Sunday, October 31, 2010

Required Work: Middlemarch

I decided to go ahead and attack the monster that is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I have been told that Middlemarch was not included in the list of questions for this semester’s written portion of this exam. Therefore, there is a good chance that it will be included in the exam for the next few semesters. With that in mind, I decided to go ahead and post on it for those of you who will be taking the exam in spring 2011.


As usual, Middlemarch can fall into a few key genres. The title page of the first edition of this novel has a secondary title of “A Study of Provincial Life.” While “provincial life” is a very broad area to cover, Eliot does just that, making this book panoramic. It has multiple plots with many characters, all of which interlock and interweave with each other (much in the same vein as Dickens’ Bleak House). There are many underlying themes beneath the main ones, thus giving the reader a very broad look at provincial life in England while still focusing on one small fictitious town.

Middlemarch could also be thought of as a work of realism. The reader becomes aware of different broad issues of the day through the voice and opinions of the novel’s characters. Such issues include the Great Reform Bill (explored further in the History section below); the beginning of the railways; the death of King George IV and the succession of his brother, the Duke of Clarence; the state of contemporary medical science; and the effects of unwelcome change to a small community set in its ways.

And through the above issues that are brought to light comes a sometimes biting social commentary, especially when it comes to education and social class. The character of Rosamond Vincy is Eliot’s example of what happens to the women of the time who have received the so-called “proper” education. Also, her marriage to Lydgate is an example of many marriages of the time that include a seemingly intelligent man and a seemingly deserving female that has the right dowry to secure such a match. As for social class, this is not a book that simply follows the rule that all rich people are bad and every person of a lower social class is humble and good. Dorothea is fairly well off even before her marriage to Casaubon, and even though she may be somewhat self-deluded and overly idealistic, she really wants to help people. But of course, there are a handful of wealthy characters in the novel that seem to only want to do harm to others, and there are people in the lower class that are some of the most admirable characters in the book. However, the example of Dorothea shows the reader that it isn’t important how much money people in the novel have, but how they use it.


As mentioned before, the theme of education shows prominently throughout the novel. Rosamond Vincy has received a first-rate finishing school education that has done her absolutely no good. She is an opposite to Dorothea who has a thirst for the purposeful education that was generally denied the women of the age. Lydgate is a young up and coming doctor, so of course he has received a great education as well. But it does not help him in choosing a wife, as he chooses Rosamond Vincy to his eventual peril. Also, Rosamond admires him at first because she is attracted to his knowledge, and the idea that he being rich will place her in the upper classes of society. Interestingly enough, Dorothea is attracted to her future husband, Casaubon for much the same reasons, except for the higher society part. However, both women soon have there expectations dashed when they realize their husbands are not who they hoped they would be. Casaubon is a boring, almost useless man as he refuses to finish the project he has been working on for years because he insist on publishing something that would be beyond criticism. Lydgate, despite all of his knowledge, is unable to come off as arrogant to the people of this small community, whom he obviously views as somewhat backward and behind the times.

Another theme that was mentioned in the genre section is that of social class. All of the characters fall within very distinct social classes. At the top are Sir James Chettam, Casaubon, and the Brooke family, which includes Dorothea, Celia, and their uncle. The merchant and professional class includes the Vincys, and the laboring class is represented by the Garth family. Mr. Vincy does not push either of his children, Fred or Rosamond, to work hard at moving up in society, because he believes that his son will receive an inheritance upon the death of wealthy old Mr. Featherstone (he doesn’t), and that his daughter is pretty enough to marry up (she doesn’t). These types of hopeful yet unrealistic expectations lead into another theme of the book: self-delusion.

Many of the main characters are incredibly idealistic and naïve. Even the ones with the best intentions remain self-absorbed and out of touch with reality, causing all of their grand plans to fail miserably. Those who learn from their mistakes go on to live happy lives in the end (Dorothea, Ladislaw, Fred, etc.). Those who don’t learn continue to spin their wheels until the axe finally falls (Lydgate, Rosamond, etc.).

Dorothea deludes herself into thinking that marrying Casaubon will allow her to a great help to the aging scholar in his intellectual pursuits. But, she is so deluded that she does not realize he is not actually producing any work.

Fred deludes himself into thinking (with the aid of his father) that he will receive an inheritance after the death of Mr. Featherstone, so he doesn’t work very hard at school. But when Mr. Featherstone does finally die, he receives nothing. After this rude awakening, Fred is able to let go of his delusion, learns to work hard, and therefore wins the heart of his beloved Mary Garth.

Lydgate chooses his wife based on her looks and not at all on any knowledge of her actual character. He deludes himself into thinking that her look and family connections are enough to make the marriage work. But, Rosamond actually end up driving the couple further and further into debt with her extravagant expenses, and even refuses to cut down on spending because she wants to have the appearance of an upper class lifestyle.

Rosamond deludes herself into thinking that marrying a doctor will give her that final push into higher society. But, Lydgate continues to mount up debt, mostly because of her, and she actively resists curving their spending. She sees herself as a wronged princess, even though she is the one who is both scheming and manipulative. She may be the only one who does not suffer much from holding onto her delusions. Sure she comes to realize what being married to Lydgate really entails, but he eventually gives in to her desires and becomes the kind of doctor he never wanted to be so that they can be financially successful. Plus, after Lydgate’s death, Rosamond manages to marry someone even higher up in status and who will indulge her every want, thus living happily every after.


The first one-volume edition of Middlemarch was published in 1874, though it was serialized between 1871 and 1872. The book is set in the time period of the Great Reform Bill. The bill basically introduced changes to the electoral system of both England and Wales. It took away seats in the House of Commons from small cities with small populations (places that Middlemarch would resemble) and gave them to large cities that were popping up during the Industrial Revolution; therefore, making the vice of the small townspeople even harder to hear. The act also increased the amount of people that were able to vote in elections. This issue is reflected in the political work of Mr. Brooke and Ladislaw, and also the aversion to change in the people of Middlemarch.

Lydgate brings up many of the issues of modern medicine and science. He is an advocate for the new way of treating patients, but the older more established doctors of Middlemarch resent him, as do some of the patients. His lack of tact and social grace also contribute to problems, leading to his mounting debt due to lack of patients.

So there she is. I have to say I actually enjoyed Middlemarch a great deal. It is intimidating, and it also one of those books that you can sit down and read for five hours and not feel like you got anywhere (900+ pages will do that to you). But I do see its value and its place on the M.A. exam list. Next week I will explore another work that I did not choose personally, but that we are reading in my class. Glengarry Glen Ross is a play by David Mamet, a man that was heavily influenced by Harold Pinter, whom I explored last week. Until then…

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