Modestly subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life,” George Eliot’s Middlemarch has long been recognized as a work of great psychological and moral penetration. Indeed, the novel has been compared with Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna I mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book) for its almost epic sweep and its perspective of early nineteenth century history. These comparisons, however, are partly faulty.
Unlike War and Peace, Middlemarch lacks a philosophical bias, a grand Weltanschauung that encompasses the destinies of nations and generations. Unlike Vanity Fair, Eliot’s novel is not neatly moralistic. In fact, much of Middlemarch is morally ambiguous in the twentieth century sense of the term. Eliot’s concept of plot and character derives from psychological rather than philosophical or social necessity. This is to say that Middlemarch, despite its Victorian trappings of complicated plot and subplot, slow development of character, accumulated detail concerning time and place, and social density, in many respects resembles the twentieth century novel that disturbs as well as entertains.
Eliot published Middlemarch in eight books between December, 1871, and December, 1872, eight years before her death. She was at the height of her powers and had already achieved a major reputation with Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861). Nevertheless, her most recent fiction, Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) and the dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy (1868), had been considered inferior to her best writing and had disappointed her readers. Middlemarch was, however, received with considerable excitement and critical acclaim. Eliot’s publisher, Blackwood, was so caught up with the narrative as he received chapters of her novel by mail that he wrote back to her asking questions about the fates of the characters as though they were real people with real histories.
Eliot did scrupulous research for the material of her novel. Her discussion of the social climate in rural England directly preceding passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 is convincingly detailed; she accurately describes the state of medical knowledge during Lydgate’s time; and she treats the dress, habits, and speech of Middlemarch impeccably, creating the metaphor of a complete world, a piece of provincial England that is a microcosm of the greater world beyond.
The theme of the novel itself, however, revolves around the slenderest of threads: the mating of “unimportant” people. This theme, which engages the talents of such other great writers as Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and D. H. Lawrence, allows Eliot the scope to examine the whole range of human nature. She is concerned with the mating of lovers because people in love are most vulnerable and most easily the victims of romantic illusions. Each of the three sets of lovers in Middlemarch—Dorothea Brooke, Edward Casaubon, and Will Ladislaw; Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate; and Mary Garth and Fred Vincy—mistake illusion for reality. Eventually, whether or not they become completely reconciled with their mates, all come to understand themselves better. Each undergoes a sentimental education, a discipline of the spirit that teaches the heart its limitations.
Paradoxically, the greater capacity Eliot’s characters have for romantic self-deception, the greater their suffering and subsequent tempering of spirit. Mary Garth—plain, witty, honest—is too sensible to arouse psychological curiosity to the same degree as does proud Dorothea, rash Ladislaw, pathetic Casaubon, ambitious Lydgate, or pampered Rosamond. Mary loves simply, directly. Fred, her childhood sweetheart, is basically a good lad who must learn the lessons of thrift and perseverance from his own misfortunes. He “falls” in class, from that of an idle landowner to one...
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of a decent but socially inferior manager of property. In truth, what he seems to lose in social prominence he more than recovers in the development of his moral character. Moreover, he wins as a mate the industrious Mary, who will strengthen his resolve and make of him an admirable provider like her father Caleb.
Dorothea, on the other hand, more idealistic and noble-hearted than Mary, chooses the worst possible mate as her first husband. Edward Casaubon, thirty years her senior, is a dull pedant, cold, hopelessly ineffectual as a scholar, absurd as a lover. Despite his intellectual pretensions, he is too timid, fussy, and dispirited ever to complete his masterwork, “A Key to All Mythologies.” Even the title of his project is an absurdity. He conceals as long as possible his “key” from Dorothea, fearing that she will expose him as a sham. Nevertheless, it is possible that she might have endured the disgrace of her misplaced affection were Casaubon only more tender, reciprocating her own tenderness and self-sacrifice; but Casaubon, despotic to the last, tries to blight her spirit when he is alive and, through his will, to restrict her freedom when he is dead.
Dorothea’s second choice of a mate, Will Ladislaw, is very nearly the opposite of Casaubon. A rash, sometimes hypersensitive lover, he is capable of intense affection, above all of self-sacrifice. He is a worthy suitor for Dorothea, who finds greatness in his ardor if not his accomplishments; yet Will, allowing for his greater vitality, is after all a logical successor to Casaubon. Dorothea had favored the elderly scholar because he was unworldly, despised by the common herd. In her imagination, he seemed a saint of intellect. In time, she comes to favor Will because he is also despised by most of the petty-minded bigots of Middlemarch, because he has suffered from injustice, and because he seems to her a saint of integrity. A Victorian St. Theresa, Dorothea is passive, great in aspiration rather than deed. Psychologically, she requires a great object for her own self-sacrifice and therefore chooses a destiny that will allow her the fullest measure of heroism.
Tertius Lydgate is, by contrast, a calculating, vigorous, and ambitious young physician who attempts to bend others to his own iron will. His aggressive energy contrasts with Dorothea’s passiveness. Like her, however, he is a victim of romantic illusion. He believes that he can master, through his intelligence and determination, those who possess power. Nevertheless, his choice of a mate, Rosamond Vincy, is a disastrous miscalculation. Rosamond’s fragile beauty conceals a petulant, selfish will equal to his own. She dominates him through her weakness. Insensitive except to her own needs, she offers no scope for Lydgate’s sensitive intelligence. In his frustration, he can battle only with himself. He comes to realize that he is defeated not only in his dreams of domestic happiness but also in his essential judgment of the uses of power.
For Eliot, moral choice does not exist in a sanctified vacuum; it requires an encounter with power. To even the least sophisticated dwellers in Middlemarch, power is represented by wealth and status. As the widow Mrs. Casaubon, Dorothea’s social prestige rests on her personal and inherited fortune. When she casts aside her estate under Casaubon’s will to marry Ladislaw, she also loses a great measure of status. At the same time, she acquires moral integrity, a superior virtue for Eliot. Similarly, when Mary Garth rejects Mr. Featherstone’s dying proposition to seize his wealth before his relatives make a shambles of his will, she chooses morally, justly, and comes to deserve the happiness she eventually wins. Lydgate, whose moral choices are most ambiguous, returns Bulstrode’s bribe to save himself from a social embarrassment, but his guilt runs deeper than mere miscalculation. He has associated himself, first through choosing Tyke instead of the worthier Farebrother as vicar, with Bulstrode’s manipulation of power. Lydgate’s moral defeat is partial, for at least he understands the extent of his compromise with integrity. Bulstrode’s defeat is total, for he loses both wealth and social standing.
As for Middlemarch, that community of souls is a small world, populated with people of good will and bad, mean spirits and fine, and is the collective agent of moral will. After all, it is the town that endures, the final arbiter of moral judgment in a less than perfect world.