Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In the context of postrevolutionary England’s sluggish attempts at political reform, George Eliot details in Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life the range of a tradition-bound provincial mentality unable to comprehend and unwilling to accept change. She begins by uniting two narratives begun separately, both about self-deluded idealists, Dorothea Brooke of the landed gentry and Tertius Lydgate, newly arrived in insular Middlemarch, the quintessential country town of petty snobberies, power plays for social status, and gossipmongering. Integrating additional plots, Eliot embodies her theme: a narrow medium of ignorance, prejudice, and bigotry limits individual opportunity and growth; persons with “great souls,” such as Dorothea, Will, Garth, and Farebrother, may transcend that medium to contribute to social improvement and partially realize their own potential. Noble motives may be frustrated, however, by those trapped in self-interest, such as Casaubon and Rosamond, or thwarted by provincial minds unequipped by knowledge or training to evaluate new ideas and approving only of those who “do as their neighbors do,” or limited by the dead hand of the past—outmoded customs and laws, especially those governing property inheritance.

Eliot’s portrayal of marriage issues treats what the nineteenth century called “the Woman Question”—controversies about the “nature of women,” their proper education, whether young ladies should have opinions (as Dorothea does) or submit to men’s (as Celia does), whether married women should be allowed to own property, and whether any women should be allowed to vote or work for economic independence instead of being kept in their domestic “separate sphere.” Allowing domestic contentment to the conventional Celia and, later, the creatively realistic Mary, Eliot invalidates generalizations: In Laure and Rosamond, she boldly combats Coventry Patmore’s popular “Angel in the House” stereotype, but she evokes sympathy for the angelic, if aspiring, Dorothea, who is suffering...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Middlemarch. Fictional English village in which much of the novel’s action is centered. The book opens on the Middlemarch estate of the Brooke family, Tipton Grange, home to the orphaned sisters, Dorothea and Celia Brooke, and their uncle. The adjoining estate of Sir James Chettam, Freshitt Hall, whose land lies close to Tipton Grange, attaches property and money to the novel’s purpose. For this reason, Sir James is the logical suitor for the elder sister, Dorothea. Her interest lies, however, in the scholarly Reverend Edward Casaubon, of Lowick, five miles away. Again, property and prosperity make Lowick significant, insofar as no reform is needed in this affluent neighborhood. The novel’s action, however, moves skillfully to nearby Middlemarch as well as abroad, always returning to Middlemarch as the heart of the tale.

The moral center of the novel is located in the rambling, homely house with an orchard in front of it, a little way outside the town, where the Garth family resides. They are of the kind and quality that Eliot considered the true source of Britain’s strength. Their farmhouses, their family, and their family relationships play a significant role in shaping the atmosphere and tone of this novel.

Stone Court

Stone Court. Estate near the center of Middlemarch in which another drama of money and property is played out by the miserly uncle Featherstone, who holds the purse...

(The entire section is 539 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Consistent with Eliot’s avowed realism, Middlemarch offers no easy solutions for women who aspire beyond the limits set by their world; it also does not suggest that those who accept the role prescribed for them should do otherwise. To have done so would have been to simplify complex issues at a time when even to raise the questions this novel treats was to threaten the order affirmed by God and nature. The mind of George Eliot could not do the first, and her artistic creed would not allow her to do the second. As an artist, Eliot cultivates her readers’ sympathies for the oppression of Dorothea by an unfeeling, selfishly demanding husband; similarly, in Lydgate’s defeat by Rosamond’s politely obstinate refusal to feel for him, Eliot shows the possible consequences for a man who trusts the popular stereotype.

Many, but not all, contemporary readers understood that Eliot was addressing questions that concerned Victorian feminists and satirizing popular generalizations about women as she portrayed a variety of individuals. Because Eliot remained aloof from the heated public controversies, however, because she and George Henry Lewes deliberately cultivated her public image as that of the Victorian Sybil above partisan stances, and because of a half-ironic allusion by her first male narrator to his “conservative-reforming” spirit, the weight of critical tradition accepted Eliot’s realistic portrayals of her society as a conservatism that she advocated rather than the slow plodding she had deplored in her essays of the 1850’s. Virginia Woolf did recognize Eliot’s feminist sympathies, and Woolf, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce were among the writers who were influenced by her daring suggestions about female sexuality. It was not until the feminist movement of the 1970’s, however, that Eliot’s attempts to reform ideas about women won serious and sustained recognition. Since then, closer readings of Eliot’s fiction, with a more complex understanding of the revolutionary woman behind the public image, have enabled the increasing numbers of published feminist literary critics to make Eliot’s often subtle feminism more accessible to readers.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)


Eliot deliberately locates the action of this novel in the three years that culminated with the passage of...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Historical Background

(Novels for Students)

Mary Ann Evans Lewes Cross lived in a time of new and revolutionary ideas. Raised with Evangelical piety under the influence of the principal...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Epigraph and Allusion

Each chapter in Middlemarch begins with an epigraph that has relevance, sometimes...

(The entire section is 1625 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1832: Doctors are not paid for their time and their services. Rather, their income derives from the profits they obtain...

(The entire section is 221 words.)

Chronology of George Eliot's Works

(Novels for Students)

1844-1846 translated Strauss's Das Leben Jesu

1852-1854 secret editor of Westminster Review


(The entire section is 79 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Select a footnote in the Norton Critical Edition of Middlemarch on an historical person or event and conduct further research on...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • Middlemarch was adapted in 1994 as a film by Random House and PBS in a co-production with WGBH Boston and BBC Lionheart...

(The entire section is 36 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Readers who enjoy Middlemarch may find Eliot's Mill on the Floss (1860) also interesting, especially regarding insights on...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Colvin, Sidney, Review of Middlemarch, in Middlemarch, Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 2000, pp....

(The entire section is 319 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 544 words.)