Dorothea is a beautiful and intelligent young woman who wishes to do some great deed in the world that will benefit humanity. She has a passionate and enthusiastic nature, expressed by a religious attitude in which she works to minimize self and seek the good for others. This protagonist burns with an inner vision of how things ought to be, which often clouds her external vision of how things really are. This trait leads her to make a disastrous first marriage with Edward Casaubon, whom she thinks might be another Locke or Milton, but who, in reality, turns out to be a failed author with an outdated thesis.
Edward Casaubon is a middle-aged clergyman who has inherited more money than is rightfully his because his family disowned his great aunt. He has an estate at Lowick but has lived alone his entire life. He dreams of attaining immortality by writing the Key to All Mythologies. This book is supposed to prove that all religious ideas in the world spring from the religious truths of the Bible. The clergyman marries Dorothea Brooke, thinking she was sent by Providence to ease and comfort him in the last part of his life. When she develops a friendship with his cousin, he becomes very jealous.
Will Ladislaw is second cousin to Edward Casaubon, who is educating him to make up for the fact that his family was disowned. Ladislaw is an intelligent dilettante with talents in more than one area. He is also a nonconformist, reluctant to settle on any career. After he falls in love with his cousin's wife, Dorothea, he becomes more focused and begins making a name for himself in Middlemarch as a political writer and speechmaker for reform.
Tertius Lydgate, a secondary protagonist, is an orphan partially raised by his aristocratic relatives who put him through school. Against their preference, he becomes a doctor, and his intelligence and skill seem to mark him for a great career. He loves medicine and hopes to be a leader in medical reform as well as to make a great unifying discovery in the life sciences. Unfortunately, the doctor does not apply his intelligence when dealing with the opposite sex, and he makes a disastrous marriage that leads to his career aspirations being shattered.
Rosamund Vincy Lydgate
Rosamund is accounted by many as the most beautiful and accomplished female in Middlemarch. She means to marry well and does not want to marry a local boy. This is why she contrives to marry Tertius Lydgate, an outsider with aristocratic connections. She doesn't consider his career or aspirations or that he has very little money. Rather, she is used to getting her way and assumes he will figure out how to provide for her and keep her on the social level to which she has become accustomed. She is a charming and shallow narcissist with sociopathic tendencies—meaning that she lacks the ability to love anyone with any depth.
Mr. Bulstrode is a self-righteous Evangelical Christian who thinks that his mission in life is to convert other people to his brand of Christianity. He wields a lot of power in Middlemarch as a banker and philanthropist, believing he does so for the glory of God, when in fact he is mostly interested in personal power and influence. The banker has an ugly secret, which is that early in his career he made money as an employee in a shady business concern and then married the widow of the company and hid from her the knowledge that he had found her relatives, the heirs to her fortune. As a result, he took her fortune for himself after she died.
Reverend Farebrother is a gifted preacher praised by many for his goodness and wisdom. He doesn't judge others harshly and has a deep understanding of human nature and the temptations that lead people to commit immoral acts. He himself gambles at cards because he doesn't make enough money to support his dependents, who include a mother, sister, and aunt. After he gets a better position, he thinks about marrying, but the woman he loves, Mary Garth, has already given her heart to another.