)

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who is thinking of embarking on a career in politics, acquiresThe Pioneer, a reforming newspaper, and appoints Will Ladislaw as editor. Casaubon disapproves of this and uses it as an excuse to forbid Will from visiting Lowick Manor, as he is becoming increasingly jealous of Dorothea’s apparent affinity for Will. When Casaubon dies suddenly, Dorothea discovers that he has added a codicil to his will, saying that she will forfeit all the property he has left her if she marries Ladislaw.

Casaubon has also left instructions for her to continue his work on the key to all mythologies, though she is not inclined to do this since she now regards the project as futile. Although she has always felt drawn to Will, she never before considered him in a romantic light but now begins to think of him more often. 

Fred Vincy accepts a job as Caleb Garth’s assistant, which displeases his parents, who wanted him to become a clergyman, but leads Mary to look more favorably on him as a suitor. Rosamond becomes pregnant but loses the baby when it is born prematurely after a riding accident. Lydgate is upset by this but is more anxious about the fact that he and Rosamond have been living beyond their means and are now deeply in debt. When he finally admits this to Rosamond, he has already had to return some of her jewelry; she is understandably horrified and frequently quarrels with Lydgate, telling him that they ought to leave Middlemarch. 

A man named John Raffles, Joshua Rigg’s stepfather, comes to Middlemarch and encounters Bulstrode at Stone Court, which he has purchased from Joshua Rigg. Raffles knew Bulstrode many years earlier, so he begins to blackmail Bulstrode over a discreditable secret in his past. He also approaches Will Ladislaw, saying that he knew Ladislaw’s mother, Sarah, who was Bulstrode’s stepdaughter. 

When Bulstrode was young, he went into business with a rich man called Dunkirk, who used his profitable pawnbroking business to deal in stolen property. After Dunkirk died, Bulstrode married his widow, who wanted to discover the whereabouts of her estranged daughter, Sarah, to share Dunkirk’s fortune with her.

Bulstrode hired Raffles to find Sarah but, when he did so, hid her existence from her mother to keep her fortune. He offers Will Ladislaw five-hundred pounds a year during his lifetime and more after his death to compensate him for the loss of Sarah’s inheritance, but Will refuses. 

Lydgate applies to Bulstrode for a loan of a thousand pounds, but Bulstrode declines, telling him that he must declare bankruptcy. However, when Raffles comes back to Middlemarch and falls ill, Bulstrode calls Lydgate and, after Lydgate has diagnosed him with alcohol poisoning and prescribed opium, Bulstrode gives him the money he needs.

After Raffles dies, a horse dealer named Bambridge tells a large crowd that Raffles revealed Bulstrode’s secret to him. Bulstrode is then widely suspected of killing Raffles or at least hastening his death. When it is discovered that Lydgate received the requested thousand pounds from Bulstrode, many people in the town think he was complicit in Raffles’s death, and his reputation is ruined. 

Dorothea, however, is convinced that Lydgate is innocent. She gives him a check for another thousand pounds to release him from his obligation to Bulstrode, then goes to visit Rosamond to reassure her that her husband still has friends in Middlemarch. When she enters the drawing room, she finds Will Ladislaw with his hands clasped in Rosamond’s and assumes they are in love.

Rosamond later explains to her that Will was confessing his love for another woman; when Will comes to see Dorothea at Lowick, they finally admit the strength of their feelings for one another. Dorothea says she does not care about Casaubon’s fortune and will renounce it to marry Will. 

Bulstrode leaves Middlemarch in disgrace and allows Fred Vincy to live at Stone Court and manage the property for him. Fred and Mary get married and have three sons, and Fred becomes a responsible farmer. Lydgate goes to London and has a financially successful practice but thinks of himself as a failure because he never does any valuable scientific work. He dies at the age of fifty, and Rosamond gets remarried to a wealthy old doctor. Dorothea and Will also live in London, where Will pursues a career in public life and becomes a Member of Parliament. Dorothea lives and dies in relative obscurity, but her noble nature has a profound effect on those around her. 


Chapter Summaries