Literature Study GuidesMiddlemarchBook 5 Chapters 46 50 Summary

Middlemarch | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Book 5, Chapters 46–50: The Dead Hand

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Book 5, Chapters 46–50: The Dead Hand from George Eliot's novel Middlemarch.

Middlemarch | Book 5, Chapters 46–50 : The Dead Hand | Summary



Chapter 46

The Reform Bill of 1831 is being debated in Middlemarch, and Ladislaw encourages Brooke to wait to run for office because now is the time to educate people with political meetings and through editorials in the Pioneer. He tells Brooke that he must take a firm stand on the issues. Clearly, Ladislaw is enjoying politics and seems to have found his niche. Nonetheless, Casaubon's bad opinion of him is shared by most of the people in town, who consider him to be a foreign intruder with radical ideas. Furthermore, he is something of a "gypsy" who doesn't respect class boundaries. He is well-received, however, by the Bulstrodes, Farebrother and his family, and the Lydgates. He has become good friends with Lydgate, although they disagree about politics and end up arguing about whether Brooke is a worthy candidate. Will gets defensive, and Lydgate apologizes.

Chapter 47

Ladislaw suffers some aftereffect from his argument with Lydgate, thinking that perhaps he is making a fool of himself in promoting Brooke for office. He is still pining for Dorothea, although the narrator says he does not entertain any dark thoughts of taking his cousin's place. Rather, he is content to worship his cousin's wife as an ideal. But he feels the pain of the lack of contact and decides to go to Sunday services at Lowick Church so he can get a glimpse of his idol. Dorothea is agitated when she sees him; while she acknowledges him, Casaubon completely ignores him. Will becomes very uncomfortable and feels he has made a "wretched blunder" in inserting himself where he is not wanted.

Chapter 48

Dorothea thinks Will's visit to Lowick Church was his attempt to make peace with his cousin, but instead he is "banished further than ever." After dinner they go into the library to work, and Casaubon tells her they will now begin marking passages from his voluminous notebooks for inclusion in the Key to All Mythologies. Casaubon expects Dorothea to follow his line of reasoning and eventually extract the important passages without his help. But now that he has finally taken her into his confidence, she finds the work a tedious penance, having lost all faith in his life's work. Casaubon also asks Dorothea whether she will carry out his wishes in the case of his death, although he will not tell her what they are. She begs for a reprieve to answer him. Dorothea is terrified that he wants her to promise to continue his work after he is dead, and, while she feels this to be a prison sentence, she thinks that she cannot "smite the stricken soul that entreated hers." She looks for him in the garden, at the ready to promise, but Casaubon is already dead. Dorothea breaks down, and Lydgate is called in.

Chapter 49

Sir James is fuming as he speaks to Mr. Brooke. He wishes there were a way to prevent Dorothea from learning that Casaubon has added a codicil to his will, which says that she will forfeit his fortune if she marries Will Ladislaw. Sir James calls Casaubon mean and ungentlemanly for perpetrating such an insult on his sister-in-law. He wants Brooke to send Ladislaw away, but Brooke needs him for the election. Further, people will think that Dorothea's family have reason to suspect her of impropriety if they were to contrive to get Will to leave town. Sir James suspects that Ladislaw has designs on Dorothea, which may account for Casaubon's codicil.

Chapter 50

After staying for a time with her sister at Freshitt, Dorothea wishes to return home to peruse Casaubon's papers for any "expression of his wishes" and also decide on the new rector for Lowick parish. Thus, Celia breaks the bad news about the codicil. Dorothea has a series of epiphanies after receiving this news. First, she feels repulsion for Casaubon, who has hidden his thoughts from her. Second, she feels a "strange yearning of heart towards Ladislaw." Lydgate stops in to check on Dorothea and advises the family to allow her to do what she likes because she has been under too much constraint. Although her uncle prefers Mr. Tyke, Lydgate later takes the opportunity to put Farebrother forward as a candidate for Lowick Church and suggests Dorothea hear him preach. He also mentions that Ladislaw, a favorite of Farebrother's aunt Noble, sometimes squires her about town. Dorothea thinks that Will is "a creature who entered into every one's feelings and could take the pressure of their thought instead of urging his own with iron resistance."


Finding his place in Middlemarch, Will has grown from a careless student with no focus into a purposeful young man who is ready to take his place in the world. While writing for the Pioneer and making speeches may not be the work he envisioned to express his "genius," these activities are satisfying occupations that allow him to exercise his talents as a writer and speaker. Moreover, working for reform is something that engages his emotional nature. While he might wish for a better candidate than Brooke to stand for reform, Brooke is the man at hand. As with Lydgate and Bulstrode, Ladislaw may not like his sponsor personally or agree with all his views, but he is an instrument to channel change that will benefit the public good.

Mr. Casaubon is becoming more desperate in his quest for an earthly immortality. He feels that he is close to the end, which is why he elevates Dorothea from secretary to collaborator. His ego has kept Dorothea at a distance, but now he is ready to train her as his surrogate to finish the Key. However, Casaubon treats Dorothea as a thing, not a woman, to be used entirely for his own purposes, which is why he expects her to make a promise without knowing its content.

Dorothea is "too weak, too full of dread at the thought of inflicting a keen-edged blow on her husband, to do anything but submit completely ... Neither law nor the world's opinion compelled her to this—only her husband's nature and her own compassion, only the ideal and not the real yoke of marriage." And indeed she is weak—ready to throw her own life away in an act of masochism, masquerading as Christian charity, because she is not strong enough to value herself. Dorothea has forgotten her original intention, which was to be a party to a great work and to better humanity as a result. She knows that the Key is so much dust, certainly unworthy of a great sacrifice. And Casaubon is also unworthy. True Christian charity may not expect reciprocation, but in submitting to her husband with no return of affection, Dorothea is actually feeding his infantile ego—soon to become a hungry ghost—thus doing him no service. Fortunately, fate or serendipity is kind enough to save Dorothea from the wretchedness prepared by Casaubon.

When Dorothea finds out about the codicil, she is finally able to release herself from her prison of guilt and see Casaubon for what he was—a petty tyrant. It is not surprising that she suddenly longs for Will, who is finely tuned to her feelings and has shown her nothing but care and compassion. Further, she is keenly aware of how he has been wronged by Casaubon, not only in the terms of the codicil, but also in his not giving Will a fair share of his inheritance. And now Dorothea is also prevented from sharing that wealth with him because of the ugliness of the codicil's prohibition; any effort to restore his inheritance would be misconstrued by outsiders. What could make a man more attractive than to put him off limits? Casaubon has unwittingly engineered the opposite of his intention and practically guaranteed that Dorothea and Ladislaw will wind up together.

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