3 Themes in Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch as a Provincial Novel

This novel written by George Eliot is set in the fictional town of Middlemarch, North Loamshire, which is probably based on Coventry (her hometown), in the county of Warwickshire. Like Coventry, the town of Middlemarch is described as a town that manufactures silk-ribbon.

The subtitle of the novel—”A Study of Provincial Life”—holds great significance. A critic views the unity of Middlemarch as being achieved through “the fusion of the two senses of ‘provincial'”: i.e., on one hand, the geographical, that means “all parts of the country except the capital”; and on the other hand, an individual who is “unsophisticated” or “narrow-minded”.

Carolyn Steedman relates Eliot’s emphasis on provincial life in Middlemarch to Matthew Arnold’s discussion of social class in England in his Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869. It was the time when Eliot began writing stories which later on became Middlemarch.

Arnold in Culture and Anarchy classifies British society as the Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace, and Steedman believes that Middlemarch ” is a portrait of Philistine Provincialism”.

It should be noted that unlike her heroine Dorothea, Eliot went to London, where she achieved fame, which is more than Dorothea who remained in the provinces.

Eliot’s family didn’t accept her when she committed to the relationship with Lewes, and “their profound disapproval prevented her from ever going home again”. Thus she did not visit Coventry during her last visit to the Midlands in 1855.

Woman Question in Middlemarch

In Middlemarch lies the idea that Dorothea Brooke cannot hope to achieve the heroic stature like Saint Theresa, as the heroine of Eliot lives at the wrong time: “amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion”.

According to Kathleen Blake (a literary critic), George Eliot emphasizes Saint Theresa’s “very concrete accomplishment, the reform of a religious order”, rather than the fact that she was a Christian mystic.

Some feminist critics have described that “Dorothea is not only less heroic than Saint Theresa and Antigone, but also George Eliot herself”.

In response to these opinions, two literary critics Ruth Yeazell and Kathleen Blake taunt them for “expecting literary pictures of a strong woman succeeding in a period that did not make them likely in life”.

Eliot has also been criticised more widely for ending the novel with Dorothea marrying Will Ladislaw a man so clearly her inferior. Henry James describes that Ladislaw ” has not the concentrated fervor essential in the man chosen by so nobly strenuous a heroine”.

Theme of Marriage in Middlemarch

In Middlemarch marriage is one of the most important themes. According to the critic Francis George Steiner, “both principal plots are case studies of unsuccessful marriage”.

This statement also suggests that the desires of Dorothea and Lydgate are unfulfilled because of the ” disastrous marriages”.

This statement is more appropriate for Lydgate as compared to Dorothea, who gets a 2nd chance through her love marriage to Will Ladislaw (after her 1st husband’s death).

In addition to these marriages, there is the “meaningless and blissful” matrimony of Celia Brooke (Dorothea’s sister) to Sir James Chettam and, more significantly, Fred Vincy’s proposing of Mary Gart.

In this latter story, Mary Garth does not Fred until he gives up the Church job and gets a more suitable career. Dorothea is a Saint Theresa, born in the wrong century, in provincial Middlemarch, who mistakes in her idealistic ardour, “a poor dry mummified pedant as a sort of angel of vocation”.

Middlemarch is, in part, a Bildungsroman (focuses on the moral growth of the protagonist) in which Dorothea “blindly gropes forward, making mistakes in her sometimes foolish, often egotistical, but also admirably idealistic attempt to find a role” or vocation, with which to fulfil her nature.

On the other hand, Lydgate also mistakes in his choice of marriage partner, as his opinion for a perfect wife is someone ” who can sing and play the piano and provide a soft cushion for her husband to rest after work”.

He, therefore, marries Rosamond Vincy, “the woman in the novel who most contrasts with Dorothea”, with the result that he “deteriorates from ardent researcher to fashionable doctor in London”.