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Middlemarch | Plot Summary

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Summary

Middlemarch is a novel that takes Socrates' admonition that "the unexamined life is not worth living" very much to heart. A third-person omniscient narrator who is wise, empathetic, and clear-sighted takes time to comment on the action of the story and its meaning as well as the characters who propel the action. Dorothea Brooke, the primary protagonist, is an ardent and religious young woman who aspires to lead an epic life. Intelligent as well as beautiful, she has come to live, along with her sister Celia, at her uncle's estate in the English town of Middlemarch after her parents die. Dorothea is being courted by a handsome baronet, but she chooses instead a middle-aged clergyman, Edward Casaubon, because she thinks he has a great mind and will broaden her intellectual and spiritual horizons. She wishes to become wise so that she can know what to do in life—what will provide the greatest good. After she is married, she learns that Casaubon has been compiling notes for 30 years for a treatise he called the Key to All Mythologies. His thesis is based on outdated ideas and will never see the light of day. She also becomes friends with his young cousin, Will Ladislaw, a student who has not yet found his career.

Ladislaw soon falls in love with Dorothea, although he is content to worship her from afar. Nonetheless, Casaubon becomes extremely jealous. Dorothea is not aware of Ladislaw's feelings or the intensity of her husband's dislike for his cousin. Her life with Casaubon, however, becomes more and more stifling. Casaubon has a bad heart, and after an emotional scene with Dorothea, he has a heart attack. Not long after, he dies, having left a codicil to his will saying that if Dorothea ever marries Ladislaw, she will lose Casaubon's wealth and estate.

A secondary protagonist in the novel is Tertius Lydgate, a gifted doctor who comes to Middlemarch hoping to participate in medical reform and make an important scientific discovery. Lydgate is overconfident that he will not get sidetracked on his way to greatness. His nemesis appears in the guise of the beautiful and charming narcissist, Rosamund Vincy, who marries him to move up the social ladder. Lydgate has no money, but his education was financed by his aristocratic uncle, who still objected to his entering a profession that could be described as working class. The doctor gets heavily into debt as a result of overspending to set up house and keep his wife in style. Lydgate also makes enemies of the other medical men in town who dislike him as much for his arrogance as for his new ideas, and he ends up losing patients as a result. As Lydgate's financial situation worsens, he discovers that his wife does not really love him and will never be more to him than an expensive and demanding ornament.

Rosamund's brother Fred gets into financial troubles by gambling. He expects to inherit his uncle Featherstone's money and land, but when the miser dies and leaves his property to his illegitimate son, Fred is forced to finish university and face the necessity of becoming a clergyman. The woman that he loves, Mary Garth, will not marry him if he takes up a vocation he is clearly not suited for, and she is waiting for him to become a responsible adult. Mary's father agrees to take Fred on as an apprentice to learn the business of land management, which affords Fred the opportunity of a profession and engagement to Mary.

Lydgate has set up a fever hospital (an institution for patients with serious illnesses such as tuberculosis or typhoid fever) with help from Mr. Bulstrode, an Evangelical Christian, philanthropist, banker, and the paternal uncle of Lydgate's wife. Bulstrode wields a lot of power and is resented by many for his harsh judgments about people's moral character. Ironically, Bulstrode is harboring a great secret: he made his first fortune by snatching the inheritance of the heirs of his first wife, now dead. Bulstrode's past catches up with him when John Raffles, an alcoholic and a swindler, comes to town to torment him and to extort money for keeping quiet about his past. Raffles gets sick because of his drinking and is taken to Stone Court, a property Bulstrode recently bought. Bulstrode calls Lydgate in to care for him. Raffles is suffering from alcohol poisoning, and when Bulstrode doesn't follow Lydgate's treatment orders, he passively kills the patient. The town soon finds out about Bulstrode's disreputable past, and Lydgate is connected to his disgrace because he took a loan from Bulstrode to avoid bankruptcy. People think that Lydgate took some kind of bribe, although no one can say what it was. Lydgate eventually has to leave town with Rosamund and come to terms with the fact that he will never fulfill his potential.

Dorothea and Will Ladislaw try to stay away from each other because of Casaubon's codicil, but they cannot help but love each other. Against the objections of Dorothea's family they end up becoming engaged on the strength of her personal fortune. The story ends in one more marriage—between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth.

The novel tackles big themes, such as the natural yearning toward heroism, the problem of vocation, the limits of free will, the best and worst possibilities of companionship, and the struggle to become a moral person in an imperfect world. The narrator concludes that the world no longer makes room for exceptional persons to live epic lives; nevertheless, those who strive to do so are the unsung heroes of the mundane who "live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Middlemarch Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Narrator says epic life not possible in modern times.

Rising Action

2 Dorothea rejects Sir James, marries Edward Casaubon.

3 Dorothea learns Casaubon is a failed scholar and writer.

4 Will Ladislaw falls in love with Dorothea.

5 Will comes to Middlemarch to work for Mr. Brooke.

6 Fred Vincy does not inherit Featherstone's money.

7 Casaubon dies; leaves codicil separating Dorothea, Will.

8 Dr. Lydgate marries Rosamund Vincy.

9 Raffles comes to town, reveals family secrets.

10 Lydgate totters on the edge of bankruptcy.

Climax

11 Bulstrode passively kills John Raffles.

Falling Action

12 Bulstrode is exposed; Lydgate is under suspicion.

13 Dorothea defends Lydgate; Rosamund clarifies mix-up.

14 Dorothea and Will determine to defy the codicil.

Resolution

15 Dorothea and Will marry; Fred and Mary marry.

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