Eliot said that her plots signified less than her treatment of the actions did, and her readers usually agree. The dominant organizing force in Middlemarch is the narrative voice, introducing characters and scenes, analyzing confrontations, sketching backgrounds and motives, posing questions to check a reader’s too-easy inferences, and casting over all the Wise Woman’s insight into people as they are, not as one might wish them to be. The narrative voice is often sympathetic, often ironic, often sadly reporting realistic consequences of ill-considered choices and illusory expectations.
The narrator introduces scenes of vivid drama that place the reader into first one, then another, of the small groups that comment on one another and compose the mental and moral climate of provincial life. The community judges Mr. Brooke’s mind to be too “rambling”; readers hear for themselves his half-starts about having once “gone into” almost everything. Similarly, the reader sees and hears directly Old Featherstone’s attempt in his dying hours to beat Mary Garth into submission; Mrs. Dollop’s unscientific assessment of Lydgate’s introduction of autopsies, delivered with other uninformed opinions at the Tankard public house in Slaughter Lane; Caleb Garth’s firm severing of his employment by the disgraced Bulstrode; the intense climactic exchange between Dorothea and Rosamond; Henrietta Noble’s loving pleas; and Mrs. Cadwallader’s witty denunciations of an unsatisfactory world. Such dialogue and drama involve the reader intimately in the provincial milieu, where an action cannot be isolated from other parts of the large web.
Elements of symbolic narrative enrich the novel’s complex tapestry. The epigraphs that mark chapter beginnings provide direct or ironic indications of plot and character development, drawn from other writers who have treated similar themes, and extend the author’s already broad coverage, giving it a sense of universality for the human condition.
Also universalizing the novel’s complexity of reference are allusions to mythic analogues, especially to portray Eliot’s psychology of sexuality with the expected Victorian reticence. Farebrother compares Lydgate to Hercules, the strong man enslaved by a woman, one who “came to hold the distaff, and at last wore the Nessus shirt.” Lydgate retrieves a needlework chain for Rosamond, which then slips from his awareness. Feeling the chain tighten around him, he later calls Rosamond his basil plant, flourishing on a murdered man’s brains.
Such allusions both universalize and help to clarify Eliot’s themes. Dorothea tending Casaubon is Antigone leading a blind, aging father figure; abandoned by him in Rome, she is an Ariadne waiting to be awakened by Bacchus-Ladislaw. Will is also a Theseus, rescuing the virgin sacrificed to the Minotaur-Casaubon in the labyrinth-Lowick. In his repeated associations with sunlight, Will is also an Apollo figure. He is spontaneous, animate, creative love, combining Bacchic emotional turbulence and sexuality with Apollonian intellect, insight, and form. He is everything Casaubon is not. That he awakens Dorothea’s awareness of her sexuality is clear in the allusion to her as Psyche, not knowing after a dream that she has been visited by Love-Eros, the myth that Casaubon has dismissed as only “literary.”
Critics who have thought Dorothea should not have “settled” for Will have missed Eliot’s Feuerbach-influenced valuing of sexual love as the highest form of self-transcendence, the union of souls in fellow-feeling. Perhaps they have also missed Dorothea’s rebuff to the disapproving Celia, who asks if she can explain how she came to love Will: “No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.” One almost hears Eliot’s own words to the family that rejected her for her liaison with George Henry Lewes.