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 thorough discussion of Eliot’s background and preparation of the novel, the provincial panorama she creates, and the plot development that proceeds in an interplay between public opinion and self-regard. Also includes a bibliography.
Barrett, Dorothea. Vocation and Desire: George Eliot’s Heroines. New York: Routledge, 1989. Examining the conflicts between women’s needs for creative fulfillment and limitations imposed by nineteenth century England, this book offers helpful insights into the struggles of Dorothea.
Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. This critical biography reviews in detail “the Woman Question” in nineteenth century publications and explains several allusions in Middlemarch. Includes historical background, a bibliography, and an index.
Blake, Kathleen. “Middlemarch and the Woman Question.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31 (1976): 285-312. This article treats the novel as Eliot’s response to contemporary ideas about the “nature of women.”
Bellringer, Alan W. George Eliot. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Detailed discussion of the interactive web of the province. Argues that the novel’s morality is scientific, hypothetical, experimental, and provisional. Includes a bibliography.
Carroll, David, comp. George Eliot: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971. Carroll reprints a selection of reviews showing contemporary and later response to Eliot’s works.
Eliot, George. The George Eliot Letters. Edited by Gordon S. Haight. 9 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-1978. With indispensable notes by the editor, these volumes show the reader Eliot’s carefully created voice as she addressed a variety of acquaintances. The work of collecting letters by Eliot and Lewes is being continued by William Baker.
Haight, Gordon. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. This book gives essential facts that serve as background for studying Eliot’s fiction.
Hardy, Barbara. “The Woman at the Window in Middlemarch.” In Dorothea’s Window: The Individual and Community in George...
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Eliot, edited by Patricia Gately, Dennis Leavens, and Cole Woodcox. Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson Press, 1994. This essay shows how the recurrent window image first isolates Dorothea, then unites her with the world of useful work.
Heilman, Robert B. “‘Stealthy Convergence’ in Middlemarch.” In George Eliot: A Centenary Tribute, edited by Gordon S. Haight and Rosemary T. VanArsdel. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982. Explores attempts to control the past and future as they relate to the plot.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. This excellent survey places Eliot’s work in the continuous tradition of similar works.
Stiritz, Susan. “An Enigma Solved: The ‘Theresa’ Metaphor.” In Dorothea’s Window: The Individual and Community in George Eliot, edited by Patricia Gately, Dennis Leavens, and Cole Woodcox. Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson Press, 1994. This article explains Eliot’s comparison of Dorothea to St. Theresa of Avila, with reference particularly to a woman’s discovery and acceptance of her sexuality.
Uglow, Jennifer. George Eliot. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. Shows Eliot in her fiction demolishing gender stereotypes and the illusion of norms, replacing these with insistence on individuality. Analyzes Ladislaw as a figure of light and change who, as the awakener of Dorothea’s senses, is an appropriate husband for her.