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Middlemarch (1871-2) is George Eliot's best-known realist novel. It originally appeared in eight volumes. Middlemarch centres around a provincial English town of the same name. Eliot's novel follows the lives of multiple characters and all their complications.
Below is a summary of the novel and an exploration of both its ending and meaning. You will also find an explanation of Middlemarch's themes and key characters.
Middlemarch has a host of complex characters but the most central is Dorothea Brooke. Dorothea is an intelligent and ambitious nineteen-year-old woman. She and her sister Cecilia have been orphaned. They live with their wealthy uncle Mr. Brooke. Dorothea wants to become better educated and cares very much for intellectual matters. She also has a great passion for charity and wants to help people.
Sir James Chettam is interested romantically in Dorothea but she pays him little attention. Dorothea instead marries Reverend Edward Casaubon. Casaubon is a highly educated and wealthy man. He is also forty-five years old, much older than Dorothea. Dorothea sees her relationship with him as a chance to advance her intellect and help him with his various studies. This plan soon falls apart. Casaubon cares only about his goals and not Dorothea's. The expectation upon her is that she acts as a good and obedient Victorian wife. Dorothea is deeply unhappy in her marriage.
Mr. Vincy is the mayor of Middlemarch. He has two adult children, Fred and Rosamond. Both are frivolous and fanciful people. Rosamond is self-obsessed and cares about status. Fred was sent to university but did not complete his degree. He is seen as a failure by society because of this. Fred does little to change this as he is due to inherit a fortune from his uncle, Mr. Featherstone, who has no children. Mary Garth, Mr. Featherstone's niece, lives with him. Fred is in love with Mary and wishes to marry her. However, Fred falls into debt and involves Mr. Garth, Mary's father, in his financial issues. He causes Mr. Garth to lose all his savings. Mr. Garth tells Mary to never marry Fred.
Tertius Lydgate, a doctor, arrives in Middlemarch. He has a passion for new scientific ideas and explorations. The people of Middlemarch are sceptical of Lydgate and his new ideas. They are quite entrenched in their ways. Lydgate begins working with Bulstrode, a local landowner. Bulstrode tells Lydgate that he agrees with his scientific ideas and he wishes to build a hospital. Lydgate also treats Fred who has fallen ill. This results in him meeting Rosamond. Lydgate and Rosamond fall for each other. After some complications and hesitations, they become engaged and marry. This is another example of an unhappy marriage in Middlemarch. Lydgate finds Rosamond selfish and superficial. Rosamond believes Lydgate to be married to his work more than her.
Dorothea and Casaubon return to Middlemarch from time spent in Rome. While there, they encountered Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's cousin who he is supporting financially. Dorothea and Ladislaw develop a close relationship that Casaubon becomes jealous of. Casaubon falls ill and it seems he may not have much time left. Before he dies, Casaubon ensures that his will contains a condition that states Dorothea will lose all her inheritance from him if she marries Ladislaw. Dorothea discovers this after Casaubon's death and is embarrassed. She had only considered Ladislaw a friend up until this point. Ladislaw, on the other hand, does have feelings for Dorothea but keeps these quiet.
Ladislaw is in Middlemarch helping Mr. Brooke to run his parliamentary campaign. When this campaign fails, Ladislaw plans to leave the town. Dorothea confesses her feelings for him and renounces Casaubon's inheritance. Dorothea and Ladislaw marry.
Fred feels shame for involving Mr. Garth in his debt and vows to be better. He trains as a land agent. He also asks his friend to explain to Mary that he is trying to improve so they can be together. Fred's career becomes successful and he is able to marry Mary.
Meanwhile, Lydgate finds himself in the midst of a scandal. John Raffles arrives in Middlemarch. He has knowledge of Bulstrode's unsavoury past. Raffles reveals that Bulstrode was involved in a complicated situation that resulted in him cheating a deserving family out of their inheritance. A member of this family is Ladislaw. Bulstrode discovers this and feels guilty. He tries to offer Ladislaw a large sum of money but Ladislaw refuses. At the same time, Bulstrode loans Lydgate a large sum of money. The community finds out about all of these goings-on. They are considered highly scandalous. Lydgate is thought by society to be complicit in Bulstrode's dealings. He and Rosamond are forced to leave Middlemarch.
George Eliot gives readers a mix of happy and unhappy endings for her characters in Middlemarch. These are detailed in the 'Finale' section of the novel.
Dorothea and Ladislaw remain happily married. They do not care that Dorothea has given up her inheritance. Ladislaw becomes involved in politics and ends up as a Member of Parliament. Their son goes on to one day inherit Mr. Brooke's estate.
Fred and Mary are also a happily married couple. They have multiple children.
Lydgate and Rosamond remain away from Middlemarch. They are unhappy together. Lydgate thinks himself a failure and dies at the age of fifty. Rosamond gets remarried to an older physician after Lydgate's death.
From your reading of Middlemarch, do you think the final state of these characters has any relation to their actions during the novel?
Middlemarch can be seen as a novel of social realism. Eliot uses this genre to deal with and explore many relevant issues of the Victorian period.
Social realism is a subgenre of realism. Realist texts have plausible plots that contain realistic characters doing everyday things. Social realism specifically deals with societal and social issues that were relevant at the time the text was set. Other famous social realism texts include John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A relevant social issue that Eliot deals with in Middlemarch is that of marriage. Through the character of Dorothea, Eliot shows how confining marriage was for women in the Victorian era. Dorothea is educated and intelligent. She has extensive intellectual ambitions. These are quickly curbed by Casaubon who disregards her ambitions and focuses on his own. As a woman at this time, Dorothea must play by Casaubon's rules. She cannot leave the relationship even if she is unhappy.
The town of Middlemarch itself is also very important in Eliot's novel. It could be considered its own character. The full original title of this novel is Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life. Eliot is using her title to show a key aspect of the text. Middlemarch is a relatively small town in which everybody knows everybody. News travels fast and it is hard to hide scandals. People in this town also seem to be set in their ways and are reluctant to change.
Readers can see this through the experiences of Lydgate. Lydgate has lots of new ideas about how to work in medicine and treat patients. Middlemarch citizens are resistant and judgemental towards him. When Bulstrode's scandalous past is discovered, Lydgate is considered guilty by association. He and Rosamond are forced to leave Middlemarch permanently.
In showing Lydgate and Rosamond forced out of Middlemarch, Eliot may be commenting on the judgemental nature of Victorian society. This is likely partly inspired by her own life. Eliot was often subject to this judgement herself as she spent most of her life living unmarried with George Henry Lewes, a man who was already married to another woman.
George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819. This male name was adopted by Eliot so her work would be taken seriously. She also didn't want to link her work to her scandalous personal life.
Eliot had quite a pleasant childhood. She was well educated up until the age of sixteen. Eliot also had access to an extensive library in the large estate that her father managed. She read many of the Latin and Greek classics there.
Eliot developed radical ideas as a young woman, particularly about religion and her lack of faith. She moved in intellectual circles in Coventry that discussed these ideas. Eliot first worked as a translator and journalist. Her relationship with the married George Henry Lewes, a prominent intellectual, changed the course of her career. Lewes encouraged Eliot to try and write fiction. Eliot began publishing novels from 1858 onwards to great success. It became a viable career that she was able to use to support herself financially.
Today, George Eliot is regarded as one of the Victorian era's foremost realist writers. Some of her most famous novels include The Mill on the Floss (1860), Middlemarch (1871-2), and Daniel Deronda (1878). Eliot also wrote various short stories and poems. These are not as frequently studied today.
Society judged George Eliot and Lewes harshly for their relationship. Lewes was estranged from his first wife but not divorced from her. Yet he and Eliot lived as husband and wife from 1854. This was not thought acceptable according to Victorian morals. Lewes passed away in 1878 and Eliot followed two years later in 1880.
Now let's take a look at some of the key themes in Eliot's novel.
Marriage is key in Middlemarch. Eliot depicts a multitude of marriages and how they develop. These relationships are often unhappy and very complicated. They can also be very difficult for the women in them as they struggle to contend with societal expectations for Victorian wives.
Dorothea and Casaubon's marriage is one that quickly turns sour. Dorothea does not marry Casaubon for love. Rather she marries him for the intellectual opportunities that she believes she will have access to. This could be seen as disingenuous but Eliot portrays Dorothea very sympathetically. Eliot shows how Dorothea struggles with the societal expectations of her as a woman. Dorothea sees her relationship with Casaubon as the only opportunity she will have to expand her learning and intellect. These were things that Victorian society did not see as female pursuits. Dorothea's aims fail. Casaubon only cares for his own ambitions and not hers. Being in a marriage with Casaubon means that Dorothea must suppress who she is in favour of being a good wife. This was a common situation for Victorian women.
Dorothea's eventual marriage to Will Ladislaw is a much happier one. They genuinely love and are attracted to each other. This is a strong contrast to Dorothea's loveless relationship with Casaubon. Dorothea also does not have to suppress who she is and her ambitions so much. However, she still lives in a Victorian society. Even with Will, Dorothea must play the role of traditional wife and mother. She never realises her ambition of building cottages for poor farmers.
A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards. (Chp. 9)
The above quote appears in Middlemarch not long before Dorothea and Casaubon marry. It is a comment from the novel's narrator on women's position in marriage. It emphasises something that rings true for the rest of Middlemarch. Victorian women may play an important part in the courting of their husband but as soon as they are married, they are expected to be the perfect, submissive Victorian wife. This is something Dorothea continually struggles with.
Rosamond and Lydgate's marriage is also a failure. Eliot emphasises that the couple never truly understand each other. Rosamond is obsessed with appearance and status. She married Lydgate primarily because he comes from a good family. Rosamond wants to play the role of a perfect Victorian woman and this is what she focuses her energy on. Lydgate, on the other hand, is obsessed with his work. He thinks Rosamond selfish and she thinks him more wedded to his work than her. Eliot shows the complications and struggles of marriage in Middlemarch.
Middlemarch presents community as very important. Eliot's text represents what provincial communities such as this one were like at the time the novel is set. Eliot published her novel in 1871-2 but it is set in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Middlemarch was written retrospectively.
Eliot also shows how important class was in communities such as this. Class boundaries often have a significant impact upon characters' lives in Middlemarch. Characters are judged depending on what class they and their family fit into. They are often even more harshly judged if they do not behave in the way expected of their class. As mentioned, Rosamond marries Lydgate because he comes from what this society sees as a good family. She does not consider how incompatible they may be or Lydgate's lack of money. Rosamond only cares about the class dimension that this community prioritises.
Eliot also shows how quickly gossip and scandal spread in a town such as Middlemarch. People judge others harshly and are very set in their ways as a community. Lydgate's experience is an example of this. The community of Middlemarch associates Lydgate with Bulstrode's scandalous past because the two have been working together. This is despite the fact that Lydgate is not involved. The judgement from the community is so harsh that Lydgate and Rosamond must leave the community permanently. Community is not always something negative in Middlemarch but Eliot shows how a community where gossip and judgement spread fast can damage people's lives.
|Dorothea Brooke||The central character of the text. Dorothea is a young woman and an orphan. She lives with her sister Celia and their uncle Mr. Brooke. Dorothea is intelligent and ambitious. She has many goals for her life. She wants to be involved in both intellectual and charitable pursuits. Dorothea marries Casaubon to try and achieve this but she fails. She eventually finds love in a marriage to Will Ladislaw.||Intelligent. Ambitious. Strong-willed. Passionate.|
|Edward Casaubon||Edward Casaubon is a forty-five year old reverend. He is quite wealthy. Casaubon has many religious and intellectual projects that he cares for. He marries Dorothea but seems to invest little in their relationship. Casaubon can be selfish and cares more about himself and his work than his wife. Casaubon becomes increasingly jealous of Dorothea and Will's friendship. He puts a condition in his will to prevent them from marrying. Casaubon passes away not long into his marriage with Dorothea.||Learned. Self-interested. Traditional. Ordinary.|
|Tertius Lydgate||A newcomer to Middlemarch. Lydgate is a doctor who is passionate about new, progressive medical and scientific ideas. He comes from a noble and wealthy family. Middlemarch's community is not very accepting of Lydgate and his new ideas. He falls easily for Rosamond and they remain in an unhappy marriage until his death. Lydgate often struggles to understand others as he is too obsessed with scientifically analysing everything.||Educated. Progressive. Scientific. Unsympathetic.|
|Rosamond Vincy||Rosamond is the daughter of Mr. VIncy, the mayor of Middlemarch. Fred Vincy is her brother. Rosamond prioritises appearance and status. She concerns herself with little else. Rosamond marries Lydgate mostly because of his good family background. Rosamond doesn't care much for others or their feelings. She is much more focused on being perceived as the perfect and accomplished Victorian woman. Rosamond remarries a physician after Lydgate's death.||Self-obsessed. Frivolous. Superficial. Beautiful.|
|Fred Vincy||Fred is Mr. Vincy's other adult child and Rosamond's brother. Fred was sent to university but never completed his degree. Society sees him as a failure for this. Like his sister, Fred is quite frivolous. He relies on the inheritance he will receive from his uncle, Mr. Featherstone. Fred is also in love with Featherstone's niece, Mary Garth. Fred loses all of this when he falls into debt and involves Mary's father in this. Throughout the story, Fred remains genuine and dedicated to the ones he loves. He then makes an effort to improve himself and make his own way in life. Fred and Mary eventually marry. Fred is one of the characters in Middlemarch with the most personal development.|
|Will Ladislaw||Will is a cousin of Casaubon whom he financially supports. Will has a complicated family background and is estranged from his family. He comes from generations of rebellious women and has inherited this trait. Will is also quite idealistic and cares about politics. He helps Mr. Brooke with his political campaign. Will is in love with Dorothea but keeps it to himself to protect her reputation. They are eventually able to marry when Dorothea renounces Casaubon's inheritance. Will ends the novel as an M.P.||Romantic. Rebellious. Political. Passionate.|
Middlemarch has become a highly influential and recognised text. It is a staple of the realism genre. Eliot accurately explores the complications of life, love, and community.
George Eliot wrote Middlemarch.
Middlemarch explores the human condition. It does not force any specific conclusions but instead shows the complexities of life.
Yes, Middlemarch is a Victorian novel as it was written in the Victorian period (1837-1901).
Yes, Middlemarch is a realist novel. It contains a realistic plot and everyday events.
What genre is Middlemarch?
What was George Eliot's real name?
Mary Ann Evans.
What two themes are key to Middlemarch?
Marriage and community.
What does Middlemarch showcase about Victorian marriages?
Middlemarch shows how confining marriage was for women at this time.
What does the treatment of Lydgate say about the community of Middlemarch?
Lydgate's treatment shows how judgemental and gossip-obsessed the community is.
Which character in Middlemarch can be considered the best developed by the end of the novel?
Why does the relationship between Rosamond and Lydgate fail?
Because they never truly understand each other.
When was Middlemarch published?
Why can Dorothea not marry Will after Casaubon's death?
Because Casaubon has placed a condition in his will that states Dorothea will lose her inheritance if she marries Will.
Why does Dorothea originally marry Casaubon?
Because she sees it as an opportunity to advance her learning and realise her charitable ambitions.
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