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 is truly a great novel.
Here is my shame filled confession: I have never been able to finish Middlemarch. Perhaps you're fine posting will motivate me. For now though I am more interested in American authors.
Hi RT - I have been reading a lot of English authors from this period. I do really love them. I have not read as many American's but I want to read more.
Firstly can I say what a lovely cover. All of the copies I have seen recently seem to feature scenes from a recent tv adaptation which is a trend I hate. What about you Brian? Any thoughts on books featuring scenes like this?
Another of those books inherited from my mam that is stored in a box in a cupboard, perhaps one day I will get around to convincing myself that I really must read it.
Hi Tracy - I agree totally. Book covers showing film scenes make me cringe. I recently saw the latest cover for the book Twelve Years a Slave. I thought that it was terrible fore a book cover.
If you read this novel I would love to know what you thought about it.
I read this in college, loved it, and would like to revisit this at some point.
From what I remember, the failed relationships show the shortcomings of people's views on men, women and marriage - and the misstep of failing to think about your future spouse from all angles.
As a smart, idealistic woman, Dorothea still isn't expected to study things on her own or embark on her own career. She's expected to advance a man's work, be his helper. And her more limited education makes it so that she doesn't spot Casaubon's shortcomings as a scholar (isn't there an eerie scene where he tries to get her to promise to keep working on his doomed scholarly writings after he dies?)
Lydgate is imaginative professionally, but what sinks him is his conventional view of women and what makes a woman attractive. He's dismissive of someone like Mary Garth (who might have been invaluable to him) and focuses on the woman who is an ornament that all men want to possess. And then she winds up owning him, essentially.
I don't think either Dorothea or Lydgate considered their spouses-to-be fully, the whole of them as human beings, before entering into these marriages.
I tried reading Silas Marner in high school and failed. Since then I've never touched any Eliot. Your excellent review has inspired me to try. She's going on my TBR list.
Your review also makes those characters, with all their faults and shortcomings very interesting. Eliot's insight into human nature motivates me to read her works. Maybe I'll even give Marner another go. :)
I appreciate your observations about relationships. Eliot certainly depicts (by your account) how relationships can deteriorate. I, however, believe that even though divorce was not an option then, it is still not the answer (speaking as a one time divorced person). From my own experience, partners in a marriage need to altruistically do whatever is necessary to make the relationship succeed.
A person who is hard to get along with in one relationship will only be hard to get along with in another one. The answer is to change selfish behavior and put the other person first.
Have a great week, Brian and thanks for this review!
Hi Sharon - Many of the books that I read today I think I would never have gotten through in High School :)
While I do think that some folks do not put the necessary effort in to make marriages work and to avoid divorce, I also think that some folks either make mistakes in entering marriage or turn into such different people that staying together is impossible.
Hi Hila - This is a complex novel and it is true that both Dorothea or Lydgate failed to see clearly the nature of their respective future spouses, even though the personality traits that caused so much trouble were never hidden.
Your analyses of the dynamics of Lydgate's reasons for being intitaiily attracted to Rosamond is spot on.
The scene that you refer to where Casaubon attempts to persuade Dorothea to carry on his work after his death is so well written.
Brian Joseph, I did read this in college, and truthfully never considered reading it again, until now. Your excellent review makes me want to locate my worn copy and read it again, with new eyes. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful observations and ideas about this classic work.
I'm glad you liked it. Wouldn't Dorothea and Lydgate have been a well-matched 'power couple'? :)
I laughed a lot when I reread Middlemarch earlier in the year. The intrusive narrator is so hilarious at times.
Some critics say that Casaubon is impotent, hence Dorothea's crying in Rome and their increasing estrangement. That's an interesting theory, I think, and probably explains why he's so jealous of Ladislaw and why Dorothea is so confused after he dies. I think that C gives her the idea that his impotence is her fault, somehow, and she believes him.
The way I see it, Celia is the most sensible character in the book: she marries well and is determined to be happy with her lot in life, whereas the others all *want* things and end up being unhappy because of their wanting. Lydgate is my favourite character. He's flawed, and stupid when it comes to women, but he's noble, too, when he accepts that Rosamund can't change her ways. I may have shed a few tears at that point. :)
Oh, it's such a wonderful book and Eliot was a total genius, I think. There's SO much stuff packed into that novel. I ended up reading it twice in the space of a few months, and I bought quite a few critical analysis texts, so I could get the most out of it.
Have you read Daniel Deronda? If not, I think you'd find that interesting, too.
Another wonderful commentary. I've read this novel several times and it is among my all-time favorites. There are so many characters that I cherish, especially Dorothea who is perhaps my favorite female character in all literature. I appreciate your observation about "Dorothea’s evolution from near worship of Casaubon to a kind of wary cynicism" as it captures the arc of her character. I was in tears when Dorothea realized what she had done in marrying Casaubon.
Lydgate is someone I find frustrating as he is trapped by the wiles of Rosamond. I'm not sure that either of them were ever in love, as Rosamond is a narcissist moved by the "materialism" that you note, and Lydgate is merely foolish.
There are so many other wonderful characters in this village that mirrors the world. I can't help but wonder that Eliot didn't have a warm spot in her heart for Mary Garth who is another of my favorites. And who can forget Will Ladislaw and his love for Dorothea? Eliot is certainly a genius in her ability to portray the complexity of life of all these characters and classes in Middlemarch. Of her other novels I would especially recommend Adam Bede and Felix Holt, The Radical.
Personally, I thing that I would have gotten a lot less out of this book had I read it when I was younger. It is so interesting how experience changes our perspective.
Hi Violet - There is indeed so much packed into this book. Hopefully I will reeread it some day as it lends itself to rereading.
Casaubon being important seems very plausible.
I think the reader is almost forced to think about the "what if" of Dorothea and Lydgate as a couple.
I thought about writing a blog post on Celia. Early on she does indeed seem so balanced. With that, Eliot seems to transform her into a bit of a vacuous person, at least for a time, when she has a baby. This is an old stereotype that is interesting in the context of this work.
i have not read Deronda. I want to.
As you point out the characters in this book are so rich.
Dorothea is indeed one of the strongest female characters in all of literature. Eliot put such thought and care into her.
I do want to read more of Eliot soon.
I have Middlemarch on my shelves, but have yet to read it.
I always enjoy how you focus in on certain aspects of the books you read. Here these marriages sound like they crumble and the people involved have no way out because of the day and age they were living in. It also sounds like they each rushed into the marriages, which I am sure is what happened often back then. I like that Dorothea and Lydgate talk and find they both have common ground in this, as if they find a connection in their sadness unfortunately.
Wonderful review, Brian. It's often hard to write about these classics, but I really like the way you've homed in a particular aspect of the novel, namely the disintegration of the central relationships. I read this book many, many years ago and had forgotten much of the detail, but your excellent post is a lovely reminder. Eliot is a great writer - it's the flaws in these characters' personalities that makes them all the more believable.
Like a lot of your commenters, I read this years ago, as it was part of a collection of books my grandparents had on their sideboard,not sure if I'd consider rereading it.
Congrats Brian for conquering Middlemarch. Sounds like you enjoyed it. I have never read this classic but hope to eventually. I know Rebecca Mead really liked it in her book My Life in Middlemarch but then Salman Rushdie caused controversy when he said he didn't finish Middlemarch. I think it was too boring for him or something. But for all the reasons you stated: I'd like to read it in the future. Nice review.
As always, a wonderfully thoughtful post! I finally read Middlemarch a couple of years ago as part of a Classics Club Spin. I have been intimidated by this book most of my life and welcomed the push to finally read it. Eliot crafted such a wonderfully intricate plot with so many characters, themes, etc. and I love how you have selected just one aspect to focus on in this post... makes it much more approachable
I ended up really enjoying the book and am now curious about My Life in Middlemarch, mentioned by Susan above.
Hi Naida - I know little of marriage in this age outside of what I have learned from novels like this. Based on these books it seems that people really did not get a chance to know one another beforehand. This, combined with no divorce must have resulted in a lot of miserable people.
In my opinion, realistically drawn flawed characters, are the best characters.
Hi Gary - Fairly long books such as this do take time to read. It is such a tough decision to choose the ones that we want to reread.
Hi Susan - I have heard that My Life in Middlemarch was really good.
I had never heard that about Salman Rushdie and this book. I loved the books that I read by Rushdie, but his works can be challenging and easy to lose interest in them. Thus, I am surprised at his reaction to this novel.
Hi JoAnn - I am also wanting to read Mead's book. With that, I am always torn as to whether to read biography of authors,criticism, etc. or to devote the time reading more great works. Reading time is so scarce.
Excellent commentary as usual, Brian!
This is one of those classic novels I've always been meaning to read, and just haven't gotten around to. I really should make every effort to do so, as it sounds so fascinating!
Interesting that you chose to focus on the topic of the disintegration of relationships. It seems that Eliot was ahead of her time in analyzing this subject. Today, of course, relationships are very fragile, and divorce is the easiest thing in the world, provided there are no children and no important assets. The Hollywood crowd especially seems to enjoy playing Relationship Roulette, even with the millions that are always involved....lol.
How sad, though, that the option of divorce was not available to these couples. Although I do find the current situation, with people getting divorced so quickly and easily, deplorable, there are cases in which divorce is totally justifiable, such as when there is abuse in a marriage. This is not the case with these couples. Their marriages have eroded. Had marriage therapy existed at the time, perhaps these marriages could have been revived.
This novel (in regards to this specific topic) reminds me of the novels of Trollope you've read and reviewed here on the blog. Trollope also liked to analyze relationships, although he focused more on that than Eliot does in this novel, since you've stated that there are other topics, as well. However, Trollope did not write about disintegrating relationships. At least, that's what I gathered from your reviews. Instead, he simply documented their ebb and flow, as well as some missed opportunities for some of his characters.
In short, I must get a copy of this book and get it read and reviewed, but it might not be until next year....
Thanks for sharing your well-written thoughts!! : )
One interesting thing is that writers like Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope mostly looked at relationships before marriage, Eliot looked at relationships She does look at one relationship before marriage here, that of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy.Perhaps I will put up a post about that couple.
I do think that divorce has gotten too easy in our time. In regards to the couples in these books, there are multiple missed opportunities to where they could have reached a better understanding but where one or both of the pair squander the chance.
I love this analysis, your line "she is looking for things in Casaubon that he is not giving her" and the first quote. It is interesting to me that Casaubon is not shown as a bad man, because it would have been so much easier (though lazy perhaps) to pick sides. But a couple dynamic has to be more complex than that and neither could be the perfect judge of the other. I am afraid I didn't read your commentary on the other couple to the last line; this seems like a fascinating read and I am ever wary of spoilers.
Hi Priya - I do not think that I gave away much from the book. If I had, I would have put up a spoiler alert.
Indeed Casaubon is not demonized, though her does something really bad at one point. In fact, he seems not to have changed much from before the marriage. Dorothea just comes to see him differently.
Wee bit mortified to type this but, I had never heard of this Brian. One of the many reasons I love coming here, I pick up on so many books and writings that seemingly so many know of and yet, despite how much I read, I still miss out on so very much.
I am not a big one for commenting on covers but this one would draw me in a bookstore. I will need to do a wee bit of reading on this but as always, hearing your thoughts gives one pause for thought and makes me want to actually go and seek out the actual book.
P.s thank you for always stopping by my wee spot on the net, particularly when I have been absent for a bit. I really do appreciate it xxx
Though I had heard of this work before, I barely know anything about it.
That is indeed a great cover.
If you gave this a read I would love to hear your thoughts on it.
I really love your blog!
I've not read this one. I quite enjoyed the miniseries, but just can't get myself to pick up this very ling book. I generally di better on ling books with ebook or audio, since I'm not constantly reminded of length.
It sounds like the characters are much more developed and nuanced in the book than the series. I also vaguely remember some pilitics in the book which you didn't mention in your post. I remember finding the politics interesting at the time.
Hi Rachel - I seem to be reading a lot of long books this year. This one was not that bad in comparison to some. It was only 736 pages :)
It is so difficult to develop characters in a miniseries as intricately as a book.
There was some politics in this book, but really only a little.
I absolutely love Middlemarch, and agree that is among the finest novels ever written. You did a great job delineating the two marriages and both are tragic in different. However, you left out the other triangle that I love--that of Fred Vincy, Mary Garth, and Rev Farebrother. Sometimes, I think that if there's a hero in Middlemarch, it's Fred Vincy!
With regards to the other two couples--while I sympathize with Causabon, and can even understand him and pity him, I have nothing but contempt for Rosamond. And Dorothea is one of my favorite characters in all of literature!
Hi Jane - Though I did mention Mary and Fred in my synopsis, I did not include them with the other two relationships as their marriage was happy. Indeed, for all of his early flaws, Fred ended up being a decent human being.
RI agree that Rosamond is hard to sympathize with and that Dorothea is a marvelous character.
I got a serious case of reader envy. :) Middlemarch is one of those books I would love to have read but don't feel like reading because it's so big. But everytime I read a review of it I think i should get over my big book aversion.
Great, insightful post Brian. I'm particularly interested in the aspect of the disgintegration of relationships between men and women.
It sounds as if she was quite pessimistic when it comes to relationships. But maybe that wasn't her eprsonal view.
Hi Caroline - Thanks for the good word.
There was a relationship that really worked out on this book, so Eliot was not completely pessimistic. She was just really good at portraying ones that did not work.
Wonderful analysis (review or talk) of this book. I agree with you, it's an extraordinary novel). I enjoyed reading what you think and explain about it. I'm glad to have met the characters in this novel, and to have listened to their thoughts and witnessed their interactions. I never thought about that, true, she is mundane and sublime too.
Thanks Silvia - Your point about meeting the characters in this book is interesting. I think that when it comes to great realistic writers like Eliot, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, etc., it is almost like meeting real people when we read their books
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