Summary of Middlemarch

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Middlemarch book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Realism

What It’s About

Life in a Small Town

George Eliot’s influential novel Middlemarch is, according to its subtitle, a “study of provincial life.” At its center are the beautiful and inquisitive Dorothea Brooke and the ambitious young doctor Tertius Lydgate, who both have to abandon their idealist views when faced with the reality of daily life. In the novel, Eliot depicts small-town life in the 1830s with its class system, rivalries, and social restrictions in minute detail. She beautifully sketches even minor characters, letting the reader into their thoughts and struggles. Eventually, the individual storylines converge into an overall picture that captures and represents the multifaceted reality of small-town life. Middlemarch is not only the author’s most impressive work, but also a seminal contribution to the 19th-century English novel.

Take-Aways

  • Middlemarch is George Eliot's most important novel and one of the seminal works of English Realism.
  • Beautiful, inquisitive noblewoman Dorothea Brooke and young, ambitious doctor Tertius Lydgate’s idealistic quests to make a difference in the world cannot survive unhappy marriages and the small-mindedness of Middlemarch society.
  • The story is set in the early 19th century, just a few years before the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832.
  • George Eliot’s real name was Mary Ann Evans. She used a male pseudonym to avoid the prejudices against female writers as well as to disassociate her work from the scandal of her private life.
  • Eliot modeled Middlemarch on the English town of Coventry, where she lived with her father after her mother’s death.
  • The plot is based on the precept that everything in life has consequences and people’s pasts determine their futures.
  • George Eliot’s lifelong partner was the married journalist George Henry Lewes. The two lived together openly – a scandal in 19th century England.
  • Middlemarch started out as two separate stories that Eliot eventually combined.
  • “Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably.”
 

Summary

A Hasty Marriage

Young gentlewoman Dorothea Brooke lives with her sister Celia and her bachelor uncle Mr. Brooke in a house close to Middlemarch. With her keen mind, independent spirit, and puritanical and idealistic attitude, she isn’t to everyone’s taste. Her beauty, however, has made her the target of two men looking for a wife: the jovial and good-natured Sir James Chettam and the pale, erudite clergyman and scholar Edward Casaubon – a man 20 years her senior who spends most of his time researching for a book on the origin of myths. Dorothea is convinced that Chettam is interested in her sister and is almost offended when she is made aware of her misconception. Her childlike and idealistic view of marriage as a “state of higher duty” where the husband is “a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew” leads her to accept Casaubon’s offer, whom she idolizes as someone of high intellectual and spiritual insight – both things that she longs for. Her choice surprises and appalls many of her friends and relatives: They consider Casaubon a dry bookworm who is much too old for Dorothea. The two marry quickly and set off on their honeymoon to Rome, where Casaubon is hoping to have time for his research.

A New Doctor in Middlemarch

The young doctor Tertius Lydgate is new to Middlemarch. He has chosen life in a provincial town to escape the intrigues and professional jealousies of London. His profession is his calling as it combines his love for scientific study and discoveries with charity in action. His first taste of the political minefield of small-town Middlemarch comes with the choice of curate for the new hospital: Lydgate finds himself voting, against his conviction, for the candidate that Middlemarch’s banker Bulstrode, who finances the hospital, favors.

Rosamond Vincy, the beautiful but superficial daughter of local businessman Mr. Vincy, has set her sights on Lydgate. She thinks the local men to be beneath her, so the fact that Lydgate is an outsider and the nephew of a baronet is doubly appealing. She believes that marrying him would help her climb the social ladder. Lydgate enjoys flirting with Rosamond and sees her as a perfect example of feminine grace and upbringing, but he is not in love with her and has no intention of getting married any time soon – his research is too important.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

Back in Rome, Casaubon spends most of his time in the Vatican’s library, and Dorothea, left on her own, begins to realize that her hopes for marriage to Casaubon were illusionary. When she asks him when he intends to start on the manuscript for the book (so far, he has only written notes), she hits a sore spot, and they have their first quarrel. Casaubon’s young cousin Will Ladislaw also happens to be in Rome and, after a chance encounter, he and Dorothea start spending more time together. He falls in love with her.

Two Engagements and One Funeral

Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s happy-go-lucky brother, has failed his theology exam and finds himself in debt after having hired horses on credit from local horse dealer Mr. Bambridge, and injuring one of them. When it’s time to renew the bill, Fred asks the estate manager Caleb Garth, with whose family he has a close relationship, to co-sign the debt. Fred receives some money from Peter Featherstone, an old rich widower, whose first wife was Fred’s aunt and who always hints that he might leave his estate to Fred. He still needs an extra £80 to settle the debt, which he hopes to gain by exchanging his horse for a better one and selling it at a profit. However, the plan backfires when the new horse starts kicking and lames itself. So when payback day comes, Fred has to ask Caleb to pay the debt for him, which strips them of all their savings. Fred feels terrible, even more so because he is in love with Mary Garth, Caleb’s daughter. So far, she has continually refused him – she doesn’t want to marry an “idle frivolous creature” like him, and the tragedy he has now brought on her family doesn’t improve her view of him. Shortly after this unpleasant affair, Fred falls ill with typhus. Their family doctor, Mr. Wrench, misdiagnoses the illness. Lydgate is called and is soon considered a hero and lifesaver. His reputation soars, which leads to jealousy from the other long-established doctors in the area.

Mr. Casaubon “had done nothing exceptional in marrying – nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths and bouquets….”

Due to his daily visits to check on Fred, Lydgate spends more and more time with Rosamond, and they start flirting openly. While Rosamond, in her mind, is already furnishing their marital home, Lydgate sees their relationship as nothing more than a pleasant diversion. When rumors of an engagement start to make the rounds, Lydgate keeps away from the evening gatherings at the Vincy’s. Rosamond is upset, and when they next meet, she starts crying – and Lydgate falls in love with her. They immediately become engaged.

Dorothea and Casaubon return from Rome and find that Chettam and Celia have become engaged. Casaubon becomes increasingly anxious about his work. Dorothea can’t shake her feelings of unhappiness and disillusionment – instead of being able to support her husband, she feels like she has become a burden to him. When he reacts badly to a letter from Ladislaw asking if he could come and visit, Dorothea’s temper snaps. Shortly after, Casaubon starts struggling for breath and is unable to speak, and a guilt-ridden Dorothea hurries to his aid. Lydgate is called, and he warns Dorothea that Casaubon needs rest and diversion from his studies. Dorothea asks her uncle to write to Ladislaw and tell him that a visit would be too much for her husband. Brooke does contact Ladislaw, but instead of following Dorothea’s instructions, invites him to stay with him.

“Men outlive their love, but they don’t outlive the consequences of their recklessness.” (Mary to Fred)

Featherstone is dying, and Mary becomes his carer. One night he opens a box filled with gold. He asks Mary to get him a second box, so he can give her the money. He tells her that he has written two wills and wants to destroy the second one. Mary refuses to touch anything because she doesn’t want to be suspected of money-grabbing by Featherstone’s relatives. Featherstone dies that night.

Jealousies

As Featherstone’s family gathers for the reading of his will, an unexpected guest appears: Joshua Rigg, Featherstone’s illegitimate son. When the executor reads out the first will, Fred finds that he would have received £10,000. However, the second, valid will makes Rigg the sole recipient of Featherstone’s fortune, leaving Fred and the rest of the family empty-handed. Mary feels responsible for Fred’s loss as she refused to destroy the second will. Chettam approaches Garth to ask him if he would manage both his and Mr. Brooke’s estates. This offer puts an end to Garth’s money problems, and Mary is able to stay in Middlemarch. 

“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”

Casaubon is still very weak, and his dislike of Ladislaw is getting worse. When Brooke brings Ladislaw to visit the Casaubon’s, he inadvertently gives Casaubon the impression that Dorothea had asked him to invite Ladislaw to stay with him. Ladislaw has now settled in Middlemarch, working as editor for a newspaper that Brooke has bought. Unbeknown to Dorothea, Casaubon writes to Ladislaw and orders him to leave Middlemarch as his new position as editor puts him well below the social circle that Casaubon and Dorothea belong to and reflects badly on them. Ladislaw is enraged and refuses. Casaubon is increasingly convinced that Ladislaw is trying to win Dorothea so he can get his hands on her money once Casaubon is dead.

The Will

The relationship between newly-wedded Lydgate and Rosamond shows its first strains. He doesn’t understand her social ambitions, and she finds it hard to tolerate his constant quest for scientific advancement and reform, which leads to long working hours and animosity from the other doctors in Middlemarch. Lydgate’s salary isn’t enough to accommodate Rosamond’s taste and expectations, and he sinks deeper and deeper into debt.

Dorothea and Casaubon grow more estranged. She feels trapped in her marriage and has now completely lost faith in her husband’s work. Casaubon’s fear that he will die before he can finish his work drives him to desperate measures: One evening, he asks Dorothea to promise that she will fulfill his wishes no matter what after his death. Suspecting that he will ask her to finish his work for him, she stalls. Casaubon is deeply hurt, and Dorothea has a sleepless night, finally convincing herself that it is her duty to grant him his wish. However, when she goes to speak to him, she finds him dead.

“It is always fatal to have music or poetry interrupted.” (Will)

Dorothea goes to stay with Chettam and her sister, who have just had their first baby. After Casaubon’s funeral Dorothea learns that he has made an addendum to his will: She receives his whole estate, but will lose this immediately if she marries Ladislaw. The insinuation of this request outrages her and it hurts her deeply to learn that her husband distrusted her so. However, it also makes her consider for the first time her feelings towards Ladislaw. Ladislaw isn’t aware of this addition to the will, but knowing that Dorothea is now a rich widow makes it impossible for him to pursue her: Everyone would think he was only doing it to get her money. He decides to stay away from her.

“And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better.” (Dorothea)

Meanwhile, Fred Vincy has managed to pass his theology exam, but he doesn’t want to become a vicar. He confides in Camden Farebrother, a local vicar, that he would only do it if it won him Mary’s love. He asks Farebrother to speak to Mary about this on his behalf. Farebrother agrees to help him, despite being in love with Mary himself. When he asks her whether she would ever agree to be Fred’s wife, she is reluctant to answer, but eventually admits that she is in love with Fred. However, she would only marry him if he started working and being responsible. The only thing she can say with certainty is that she would never marry him if he were to become a vicar – it would make her feel like she was “looking at a caricature.” Farebrother reports back to a very relieved Fred.

Misunderstandings and Mistakes

After a disastrous attempt to enter politics, Brooke gives up his political career and also the newspaper. Left without work, Ladislaw decides to leave Middlemarch. His plan is to make something of himself, so that he can return and propose to Dorothea. He goes to say goodbye to her and to tell her of his feelings, but the meeting doesn’t go well. Misunderstandings and things unsaid leave them both in doubt as to the other’s feelings.

An old acquaintance of Bulstrode, John Raffles, appears in Middlemarch and starts blackmailing Bulstrode over his past. As a young banker, Bulstrode got pulled into a large pawnbroker business run by Mr. Dunkirk that made its money on stolen property. He was made partner, and when Mr. Dunkirk died, Bulstrode married his widow – Ladislaw’s grandmother. When they got married, she asked Bulstrode to help her find her daughter, who had run away from home, because she couldn’t agree with the way her father made his money. Bulstrode found her, but never told his wife as he wanted to be the sole heir of her fortune should she die. Trying to alleviate his guilty conscience, Bulstrode confesses the whole story to Ladislaw and offers him money as recompense. Ladislaw refuses to take it as he feels it is tainted money.

“What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?”

Garth offers Fred a position as an assistant; Fred accepts, thereby disappointing his parents. Lydgate’s cousin, Captain Lydgate, the son of a baronet, comes to visit, and Rosamond is elated. She believes that being seen with him will do wonders for her social standing, and she spends a lot of time with him. In contrast, Lydgate avoids his cousin, as he considers him very dull. Despite her pregnancy, Rosamond agrees to go for a ride with the Captain. When Lydgate finds out, he expressly forbids her to do so again, but she ignores him. Her horse bolts, and she loses the baby. Soon after, Lydgate tells her about their debt. She reacts coldly and starts regretting ever having married him.

“Our deeds still travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are.”

Despite his intention to leave, Ladislaw delays. He spends a lot of time with Rosamond. One day she tells him about Casaubon’s addendum to the will. He realizes that all hope is lost and decides to go and see Dorothea before he leaves for London. He tries to tell her of his feelings, but she misunderstands and believes that he is talking about Rosamond. Unbeknown to her husband, Rosamond keeps writing letters to Ladislaw after he has left. She believes that he is in love with her, and she is hoping that he will come and rescue her from her unhappy marriage.

Caught in Scandal

While pretending to go along with Lydgate’s attempts to adjust their lifestyle to their means, Rosamond starts to meddle. She writes to Sir Godwin, Lydgate’s uncle, to ask him for money. Instead of replying to her, he writes a scathing letter to Lydgate, reproaching him for asking his wife to beg for money and refusing to give him anything. Lydgate finally turns to Bulstrode and tells him of his money problems. The banker refuses to give him the required £1,000 and adds that he is withdrawing his financial support of the fever hospital.

Bulstrode promises to pay Raffles the requested money, on the condition that he leaves Middlemarch and never comes back. Raffles agrees, but shortly after Garth contacts Bulstrode to tell him that he has picked up a very ill man on the road and put him up in Stone Court, one of Bulstrode’s properties. The sick man is delirious with drink, and Bulstrode calls Lydgate. Lydgate instructs him to give Raffles a dose of opium, but no alcohol. Bulstrode spends two nights keeping watch over Raffles to make sure he doesn’t tell anyone of Bulstrode’s past. When Lydgate comes to check up on Raffles, Bulstrode tells him that he has changed his mind about lending him money, and he writes Lydgate a note for £1,000. Lydgate is surprised, but takes it gratefully. During the third night, Bulstrode’s housekeeper takes over the watch. When she asks Bulstrode whether she could give Raffles a little alcohol, he agrees, seeing it as an opportunity to get rid of Raffles. The next morning, Raffles is dead. Middlemarch’s rumor mill starts, and Bulstrode’s past, Raffles’s death and the payment to Lydgate all conspire to make both Bulstrode and Lydgate outcasts. People are convinced that Bulstrode paid Lydgate to kill Raffles..

Happy Ending

Dorothea believes in Lydgate’s innocence and wants to help him. She pays off his £1,000 debt to Bulstrode and talks to him about continuing his work at the fever hospital. When he confides in her that Rosamond would not be happy staying in Middlemarch, she asks his permission to visit his wife to try and convince her of his innocence. When she arrives at their house, the maid asks her to wait in the drawing room while she looks for Rosamond. Dorothea enters, and finds Rosamond and Ladislaw sat close together on the sofa. Rosamond is crying, and Ladislaw is holding her hands. Dorothea feels her fears about Ladislaw and Rosamond are confirmed. She leaves quickly, abandoning all hope of ever finding personal happiness. Ladislaw is devastated. He knows what the situation must have looked like to Dorothea. His anger at the hopelessness of the situation turns against Rosamond, and he tells her that he could never love another woman but Dorothea.

“People are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” (Dorothea)

After a sleepless and tearful night, Dorothea decides to at least try and rescue Rosamond and Lydgate’s marriage. She explains to Rosamond that she thinks Lydgate innocent and that his strongest motivation is Rosamond’s happiness. Overwhelmed by Dorothea’s gentleness and sincerity, Rosamond tells her what really happened with Ladislaw the day before and that he is deeply in love with Dorothea.

A few days after their meeting, Miss Noble, Mrs. Farebrother’s sister, appears at Lowick Hall and asks to see Dorothea. Miss Noble has become a good friend of Ladislaw’s, and she tells Dorothea that he has sent her to ask if Dorothea would see him. Dorothea agrees. Ladislaw arrives, and they finally talk openly. He laments that he will never be wealthy enough to marry her. When he turns to leave, Dorothea breaks down crying and calls him back. She is not interested in wealth and has her own fortune, which would allow them to live well. They decide to get married, despite the disapproval of Middlemarch society.

Despite Dorothea’s efforts, Lydgate and Rosamond move away from Middlemarch. Lydgate starts successful practices in London and a “continental bathing place,” giving up his dream of scientific discovery and progress. He dies when he is only 50. Garth offers Fred the opportunity to manage Bulstrode’s estate, a position that allows Fred and Mary to get married. Dorothea and Ladislaw move to London, where he starts a successful career in politics.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Middlemarch was initially split into eight parts, published in installments over the period of one year. The novel was eventually published in four volumes of 86 chapters. The plot plays out over two years, and ends in 1832, shortly before the reform of Parliament, which is mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel. The novel first introduces Dorothea and her family and tells the story of her courtship with and marriage to Casaubon. In chapter 11, Lydgate and Rosamond enter the story, and their and Dorothea and Casaubon’s unhappy marriages unfold in parallel.

Around these two main storylines, Eliot creates a large cast of other characters, whose lives intersect and affect one another. In this way, Eliot introduces multiple perspectives and paints a complex picture of moral quandaries, social pettiness and the imperfection of life. The omniscient narrator of the novel reflects the characters’ thoughts and feelings, but also comments freely on their actions and thought processes. This technique, which acts as a running commentary, may jar on some readers as it suggests that they need guidance from the author to fully understand and appreciate the characters and their motives.

The novel’s sentence structure is complex, with a sometimes confusing network of subclauses, which may test modern readers’ patience. Middlemarch is an example of a realist novel, even though many critics think the term “Realism” has become too broad in its definition to be useful.

Interpretation

  • Middlemarch is a novel of contrasts and parallels. The two main storylines of Lydgate and Dorothea unfold in parallel, with both of them becoming trapped in unhappy marriages. However, their reactions to the realities of their situations are different.
  • Casaubon and Lydgate are similar not only in their dedication to research, but also their attitude to women: To them, women are accessories. They exist to improve and adorn men’s lives. This perception leads to their falls, reflecting a decidedly feminist moment in the novel. When Dorothea begins to understand the fruitlessness of Casaubon’s work, it increases his self-torment and feeling of inadequacy. Rosamond undermines and destroys Lydgate’s ambitions through her lack of interest in anything intellectual.
  • The plot is based on the precept that everything in life has consequences and people’s pasts determine their futures. Bulstrode’s previous misdeeds haunt him, and Lydgate’s marriage to Rosamond seals his future fate.
  • Puritanism in the sense of religion as a duty determines much of the storyline and action. Many moral conflicts result from a character’s struggle between their sense of duty and insuppressible desires and passions.
  • The society of Middlemarch as a whole can be seen as a character in the novel: It’s the gossip and rumors that destroy Bulstrode and Lydgate.
  • Middlemarch is a class-ridden society, divided into gentry, a bourgeois middle class and poor laborers. Class distinction and separation are part of everyday life. However, acquired wealth is slowly entering the picture and changing the social structure: Thus, Lydgate’s noble background doesn’t protect him from ruin, and Bulstrode’s influence derives from his wealth.
  • Reform is a central theme in the novel, and it affects politics, science and society.

Historical Background

Years of Reform

In contrast to France with its revolution and the United States with its democratic “Bill of Rights,” England was still stuck in its class society at the beginning of the 19th century. The political power lay in the hands of the aristocracy. The 1830s saw a wave of political and social change. Lord Grey, who became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1830, introduced the Parliamentary Reform Act, which passed into law in 1832. It was the first step towards a democracy and away from a divided society in which class determined people’s positions and opportunities in life. It restricted the influence of the gentry and readjusted the constituencies to reflect the changes in population. It also increased the number of people – men only – who were eligible to vote by including small landowners, tenant farmers, shopkeepers and men living in towns who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more. However, most working men and all women were still excluded (women didn’t get the right to vote until 1928). The Second Reform Act of 1867 extended the right to vote to more people.

The first half of the 19th century also ushered in advances in science, in particular with regard to medicine. Earlier medical treatment was largely based on dubious practices – including bloodletting, leeches or a “change of air.” Doctors earned their wages from selling drugs rather than visiting patients and treating their illnesses, which often led to unnecessary prescriptions. This practice began to change with the advance of research, triggered in part by the rapid spread of diseases and high death rates in overcrowded cities as well as the introduction of a regulated university education. In addition, the invention of the stethoscope in 1816 and improvements in the quality of microscopes significantly improved diagnoses.   

Development

Middlemarch combines two different stories. In August 1869, Eliot started writing a novel with the title Middlemarch. However, only one month later and three chapters in, she dropped it. One and a half years later she started work on a novella entitled Miss Brooke, and shortly after, she decided to combine the two stories. Between 1871 and 1872, the novel was serialized in eight installments, as it soon became apparent that it would be too long for publication in three volumes, the standard format for novels at that time. Eliot wrote the first three parts before it had been decided that the novel should be serialized. The final five parts, which she wrote with serialization in mind, show that she developed and changed some of the initial storylines and chapters. While writing the novel, Eliot kept notebooks with medical facts and an outline of the book’s structure.

The fictitious town of Middlemarch is based on Coventry. Dorothea and Casaubon’s marriage also has real-life connections: In November 1843, Eliot was bridesmaid at a wedding. Shortly after, she stayed as a guest with the father of the bride, 62-year-old Dr. Brabant, to keep him company now that his only child had left. Eliot admired the learned philosopher very much, and the two of them spent a lot of time in deep conversation and going for walks together. Their time together ended rather abruptly when Mrs. Brabant, his wife, told him in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want this relationship to continue.

Reviews and Legacy

Middlemarch’s reception was mixed. Henry James wrote in his review of the novel that “its diffuseness…makes it too copious a dose of pure fiction.” Many criticized it as being too analytical and too labored, complaining that Eliot over-dissected her characters. Others didn’t like the too-perfect characters of Dorothea or Caleb Garth. However, Middlemarch soon came to be regarded as a milestone in the development of the realist novel. Eliot’s use of parallel character development, which shows the fate of one character in light of another, became an established method of writing. D.H. Lawrence adopted it for his novels, for example in Women in Love, where he contrasts two couples.

About the Author

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) was born on November 22, 1819 in Nuneaton near Coventry. Her upbringing at home and at an all-girls boarding school was deeply religious. After the death of her mother in 1836, Mary moved to Foleshill, near Coventry, with her father. Influenced by their free-thinking neighbor, she left the church and declared herself an agnostic. However, her puritan upbringing stayed with her all her life and often expressed itself through self-doubt and self-blame. After her father’s death in 1849, Mary spent a year living in Geneva before moving to London. There she started work as an editor for the liberal Westminster Review. In 1851, she met the journalist George Henry Lewes. Despite him being married, they became partners and started living together in 1854 – a scandal in their time, which also led to a break with their families. Mary published her first novel Adam Bede (1859) under the pseudonym George Eliot. The novel came out to great acclaim and established her as an author. She chose to publish under a male pseudonym as there was heavy prejudice against female writers at the time. Also, she didn’t want the scandal of her private life to jeopardize the success of her books. Other novels followed, including The Mill on the Floss in 1860 and Silas Marner in 1861. She abandoned the initial draft of her most famous novel, Middlemarch, and instead started writing a novella entitled Miss Brooke, which she then incorporated into the final version of the novel. Lewes died in 1878. In 1880, Mary married the American banker John Walter Cross, who was 20 years younger than her. She died the same year in London, on December 22, 1880.


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