Set in the fictitious town of Middlemarch, George Eliot’s novel addresses many issues of the time, such as women’s status, the nature of marriage and political and scientific reform. The story is comprised of several distinct stories that all intertwine or intersect at one point or another and a large cast of lovable and detestable characters. Middlemarch is now regarded as one of Eliot’s best works and one of the greatest British novels.
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinnertime, keep back tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps us, and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts — not to hurt others.
Through carefully constructed characters, like Dorothea Brooke, Eliot discusses marriage and the role of women. Dorothea is a strong, level-headed woman that shuns the wealth that she has been given. She would rather give it all away if that would mean her life would be fulfilling than live in the comfort that she has always known. Her sister Celia, however, provides a sharp contrast and loves to wear jewelry, entertain guests and has her eyes on the most eligible bachelor not for his personality but for his status. Marriage is a means to a successful life for Dorothea, but hers is not the love story written in fairy tales. Dorothea, unlike other women, wants more than anything to be useful, not only as a wife, but as a person.
In this way the early months of marriage often are times of critical tumult — whether that of a shrimp-pool or of deeper waters — which afterwards subsides into a cheerful peace
Like Dorothea, Lydgate finds himself in a marriage that was most unexpected. The Middlemarch newcomer finds his entrance into the town met with suspicion instead of welcome. With new ideas on how to treat old ailments, residents of Middlemarch question his ability to perform his duties and meet his new and contemporary ways of treatment with resentment and flurries of gossip. Lydgate’s difficulty in finding his position in Middlemarch only puts more tension on an already strained, romantically and financially, marriage. Through Lydgate’s unfortunate career, Eliot showcases the trials newcomers and reform have on residents that firmly believe, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
Dr. Lydgate meant to let people die in the hospital.
But Middlemarch is not filled with unsuccessful marriages and drowning careers, Mary Garth and Fred Vincy’s relationship and courtship are alone worth reading the 700+ page novel. Mary and Fred have known each other their entire lives and the way they speak to each other shows the sort of commitment to each other they have. Fred wants nothing more than to marry Mary, but she desires more from him. Mary, the quintessential woman striving to improve a man, makes Fred think differently about how he is living his life and what course he should take. It is through interactions with Mary that Fred becomes a man.
Women don’t love men for their goodness.
Middlemarch is not all about love, or lack thereof. Gossip, as it will be, is abundant in the provincial life just as it is elsewhere. Bulstrode, easily the most disliked man in Middlemarch, has a secret to his success. He controls much of the finances of the small town being a banker and often attempts to enforce his religious beliefs on others, one of the many reasons he is disliked. He shows an utter lack of sympathy for others, until showing such sympathy benefits his own personal agenda. But as is often the case, the past does not always stayed buried and skeletons are always found hidden in the back of the closet.
Character is not cut in marble; it is nto something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.
With such a diverse collection of characters, Middlemarch is easily to comparable to those beloved characters of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. With an affluent woman that shuns her wealth as if it were the source of a plague, a reverend more focused on research than his wife, a banker that gained his status and wealth through most sinful means, and a plethora of scandals, gossip and love triangles to fill multiple seasons of a modern-day soap opera, Middlemarch is a underestimated gem of British fiction.