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...
(The entire section is 1338 words.)