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Middlemarch | Symbols

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Symbols are most often used in Middlemarch to highlight the themes of the novel. They are often visual, having to do with light and shadow.

Pier Glass

The pier glass (large mirror) mentioned in Chapter 27 is an important symbol of the way in which an ego organizes unconnected events and random experiences into a coherent story or likely narrative. A glass or other polished surface may reveal hundreds of random scratches, but when a light is put at the center of it, the scratches appear to be in a pattern of concentric circles. Similarly, people sometimes believe that events have arranged themselves for their convenience, or they find patterns in their lives to make meaning of what happens to them: "the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person."

Shortsightedness

Dorothea is nearsighted and fears stepping on the puppy that Sir James brings to her in Chapter 3. She is shortsighted both literally and figuratively. She doesn't see well beyond her own vision of what the world ought to be like or beyond her ideals, which makes her miss obvious and important information about other people and situations. Other people in the novel suffer from metaphorical shortsightedness or blindness (Casaubon, Bulstrode), while characters such as Celia and Mrs. Cadwallader, the town gossip, see clearly with less illusion and projection.

Portrait of Julia Casaubon

The miniature of Julia Casaubon referenced in Chapter 9 is immediately connected in Dorothea's mind to Will Ladislaw, since he looks like her. Julia was Will's grandmother who, along with her children, was disinherited from the family for marrying a poor non-English man, Mr. Ladislaw. Initially, Julia represents for her the difficulties of marriage; Dorothea identifies with Julia as someone who married against the wishes of her relatives and who paid a price for it. Later, the portrait comes to represent the absent Will, with whom she has fallen in love.

The Web

A.S. Byatt, one of England's foremost contemporary novelists, said in an article in The Guardian titled "Wit and Wisdom" that the relationships in the novel "are held together by one of the most complicated and brilliantly worked metaphors anywhere in fiction. It is a metaphor of a web ... It is both a field of force, a trap like a spiderweb, and a pattern of invisible connecting links between humans meeting each other's eye." The author uses the motif of a web in several places in the novel to underline that people never act in a vacuum, that they are connected to other people, and that what they do affects the other beings who make up the same web and vice-versa.

Connected with the symmetry of the web metaphor is the symmetry the author creates in comparing and contrasting various characters' paths in life, as they marry and choose vocations or professions. For example, Dorothea's selflessness and desire to aid her husband in writing his magnum opus are juxtaposed with Rosamund's dislike of her husband's profession of medicine and her unwillingness to help him when they get into financial trouble. At the same time, her Aunt Bulstrode's handling of her husband's moral downfall (in which she sticks by her guilty spouse) is contrasted with Rosamund's refusal to stand by Lydgate, even though he is innocent of wrongdoing. Mr. Bulstrode passively kills his blackmailer, and Lydgate is falsely implicated because he has taken financial help from Bulstrode. Similarly, Dorothea's desire to be of service is contrasted with Rosamund's selfishness. Both Lydgate and Casaubon are searching for a key to unlock a universal mystery—with Lydgate hoping to find the basis of biological life and Casaubon looking for the foundation of all religious ideas. Mary Garth's ability to shape Fred Vincy's destiny is juxtaposed with Dorothea's inability to affect Casaubon and Lydgate's inability to change Rosamund.

The happy marriages of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, and of Fred and Mary, are juxtaposed with the unhappy marriages of Dorothea and Casaubon and Lydgate and Rosamund. The compatible couples in the novel are represented by Fred Vincy and Mary Garth and Susan and Caleb Garth. While the elder Garths are not wealthy, they live mostly in harmony and support each other, while easily accepting or overlooking their partners' flaws. While Mary and Fred don't marry until the end of the novel, and their relationship as a couple is offstage in the novel's final pages, we are told they lead a happy and successful life as a couple and can assume that they have followed in the path of Mary's parents. No one in the novel is entirely successful in fulfilling a vocation. There are degrees of success and failure: Casaubon's unwritten key, Lydgate's success as a prosperous doctor but failure in making a contribution to medicine, Will Ladislaw's modest career as a politician, and Dorothea's success as a wife and mother but failure to reach spiritual heights or to do some great good in the world.

Questions for Symbols

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