The principal plot line in this novel--there are at least four--recounts the sometimes misdirected efforts of Dorothea Brooke to give meaning to her life by dedicating it to some worthy and significant cause. Mistakenly thinking that he is a “guide who would take her along the grandest path,” Dorothea marries Mr. Casaubon, a narrow and mean-spirited pedant. She is saved from the worst consequences of this marriage by Mr. Casaubon’s timely death and eventually finds happiness in marrying Mr. Casaubon’s nephew Will Ladislaw. However, Dorothea is able to exert her moral impulses only in very limited personal situations rather than on the large social scale of which she was potentially capable.
Balanced against this plot line is the story of Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor whose ambition to achieve significant medical reform is frustrated by his disastrous marriage to a beautiful but utterly self-centered wife. Other plot lines focus on Fred Vincy, a pleasant but rather aimless young man, who is led to some seriousness of purpose through his love for a sensible girl, and on Nicholas Bulstrode, an aspiring community leader who attempts--unsuccessfully--to conceal a past life as a dealer in stolen goods by conspicuous and assertive piety.
Unquestionably one of the finest achievements in Victorian fiction, MIDDLEMARCH combines a panorama of provincial society with a multitude of extraordinarily detailed and psychologically incisive portraits of individual characters. The struggles of these characters, limited by their own weaknesses, self-deceptions, and errors, as well as by circumstances beyond their control, illuminate the issues of social and moral responsibility that lie at the heart of George Eliot’s fiction.
Anderson, Quentin. “George Eliot in Middlemarch.” In George Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by George R. Creeger. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Provides a...
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