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Middlemarch | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Middlemarch | Prelude and Book 1, Chapters 1–3 : Miss Brooke | Summary

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Summary

Prelude

A third-person omniscient narrator introduces two of Middlemarch's major themes—the definition of a hero and the problem of vocation—with a brief recap of the epic life of Saint Theresa (Saint Teresa of Avila), the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic who found her calling in the reform of a religious community of nuns. Other such heroines are still being born, but with "no coherent social faith and order," their ardor falls like seeds on stony ground. These "cygnets" (baby swans) grow and mature "uneasily among the ducklings" and never find "the living stream of fellowship" with like-minded world movers. Such a latter-day Theresa is destined to be "foundress of nothing."

Chapter 1

Dorothea Brooke, the primary protagonist of the story, is a nineteen-year-old orphan who has recently come to live, along with her younger sister Celia, at Tipton Grange, an estate owned by their uncle, Arthur Brooke. The two girls are heiresses with 700 pounds apiece. Their sixty-year-old bachelor uncle is easy-going and leaves his nieces to do as they like. Dorothea is exceptionally beautiful, intelligent, and passionate about God: "The rural opinion about the new young ladies ... was generally in favor of Celia, as being so amiable and innocent-looking, while Miss Brooke's large eyes seemed, like her religion, too unusual and striking." In the opening scene, Celia asks Dorothea to divide their dead mother's jewelry, which their uncle handed over six months before. Dorothea agrees, but she gives most of the ornaments to Celia, keeping for herself only a ring and bracelet of emeralds. She justifies her attraction to the gems by thinking they remind her of mystic religious joy—their colors like "fragments of heaven."

Chapter 2

Two gentlemen come to dinner: Sir James Chettam, a young baronet of the nearby estate of Freshitt Hall, and Rev. Edward Casaubon, a scholarly clergyman in his late forties. Sir James is courting Dorothea, whom he admires for her beauty and intelligence. He attempts to get her attention at dinner by offering to send one of his best horses over to ride. She gets annoyed and refuses his offer, since she is trying to pay attention to the new guest, Mr. Casaubon, whom she immediately is attracted to as a learned and distinguished-looking man "with whom there could be some spiritual communion."

Chapter 3

Dorothea continues to think of Mr. Casaubon as the ideal husband and encourages him to come around. He is working on his magnum opus, a book that will prove all mythical systems in the world (all religions and systems of spiritual thought) are corrupted versions of an original, revealed tradition reflected in the Bible. While he has filled many volumes with notes, he has yet to condense his thinking into one readable treatise. Dorothea imagines herself as his helpmate, sharing the life of the mind. Meanwhile, Sir James continues to court her, improving the cottages of the poor on his estate according to her plans and bringing her a Maltese puppy, which she refuses but says her sister might like. She fears treading on small animals because she is shortsighted. Dorothea obstinately believes Sir James is interested in Celia, while Celia understands his intentions but is not sure whether her sister will turn him down.

Analysis

The Prelude compares St. Theresa of Avila to Dorothea Brooke, a parallel threaded throughout the novel. Dorothea has the saint's passion but is prevented from leading an epic life in a world that lacks a communal vision. The fragmented life created by the Industrial Revolution is reflected in the narrator's doubts that it is still possible to "reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self," or the sense that there is the possibility of living an epic and reformed life. The new world contains a multiplicity of views; in such an environment it may not be possible to carry out a grand plan or be a world changer. Middlemarch takes place during a period of great change and upheaval (1829–1832) in England. Against this backdrop of national controversy the protagonist Dorothea, who is both literally and figuratively nearsighted, will attempt to live a heroic life.

George Eliot's omniscient narrator has the persona of a wise sage, someone with deep understanding of human nature and a godlike compassion for the flaws and blind spots of humanity. The narrator has sympathy, rather than empathy—she feels for these fictional creatures more than she feels with them. This narrative stance elevates the narrator as well as the reader above the action and sustains the illusion that readers are watching a grand panorama of human life.

The narrator of Middlemarch sometimes represents the public but sometimes uses an ironic tone when judging public opinion. While the narrator may think that Dorothea's extreme religious fervor will get her into trouble (and it does), she still has tremendous sympathy for Dorothea's aspirations.

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