Middlemarch by George Eliot is an extraordinary novel. The book has so many plot threads, major characters and significant themes that I struggled a bit when it came time to choose the content of this post. The fact that the novel is so famous and so much has been written about it only exacerbated my difficulties as I strove to say something different about it.
The book’s themes include the role of women in society, an exploration of provincial versus cosmopolitan thinking, the degeneration of marriage and relationships, serious musing on art and aesthetics, fate versus free will and many other topics.
The primary narrative focus, more or less, is on Dorothea Brooke, later Dorothea Casaubon. A pious and strong willed young woman, Dorothea strives for a meaningful life. She endeavors to be the ideal woman. An ideal woman, the narrative reminds us, is someone like St. Theresa who sacrificed her life for Christian ideals.
Dorothea is drawn to and marries the Reverend Edward Casaubon. The Reverend is a religious intellectual. He is a driven man who has devoted his life to completing a monumental treatise called The Key to All Mythologies, which ties ancient mythology with Christianity. After Casaubon’s death, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, a young artist, become involved in a romance that is marred by serious social complications
Another plot thread involves Tertius Lydgate. He is a doctor who champions progressive forms of medical care. As the book progresses, he woos and subsequently marries Rosamond Vincy. As Lydgate falls into debt, the couple’s home life becomes acrimonious.
Fred Vincy is Rosamond’s brother. This young man is earnest but irresponsible. His attempted courtship of Mary Garth, another young woman with a strong personality, weaves another thread into the narrative.
As the story progresses, the various plot threads intersect and play important roles in the various themes that are embodied within this book.
There are fans of this novel who contend that it is the finest ever written. While I would not go that far, in my opinion, it is among the finest. It has strong and complex characters, a compelling and interesting plot, fascinating themes, some of which touch upon the most basic and important elements of human existence. I also found Eliot’s writing to be suburb. It is down to earth at times; at other points, it is sublime. All of this combines into a wonderfully brilliant, aesthetic package.
As I do with many complex works, I am going to concentrate on only one of the many interesting aspects of Eliot’s work.
Disintegration of Relationships
In this novel, Eliot masterfully describes how the warmth of love can degenerate over time. The author looks at two separate couples, Dorothea and Reverend Casaubon, and Lydgate and Rosamond.
Dorothea and Casaubon are each impressive and nuanced characters in and of themselves. Their pairing adds intricacy to their respective complexities. Upon meeting Casaubon, Dorothea is immediately drawn to his religious intellect and conviction. Though he is stodgy, bookish and much older than her, Dorothea sees him as a perfect life partner.
The two quickly marry. However, Casaubon’s relative mental isolation and lack of warm emotions, as well as his inability to connect to Dorothea, cause friction. Casaubon’s somewhat understandable jealousy of the budding friendship between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw compounds the problem.
Eliot’s depiction of how the relationship goes from unquestioning love to acrimony is brilliant. Dorothea slowly comes to realize that she is looking for things in Casaubon that he is not giving her. Though one clearly senses that Eliot’s sympathies lie with Dorothea, Casaubon is not portrayed as a monster. In fact, Dorothea is shown to miss certain aspects of his inner self that could have helped ameliorate the couple’s problems had she been sensitive to them.
At one point it is observed,
She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers; she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.
Dorothea’s evolution from near worship of Casaubon to a kind of wary cynicism is believable and complex, as well as interesting.
The other couple, Lydgate and Rosamond, is almost as interesting. The pair quickly falls in love and marries. However, with time, rancor develops between the two. Lydgate is a man of scientific curiosity who enjoys experimentation. The materialistic Rosamond soon becomes bored with him and his interests. She begins to flirt with various men. When the two begin to fall into financial difficulties, the narcissistic Rosamond resorts to subterfuge in an effort to thwart Lydgate’s attempts to curtail their expenditures.
As with Dorothea and Casaubon, Eliot adds a lot of complexity to this relationship. Though the author seems to mostly sympathize with Lydgate, the Doctor is shown to have shortcomings too. He seems completely unable to see things from Rosamond’s point of view and begins every conflict by eschewing all compromise. Though he cannot dominate or control Rosamond, it is clear that he would like to.
Once again, Eliot is at her best when she portrays the erosion of this relationship. The way that Rosamond transforms from a loving bride to an uncaring, deceptive and narcissistic wife is portrayed with great literary skill.
A vicious cycle is illustrated. As Lydgate’s troubles mount, Rosamond reacts with less sympathy and more criticism. Thus, Lydgate begins to confide in her less and less and begins to keep things from her. As Rosamond realizes this, she becomes even more embittered.
There are many common themes shared by both of these relationships. Each involves two people who have trouble understanding each other’s feelings. Even if one looks at Dorothea and Lydgate as the more sympathetic members of the marriages, each of them has trouble understanding the inner life of their respective mates.
Both relationships begin warmly and gradually degenerate into misunderstandings, lost opportunities to connect, selfishness, etc. All this is portrayed believably and with complexity. The flaws in these relationships tie into what seems to be a major theme of this novel, that is, the harmful effects of people not being able to see things from other people’s point of view.
These two marriages end up in very bad states indeed. In contrast to what one would likely expect in a novel set in modern times, divorce was not an option for these characters. This changes the entire dynamic of the situation. In the world of the nineteenth century, there is no escape from the other person. Obviously this has an effect upon the feelings and the behaviors of the characters.
At one point, Lydgate contemplates the bad direction that his relationship with his wife is going in and is apprehensive as to the result of further deterioration.
It was as if a fracture in delicate crystal had begun, and he was afraid of any movement that might make it fatal. His marriage would be a mere piece of bitter irony if they could not go on loving each other.
When Dorothea and Lydgate actually talk, a moment of understanding comes to Dorothea when she realizes that Lydgate and herself have shared some common experiences in regard to their relationships. When it dawns on her that Lydgate’s experiences with matrimony in some ways have paralleled her own, Dorothea reacts,
“Dorothea felt her heart beginning to beat faster. Had he that sorrow too?”
Eliot’s depiction of these relationships heading into trouble is simply brilliant. They are believable, complex, and while at times painful to read about, have great aesthetic value. This is but one of many reasons that Middlemarch