Middlemarch | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Middlemarch | Themes


Many themes exist in the novel, but they all come from the primary themes: what it means to be a hero and the quest to rise above the ordinary.

The Definition of a Hero

In George Eliot's novels, characters who yearn for greatness, to do something that will leave a mark so that the world will remember them, are frustrated by their own personal failures, fate, and society. For women the definition of a hero is even more problematic, because women had so few arenas in which to act, and the author keenly feels the restrictions placed on the female gender. The novel Middlemarch begins with a story of a sixteenth-century saint, Theresa (Teresa) of Avila, one of the greatest heroes of the Christian tradition. Theresa lived an epic life, but latter-day Theresas can find no epic life, only limited opportunity. Middlemarch can be read as a study of failed heroism. Dorothea begins her grown-up life with a dream of attaining spiritual transcendence but ends up settling for mediocre "goodness." Rev. Casaubon is writing the Key to All Mythologies, which he believes will unlock the meaning at the core of all religious beliefs, but he never gets past taking notes. Dr. Lydgate expects to find the basis of all living tissue and make a name for himself as a medical reformer, but instead, he ends up being a doctor to the rich and writing a treatise on gout. Finally, Will Ladislaw hopes to find some spark of genius in himself that he can apply to a vocation but must learn to settle for having better than average competence in writing and speaking, which he puts to use for political reform.

The Problem of Vocation

The novel specifically examines the difficulty people face in finding satisfying work that also brings in sufficient income. People are limited in their vocations by sex and class. Women can do little besides be wives and mothers, and people's social status limits their opportunities. For example, Fred Vincy has few opportunities for work as the eldest son of an upwardly mobile manufacturer. Further, a vocation that does not earn enough income can limit opportunities to marry, as it does with Mr. Farebrother. People sometimes are well suited to their vocations—as is Caleb Garth, while others are not—as Mr. Brooke learns when he tries to become a politician.

The Quest for and Limits of Knowledge

People with intellectual natures often search for knowledge, which they feel will improve their lives or help them to better understand life's meaning. Sometimes the quest for knowledge is a search for immortality, in which people expect to make their marks on the world through invention or discovery. This is the case with both Edward Casaubon and Tertius Lydgate. Both men hope to find a key that will unlock a universal principle that knits the universe together. Casaubon expects to find the Key to All Mythologies, while Lydgate seeks the basis for all tissue structure. Dorothea hopes to assist Casaubon in his inquiries, which she initially assumes will make an important contribution to scholarship, but she also wants knowledge for herself. The novel also demonstrates that human beings are limited in how much they can know, and the text forces its characters and readers to question how to live responsibly with only partial knowledge.

The Limits of Free Will and Moral Agency

How much can a human being affect the course of his or her life? How much do the winds and currents of environment affect a person's final destination? How much do other people influence what a person is able to do in life? How much free will exists when people are at the mercy of their own backgrounds, which may work against against their goals and plans? These are important questions in a exploration of the limits of free will. Nicholas Bulstrode was damaged by an impoverished childhood, which may be why he is so greedy for power and influence, despite his desire to be a model Christian. Lydgate is tripped up by his false assumptions about women and his lack of self-knowledge and understanding. Dorothea is bound by her sex and class and by the era into which she was born—all of which give her little opportunity to lead an epic life.

However, each person is a moral agent with the capacity for doing right and wrong and should be held accountable for his or her actions. But it may not always be clear what is right or wrong in a given context, and people may inadvertently do wrong and not be responsible for the subsequent damage. Fred needs a profession, but is it right for him to become a clergyman without a real desire to do so? Should Mary Garth help Peter Featherstone burn his will? Should Camden Farebrother get out of Fred's way when he won't necessarily make a better husband and hasn't done anything to prove that he is worthy of Mary Garth? Was Casaubon obligated to divide his fortune with Will Ladislaw? The novel is full of moral dilemmas in which people must discern the greatest good among choices that are less than ideal.

Marriage and Compatibility

All too often people choose the wrong marriage partners. In some cases they do not seriously consider whether they are compatible in their goals and outlooks. In other cases they discover that they are not complementary in their needs and desires. For example, Dorothea marries Mr. Casaubon because she believes he has a great mind and she has the desire to do something great in the world (and, as a woman, the likeliest path for her is to help a great man). On his part, Casaubon thinks that God has sent Dorothea to him in the last part of his life to help him accomplish his great work. Dorothea and Casaubon do not see each other objectively, but see only the projections of their respective desires and needs. Similarly, Lydgate wants an ornamental wife and doesn't consider how such a woman might thwart his career ambitions, while Rosamund wants an attractive outsider with aristocratic connections, never thinking that her intended has his own agenda about how they will live. On the other hand Mary Garth sees Fred Vincy very clearly. She knows he has a weak character because of his upbringing, but she still loves him. Nonetheless, she refuses to marry him until he reforms himself and takes up a worthy profession. Fred also sees Mary clearly. He knows she is not beautiful, but he has loved her since he was a child, and he cares for her true self and character. He accepts that he will have to reach a certain bar of respectability before she will take him as a spouse. In the case of Mary and Fred, the two have been personally compatible since childhood, but they work toward a long-lasting compatibility because Fred is willing to change and Mary is willing to wait for him.

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