Middlemarch by George Eliot

Introduction:

George Eliot is the famous woman novelist. Amongst the galaxy of female novelists that dominated the literary arena in the Victorian era, George Eliot holds an important place. She used a male pen name which was her effort to be taken seriously as a writer in the male-dominated literary world. Her real name was Mary Ann Evans (Marian). In the hands of George Eliot, novel was not a vehicle for entertainment alone, but rather as a means of revealing the human predicament. Well known for her realism and serious discussion of moral issues, George Eliot is the most philosophical of all the Victorian novelists. Like George Meredith, “she is the embodiment of philosophy in fiction,” as Oscar Wilde remarked in 1897. Virginia Wolfe called Eliot’s Middlemarch “one of the few English novels for grown-up people. She was twelve at the time of the Great Reform Bill (1832), which forms the historical context of Middlemarch.

Middlemarch is a richly textured novel which has gathered a staggering variety of critical opinions over a period of time. Set in England in the 1830s, Middlemarch is a complex structure of five stories whose focus is dispersed over a wide range of personal relationships. The society in the novel is composed of country and town and it is clear that while the country rank is the primary consideration of social status, social hierarchy is based on financial grounds. Middlemarch is then a microcosmic sample of society in a state of transition.

The Prelude:

The novel opens with a description of the sixteenth century Carmelite nun, Saint Theresa of Avila as a little girl holding her wide-eyed helpless brother by the hand, going out into the country side, looking for martyrdom. The saint is described as a passionate ideal soul that demands an epic life.

St. Theresa was born in 1515 in Avila and spent her life in Spain practicing and preaching a doctrine of austere, contemplative life. She was just fourteen years old when she lost her mother. She entered a convent at the age of twenty despite her father’s opposition.

She is remembered as one of the mystics of Roman Catholic Church, a woman leader and an author of many spiritual classics. As a nun and initiator of the Carmelite Order, she sought to restore the original observance of poverty and abstinence to the order of nuns. She established more than sixteen convents in Spain and inspired St. John of the Cross to initiate Carmelite Reform for men. She became the first woman to be elevated as a doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

George Eliot in the prelude of her novel wishes to foregrounds the circumscribed conditions within which exceptional women must function. The prelude is very dense in structure; its many echoes of history prepare us for the lengthy narrative ahead. The prelude, by speaking of the history of man, sees this as a frame for the unrecorded heroism of women. The story of St. Theresa links Dorothea to a particular instance of history. In conjoining the tales of the historically positioned St. Theresa and fictitious Dorothea on a common plane of gendered oppression, Eliot makes the story pertinent to a key aspect of the woman question. Eliot sets up an epic question here: What kind of heroism is possible for women in the modern world?

Relevance of the Title :

Commenting upon the relevance of Eliot’s Middlemarch for the grown-up society, Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader suggests it as, a magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. It is a reflection of realistic and vivid portrayal of the provincial life of England. The subtitle of the novel i.e., Study of Provincial Life, reflects England’s changing values regarding social status, medicine, politics, education, philanthropy, and male-female relationships.

Rosemary Ashton in Introduction to Middlemarch remarks that Middlemarch is above all about change and the way individuals and groups adapt to, or resist, change. In their marriages, in their professions, in their family life and their social intercourse, the characters of the novel are shown responding in their various ways to events both public and private.

Setting of the Novel : 

The action of the novel takes place in Middlemarch or the neighbouring parishes of Tipton, Lowick or Freshet. As Quentin Anderson points out, ―it is a landscape of opinion, and not any natural landscape, this is dominant in the novel.

George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life was published in 1871-2 but was set in the years preceding the Reform Bill of 1832. Eliot’s purpose in setting her novel forty years prior to the time she wrote it was to adopt ―the role of imaginative historian, even scientific investigator…who seeks to analyse recent political and social changes by means of the particular human stories she tells, by weaving ―together several strands in such a way that an individual’s lot is seen to be affected by those historical changes as they happen‖ (Ashton viii).

The pre-Reform Bill era in which Eliot situates her novel was a time of unprecedented social change in England prompted by the violent revolutions that had recently swept across Europe. By setting Middlemarch in the period immediately before the passage of the first Reform Bill, Eliot was able to situate her characters in a time when the changes they experience would have been new and different, perhaps even exciting.

Plot of the Novel : 

The novel ―Middlemarch by George Eliot tells the story of life in a small, rural English town in the early nineteenth century. Themes in the novel include the way that people react to change, women’s roles, marriage, and relationships. Although the pace of the novel is leisurely, many scandalous topics are covered including suspected murder, infidelity, secret pasts, gossip, politics, and family feuds. The developing relationships of four couples form the backbone of the novel as these young people learn to relate to each other and the world around them.

Dorothea, who is headstrong and wants to make positive changes in the world around her, is a main character in the novel. She marries Reverend Edward Casaubon, an elderly priest, only to learn he is not the scholar that she had idolized before their marriage. Casaubon is displeased with Dorothea as he believes that she is not only critical of him, but she is believing damaging information about him from his cousin, Will Ladislaw. Casaubon’s jealousy is so strong for Ladislaw that before he dies he writes a codicil to his will stating that if Dorothea marries Ladislaw, she will lose Casaubon’s inheritance.

Meanwhile, the pretty Rosamond Vincy has set her sights on Teritus Lydgate, the new doctor in town. Like Dorothea, Lydgate is not interested in getting rich. He wants to treat and heal the poor of the town. His fiancée, however, is accustomed to a different way of life. Lydgate soon finds himself deeply in debt. He borrows money from the rich Bulstrode, but the circumstances under which the money is loaned make it look like a bribe to the rest of the people in the town. Relations between Rosamond and Lydgate are also rocky, but Dorothea steps in and tries to help the couple relate to one another by drawing on the experience of her own bad marriage.

Also featured in this story are Mary Garth and Fred Vincy. Mary and Fred have been in love with one another since they were little children. Although Mary knows that there is no one for her but Fred, she waits for him to grow up into the man whom she wants to marry. She waits patiently as he fights his way through a bad debt that he cannot repay, loss of an inheritance that he thought was a certainty, and his struggle to come to terms with his life and find a job that suits him. With a little help from Mary’s father, Fred becomes his apprentice, tending the Tipton Grange and Freshitt estates. With some finagling, Caleb Garth arranges for Fred to live at Stone Court, the property that Fred thought he would inherit one day. Fred farms and tends that property and, eventually, buys it for himself. It is at this point that Mary agrees to marry Fred.

The romance between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw is followed closely throughout the novel. Though Will does not care for Dorothea when he first meets her, he soon grows to admire her. While she had always enjoyed Will’s friendship, it is after Dorothea learns that Casaubon attempted to forbid her from marrying Will after his death that she is drawn to Will even more. Though both of these young people try to hold their feelings for one another in check, they surprise the community by announcing their plans to marry. Dorothea has decided that a chance at love is more valuable than riches.

Themes of the Novel :

(A) Imperfect Marriage and Repressed Sexuality

Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon, ―a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father (837), is a mismatch, an unconsummated union. Her husband, her sexual companion, is much older than she is, and he seems least interested in any sort of physical aspect of their marriage.

Casaubon’s disinterest can be seen during their honeymoon in Rome. He is mostly involved researching his ―Key to all Mythologies in the Vatican library, rather than enjoying the company of his new, young bride. As a result of this, she recognizes her sexuality not by herself or her husband but by Ladislaw, Casaubon’s cousin. Will Ladislaw is present in Rome studying art, and it is there that he gets attracted towards Dorothea.

Will give the appearance ―of sunny brightness while ―Mr. Casaubon, on the contrary, stood rayless . Trotter notes that this direct contrast is Eliot‟s use of form ―to be extraordinarily frank in assessing the prospects of the two men who want to marry Dorothea Brooke. Mr. Casaubon… ―as a man, has no distinctive shape… He does not stand out. This, Trotter argues, signifies Casaubon’s inability or unwillingness to ―reproduce himself; thus he ―does not stand a chance against Will Ladislaw.

Dorothea’s desire for Will also increases during her marriage to Casaubon, but she is unaware of it until long after his death. She longs to see him when not in his company – she imagines his face in that of his grandmother’s portrait that hangs in her boudoir and her mood is instantly elevated, and she insists that he remain in Middlemarch when he is offered an opportunity by Mr. Brooke to do so and acknowledges that she gave her response ―without thinking of anything else than my own feeling.

Unlike her marriage to Casaubon, her union with Will is consummated, as they both give birth to a son. Her husband Will does what Casaubon could not do, recognizes her sexuality and allows her to recognize it for herself as well.

(B) Defiance of Middlemarch Society:

Social Hierarchy as Futile

Will and Casaubon are not on equal on social ground. Will’s grandmother disinherited because ―she made what they called a mésalliance, though there was nothing to be said against her husband except that he was a Polish refugee who gave lessons for his bread. This disgraced heritage makes Will suspect in Middlemarch society, an object of scorn. His marriage to Dorothea ―upsets the conventional economy of marriage and the distribution of property in Middlemarch (Miller).

Marrying Will, Dorothea emphatically renounces her inheritance as she and Will declare their love for each other: ―I don’t mind about poverty – I hate my wealth…We could live quite well on my own fortune – it is too much – seven hundred-a-year – I want so little – no new clothes – and I will learn what everything costs. Thereby, marrying Will, She defies all of Middlemarch society. She doesn’t disregard Will’s heritage rather seems to revel in it.

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life : 

Middlemarch is a highly unusual novel. Although it is primarily a Victorian novel, it has many characteristics typical to modern novels. Critical reaction to Eliot’s masterpiece work was mixed. A common accusation leveled against it was its morbid, depressing tone. Many critics did not like Eliot’s habit of scattering obscure literary and scientific allusions throughout the book. In their opinion a woman writer should not be so intellectual. Eliot hated the “silly, women novelists.” In the Victorian era, women writers were generally confined to writing the stereotypical fantasies of the conventional romance fiction. Not only did Eliot dislike the constraints imposed on women’s writing, she disliked the stories they were expected to produce. Her disdain for the tropes of conventional romance is apparent in her treatment of marriage between Rosamond and Lydgate. Both and Rosamond and Lydgate think of courtship and romance in terms of ideals taken directly from conventional romance. Another problem with such fiction is that marriage marks the end of the novel. Eliot goes through great effort to depict the realities of marriage.

The readers will be astonished by the novel’s amazingly complex social world. Eliot continually uses the metaphor of a web to describe the town’s social relations. She intricately weaves together the disparate life experiences of a large cast of characters. Many characters subscribe to a world-view; others want to find a world-view to organize their lives. The absence of a single, triumphant world-view to organize all life is the basic design of Middlemarch. No one occupies the center of the novel as the most important or influential person. The social relations are indeed like a web, but the web has no center. Each individual occupies a point in the web, affecting and affected by the other points. Eliot’s admirable effort to represent this web in great detail makes her novel epic in length and scope. Unlike in an epic, however, no single point in the web and no single world-view triumphant.

Character of Dorothea Brooke : 

Upper-middle and upper-class Victorian women, for example, were expected to “marry money,” stay home to raise the family, and be responsible for the management of domestic affairs. As a result, women, who lacked the opportunity for the kind of education men had, were praised chiefly for their ability to act properly towards their husbands. Dorothea Brooke is an intelligent and independent young woman, who differs from the conventional woman of the Victorian Age. While other Victorian ladies worried about fashion and marriage, Dorothea concerns herself with issues of philosophy, spirituality, and service. Eliot points out Dorothea’s genuine beauty in describing her physical appearance:

Miss Brooke had the kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible, — or from one of our elder poets, — in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper.

Eliot, who emphasizes the plainness of Dorothea’s clothing, alludes to paintings of the Virgin Mary to describe her, thereby accentuating Dorothea’s dignity and purity. Because Dorothea does not concern herself with fashion, most people in Middelemarch perceive her to be odd, and “sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them”. Eliot mocks the social norm by praising the purity of the young and “inexperienced” Miss Brooke.

Dorothea is almost too perfect, but she evolves from her immaculate persona after she goes astray and marries Edward Casaubon. Dorothea’s feelings for him are influenced by his supposed wisdom and her hopes that it will allow her to “become educated, to have her curiosity nurtured, and to be of constant usefulness to a man of sixty who really needed her nineteen year old eyes for reading” (Thompson). Bernard J. Paris sees Dorothea as a mimetic character whose desire for intensity, greatness, an epic life are not manifestations of spiritual grandeur but of a compulsive search for glory. Her craving for “illimitable satisfaction” is an expression of insatiable compensatory needs, and her “self-despair” results from hopelessness about actualizing her idealized image of herself as a person of world-historical importance. She misperceives Casaubon because “her need for glory leads her to idealize him”. Dorothea realizes “the fault of her own spiritual poverty”, and is “sobbing bitterly” when she is left alone by Mr. Casaubon, who goes to work alone at the Vatican on their honeymoon.

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