Middlemarch: Essay Q&A
Essay Q&A Outwardly, women did not have power in nineteenth-century society, or even much respect or recognition. However, they still had “soul hunger,” even if they had no outlet for their spiritual yearning as St. Theresa did (see Prelude). Following the French positivist philosopher, Auguste Comte (the father of sociology), Eliot believed that it was women who held society together and guided its progress altruistically, from behind the scenes. She did not advocate working for political “rights” because a woman’s power and goodness were profoundly subtle. Sympathy was the antidote to competition, and women have this quality in abundance. They are the ones who encourage it in others and who use love and sympathy to ameliorate the harshness of the world.
Dorothea Casaubon is the chief saint in Middlemarch who has the power to correct the flow of the river of life around her. She can save Lydgate’s reputation; she can give Will Ladislaw the chance he needs. Fred Vincy fights hard to get Mary Garth as a wife, not because she is beautiful or stylish and makes a good hostess at parties, like his sister, Rosamond, but because she can save his life: “I don’t see how a man is to be good for much unless he has some one woman to love him dearly” (Chapter 14, p. 103) Despite his flaws, we learn to respect Fred for his wisdom in this area. His winning Mary Garth, a plain and penniless girl, is the making of his success. Instead of becoming a clergyman, which his family urges but Mary realizes would be a disaster, he works the land at Stone Court, the estate he once hoped to inherit, with Mary and his children at his side. He writes a pamphlet on agriculture instead of gaining rank in the church, but at least he does something useful and is happy. Having been trained by the example of the elder Garths, Mary and Fred represent husband and wife as true partners (see Finale).
The admirable women in the story are Dorothea Brooke, Mrs. Garth, and Mary Garth. They are educated, intelligent, thinking and self-sacrificing women whose main contribution, nevertheless, is their ability to be the magnetic though invisible center of their families and society. Other lesser women characters who have a positive part to play, are Harriet Bulstrode, Mrs. Cadwallader, Miss Noble, and Celia Brooke.
The contrasting female figure is Rosamond Vincy, who destroys everyone around her to further her own schemes. She is her husband’s “basil plant” as he calls her, referring to the plant on top of a murdered man’s head in Boccaccio’s story (Finale). Not only does she ruin her husband financially, but emotionally as well, by having no understanding or sympathy for him. He dies prematurely as a failure in his own eyes, for he had to work for money to support his family instead of doing pure research: “Lydgate had accepted his narrowed lot with sad resignation. He had chosen this frail creature, and had taken the burthen of her life upon his arms. He must walk as he could, carrying that burthen pitifully” (Chapter 82, p. 586).
These are times when people did not get a divorce; the spouse is truly a partner for life. Farebrother warns Lydgate to make a good choice. We see from his earlier entanglement with Madame Laure that he doesn’t know women or think them important (see Chapter 15). Rosamond nearly destroys Ladislaw as well by compromising him in front of Dorothea, whom he loves (Chapters 77-78). The Ladislaw-Dorothea relationship was another tragedy in the making until Dorothea’s soul burst through the limitations in her final triumph (Chapters 80, 81, 83 and Finale).
- What is Eliot’s view of religion?
Eliot was raised in an Evangelical religion like Bulstrode’s but lost her faith at an early age when she began to read German critics–the Higher Criticism. These works, such as David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1835) and Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841), both translated by Eliot into English, represented for her a more mature demythologized view of Christianity, valuable chiefly for its ethics rather than metaphysics. These writers were aware of the new scholarly research calling into question the literal historical truth of the Bible. This is the kind of scientific research Ladislaw hints Casaubon is out of touch with in his old-fashioned idea of Christianity as the Key to All Mythologies. Casaubon tries to make sense of “fragments of a tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins” (Chapter 48, p. 351).
Eliot, nevertheless, does not reject religion. It has a humanizing effect on most people if taught in a humane way. Dorothea says to Lydgate, “I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest” (Chapter 50, p. 363). She could speak for Eliot here. Her novel is peopled with good and bad clergymen and hypocrites as well as genuinely good people of religious feeling.
Mr. Farebrother is a good man, a practicing Christian, though he feels out of place as a clergyman. Mr. Tyke is a dogmatic vicar put forward by Bulstrode because of his rigidity. Bulstrode is an Evangelical fundamentalist who represents the worst hypocrisy by clinging to misapplied literal dogma: “There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men” (Chapter 61, p. 453). Casaubon is a dried bookworm, whose religion is bloodless and theoretical.
Religious feeling towards others is not the same as doctrine. Dorothea’s warm-blooded religious yearning that wants to do good to others is Eliot’s ideal of religion. It is not concerned with belief but practice: “But in Dorothea’s mind there was a current into which all thought and feeling were apt sooner or later to flow—the reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good” (Chapter 20, p. 151).
Will asks Dorothea what she believes in, and she says, “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” (Chapter 39, p. 287). Will says his belief is similar: “To love what is good and beautiful” (Chapter 39, p. 287). These statements sum up Eliot’s version of Feuerbach’s Religion of Humanity, dependent on love and sacrifice rather than belief.
- What was Eliot’s view of science and how did she use the scientific point of view in her work?
Eliot was a keen follower of new developments in science, for the Victorian mind was fascinated by the possibility of progress and intellectual discovery. She believed science could help to roll away darkness and ignorance from human life. Lydgate is the chief scientist in the story, a researcher in the primitive tissue, or what we would call cell biology, and though his personal story is tragic, Eliot respects the scientific imagination, which she describes in Chapter 15: “. . . the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space” (p. 122). In other words, human consciousness can shine its light on hidden causes and effects. This illumination adds to human knowledge.
This passage also describes Eliot’s technique as narrator in Middlemarch. Her tracking the hidden causes and effects of experience on her characters’ lives explains their behavior to us, and by extension, our own behavior. The cumulative wisdom of this investigation into a cross section of Middlemarch life is thorough and documented precisely over the years 1829-1832, the years before the Great Reform Bill. We are given data about the inner and outer life of characters and the whole social network by the omniscient narrator to justify her conclusions.
Eliot uses both inductive reasoning (facts leading to a conclusion) and deductive reasoning (testing a principle) in her narrative art. Inductive reasoning is the slow accumulation of facts about a character leading to a conclusion (Bulstrode’s conduct, for instance, and what causes his downfall). Deductive reasoning tests a principle. In the Prelude she asks the epic question: what happens to a modern day St. Theresa who has no outlet for her spiritual energy? She predicts the outcome: she will be “foundress of nothing.” And indeed, this is borne out.
The scientific imagination is a unifying power over mere facts, and again, Eliot’s narrator provides this analytical unity. She penetrates the surface and sees what makes society really hang together or get torn apart. She is a social scientist and poet combined.
- Does Eliot bring science to bear on her characterization?
Eliot was influenced by August Comte, the father of sociology, who was one of the first to look at cause and effect in human behavior. The importance of this is that it implied people could change, if their conditions changed. She was also influenced by George Lewes’s theory of psychology.
Looking strictly at causes and effects would lead one to believe in determinism; that is, that character is determined and cut in stone. There is no free will in this view. Yet Eliot’s characters have choice: Lydgate is not forced to marry; Bulstrode doesn’t have to kill Raffles; Dorothea could turn her back on Will, believing he likes Rosamond. Eliot is fond of looking at decisive moments in a character’s life and seeing what he or she does. She observes like a scientist, even though she puts in her two cents about whether they have acted well or badly, whether they have “widened the skirts of light” or narrowed their own choices and future through selfish actions.
George Lewes, Eliot’s companion, had done some writing on the relation of subject and object in The Problems of Life and Mind (1875-89), which theories find their way into Eliot’s novels. His idea of scientific inquiry is that the observer cannot help being both subjective and objective at the same time. This explains why Dorothea and Casaubon can only see in others what they are themselves. Lewes had a monistic idea that mind and body are intermixed, not separate. His psychology is therefore not mechanistic; he believes the nervous system acts as a whole.
His idea of a higher functioning and subconscious motivations give depth and complexity to his psychology that served Eliot well. For instance, Casaubon acts subconsciously from jealousy and fear. His character is more determined because he does not reflect on why he is making the codicil. Dorothea, on the other hand, is capable of intuitive functioning, of inspired impulses that make her actions less determined, such as her unselfish interview with Rosamond.
In the gap between the stimulus and response, everything comes to bear on a person’s choices—the historical time, the place, the social fabric, biology, subconscious motives, conscious motives, inspirations. Eliot loves to examine that gap and what emerges from there.
Lewes’ theories lead to the assumption of evolution: “[C]haracter too is a process and unfolding. The man was still in the making, as much as the Middlemarch doctor and immortal discoverer, and there were both virtues and faults capable of shrinking or expanding” (Chapter 15, p. 111). This describes Lydgate and his potential. Eliot is modern in her deep psychological investigations and chronicling of each stage of change. She believes in melioration, the gradual and steady evolution of the human race.
- What is the importance of the Reform Bill and the historical background to the novel?
The action takes place between the fall of 1829 and spring of 1832, a moment of change in England. As with her individual characters, Eliot investigates that gap of change from which the new England is emerging. Middlemarch is a small town in the midlands, representing a more backward conservative area than London (“There is no part of the country where opinion is narrower than it is here,” says Mr. Brooke [Chapter 6, p 40]), but even here the issues are debated and progress goes on.
The Reform Bill of 1832 was a watershed in English history, the first of many reforms that shifted power towards the working and middle class interests. The House of Commons had been controlled by rich landowners, with boroughs known as “pocket boroughs.” Members representing these boroughs had to vote as the landowners wished. There was widespread corruption in the electoral process.
Support for parliamentary reform slowly gained momentum in the 1820’s. In 1830, parliament was dissolved and elections were held, based primarily on the issue of reform, as we see with Mr. Brooke’s campaign in Middlemarch on the Liberal side. Ladislaw would have been very busy with editorials in The Pioneer answering the Tory or conservative party’s claims against reform.
Pro-reform Whigs took the House in 1831, and there were riots when the House of Lords rejected their reform measures to redistribute boroughs and give the vote to more of the population. The pressure and violence were so great in 1832 people feared a revolution. The Great Reform Bill passed in June, 1832, abolishing 56 rotten boroughs; 143 seats in Commons were affected. The electorate itself was expanded to include the less wealthy and tenant farmers.
Pressure for reform raises its head at Tipton Grange when Mr. Brooke’s tenant tells him off, shouting that the “Rinform” is coming. Brooke is forced to improve conditions for the tenants before he dares to stand for Parliament on the Reform ticket. Likewise we hear about violence when the railroad is coming through Middlemarch, and the farm laborers attack the railroad agents, saying “They’ll on’y leave the poor mon furder behind” (Chapter 56, p. 408). Fred and Mr. Garth stop the attack.
Another sign of the times is set up in the rivalry between Bulstrode, the banker, and Featherstone, the landowner. Featherstone tells Fred “God A’mighty sticks to the land” (Chapter 12, p. 82). Bulstrode, he says, does not own land and stands for “spekilation” or investment. The way of the old landowners is dying out, proven when Bulstrode buys up Stone Court after Featherstone’s death.
There are references to “machine breaking” by Mr. Vincy when Rosamond asks her father for money (Chapter 36). Since he made his money from the handweaving trade, Vincy is affected by the industrialization of weaving. Many handweavers protested by rioting and breaking the factory machines that were replacing them.
All in all, Middlemarch records the death of “Merrie Old England” and the birth of modern England. It is primarily the younger characters—Mary and Fred, Dorothea and Will, and Lydgate—who want to participate in this brave new world. Mr. Brooke is enthusiastic but incompetent.\
Middlemarch Study GuideChoose to Continue
- Chapters 9-12
- Novel Summary
- Prelude and Chapters 1-5
- Chapters 6-8
- Chapters 13-16
- Chapters 17-18
- Chapters 19-22
- Chapters 23-26
- Chapters 27-30
- Chapters 31-35
- Chapters 36-38
- Chapters 39-41
- Chapters 42-45
- Chapters 46-47
- Chapters 48-51
- Chapters 52-55
- Chapters 56-57
- Chapters 58-62
- Chapters 63-67
- Chapters 68-74
- Chapters 75-83
- Chapters 84-86 & Finale
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Theme Analysis
- Top Ten Quotes
- Essay Q&A