Middlemarch | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Middlemarch | Quotes


Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.

Narrator, Prelude

Saint Theresa was a woman who wanted to do great things: to convert Spanish Muslim Moors to Catholicism. However, her grand plans were thwarted by the realities of her life: an uncle who put a stop to her missionary plans. Saint Theresa had to content herself with the role allowed her by society: working with Spanish Catholic nuns. The narrator claims that every age has its share of Theresas, women with lofty goals for living epic lives who are derailed by the traditional roles of wife and mother. This novel focuses on one such woman: Dorothea Brooke.


But any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbor. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.

Narrator, Chapter 11

This remark is made just after Lydgate has met Rosamund for the first time. He is reflecting that it will be many years before he marries, little realizing that within the year he will be engaged. It establishes the way in which all lives are connected, like a spider's web, and the consequences that all people's thoughts and actions have on one another.


The element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Narrator, Chapter 20

The narrator makes this comment somewhat ironically. Some sufferings are small, but they are still tragic to the individual who suffers them. If we were to feel everyone's suffering, we would not be able to bear it because we would be overwhelmed by our emotions. The metaphor about the growing grass and squirrel's heartbeat illustrates that these experiences would also overwhelm us and we would die of the roaring sound of pulsating life. Better we should learn slowly and in reference to our own experience alone, or we might be utterly overwhelmed.


It had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive ... that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.

Narrator, Chapter 21

This quotation precedes the comment that people begin life entirely as egoists and learn over time to consider the thoughts and feelings of others. The narrator refers to how it was easier for Dorothea to imagine her fantasy of marriage than to imagine a different mind with different wants and needs, which would not necessarily line up with her idea about how a marriage romance should unfold.


The scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement.

Narrator, Chapter 27

The human brain has the tendency to organize unconnected events and random experiences, like the scratches on the surface of a mirror from repeated polishings, into a series of meaningful or connected events. The glass reveals hundreds of random scratches, but a light at the center makes the scratches appear as concentric circles. Likewise, people want to believe that the random events of their lives are connected and meaningful.


For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal—this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully illuminated life.

Narrator, Chapter 30

Dorothea has just sobbed out her longing to Lydgate to be of some use to her husband Casaubon during his illness. Lydgate is struck by the union of her soul with his, a union that his own marriage lacks. He sees in her cry what a good person can be, even in a bad marriage.


That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.

Dorothea Brooke, Chapter 39

Dorothea is speaking to Will Ladislaw about what thought gives her strength, especially when she is feeling lonely and isolated. She says that this idea sustains her: that her mere desire for what is perfectly good—whether she knows what it is or can get it accomplished—is already a goodness that enlarges goodness in the world and is a powerful force against ignorance and evil.


Character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.

Camden Farebrother, Chapter 72

Dorothea tells Farebrother that Dr. Lydgate's character has been proven by his actions and should, in and of itself, put an end to the gossip about his possible wrongdoing. The clergyman responds that good character is not static and that people can change and become bad or do wrong things.


There is a forsaking which still sits at the same board and lies on the same couch with the forsaken soul, withering it the more by unloving proximity. She knew, when she locked her door, that she should unlock it ready to go down to her unhappy husband and espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach.

Narrator, Chapter 74

The narrator here is obliquely referring to Rosamund and directly to Mrs. Bulstrode. Unlike Rosamund, her Aunt Bulstrode is ready to shoulder her husband's burden. In this case it is disgrace. Sometimes a spouse can stay but make his or her partner feel even more isolated and alone by withdrawing emotionally, as Rosamund has done with Lydgate. Mrs. Bulstrode is not that type of spouse and is ready to help her husband carry his sorrow and will feel pity for him but not condemnation.


Men and women make sad mistakes about their own symptoms, taking their vague uneasy longings, sometimes for genius, sometimes for religion, and oftener still for a mighty love.

Narrator, Chapter 75

The narrator refers to Rosamund, who is bored with life as a married woman, especially since she's had to cope with financial difficulties. She begins to think Will Ladislaw would have made a better husband and that he has feelings for her. Later, she tells him that she has feelings for him. The narrator comments that often when we don't understand our feelings we give them the wrong name.


Explain! Tell a man to explain how he dropped into hell! ... I never had a preference for her, any more than I have a preference for breathing. No other woman exists by the side of her.

Will Ladislaw, Chapter 78

Ladislaw has visited the full force of his wrath on Rosamund after Dorothea walks in on them and finds them in what could be construed as a compromising position. When Dorothea abruptly leaves and he gets upset, Rosamund sarcastically tells Will to go after Dorothea and explain that he prefers her. This is his answer, in which he says loving Dorothea is like breathing.


Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and novel impulse struggling 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.

Narrator, Finale

This observation follows the fact that Sir James Chettam thought Dorothea's second marriage has been a mistake, as did the rest of Middlemarch. The narrator answers this objection by saying that the protagonist's acts were not perfect, but rather the mixed result of a young person struggling for a perfect good in an imperfect society—one that doesn't appreciate great feelings or great faith. That imperfect society calls great feelings wrong and great faith a dream.


But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Narrator, Finale

The shift to the first-person plural "we" draws attention to the fact that readers, as part of society, are responsible for creating the social expectations that cause Dorothea's tragedy. If these social expectations are simply accepted and perpetuated, other such tragedies will follow.

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