Written by George Eliot (the pseudonym of Mary Anne Evans), Middlemarch is a novel originally published in 1872. In it, Eliot follows numerous characters through several years in the fictitious namesake town, using it as a backdrop to discuss marriage, faith, and politics in England. The novel secured her place in literary history alongside contemporaries like Dickens and Thackery.
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Will Ladislaw is a moody, idealistic young man who has no clear profession, occasionally violates social boundaries, and considers himself to be a permanent outsider in the town. He lives with the financial support of his unclem , but his side of the family are considered the “black sheep”, and so his position in Middlemarch’s social order is unclear. He meets and falls in love with Dorothea, who is engaged to his uncle.
Dorothea Brooke is an extremely intelligent young woman. She is interested in improving the lives of those around her, and spends her time on pet projects to do so. Although she has several potential suitors, she decides to marry Edward Casaubon, an elderly clergyman, because she believes that she will be able to contribute to his scholarly project, The Key to All Mythologies. When she discovers that Casaubon has no intention of letting her work with him, she is badly disappointed. It is during the time that follows, as she tries to find a way to live happily with a man who is cold to her, that she becomes friends with Will.
Edward Casaubon is unpleasant, pompous, and self-centered. He has no interest in Dorothea’s mind, only in how she can take care of him while he works. This becomes clear immediately on the couple’s honeymoon in Rome, where Casaubon is studying at the Vatican Library. In fact, he resents her intrusion on his project, because the more she tries to help him, the harder he has to work to conceal how badly it is going and his own academic shortcomings. This lack of fondness for his wife, however, doesn’t prevent him from becoming jealous when Dorothea spends time with his nephew Will. In fact, he writes a clause into his will that if she ever marries Will, she will lose everything she inherits.
A STUDY OF PROVINCIAL LIFE
Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”; the novel actually follows not only the Ladislaw/Brooke/Casaubon plotline, but also the fortunes of Fred and Rosamond Vincy, siblings who are trying to raise their social status through career or marriage, and of Tertius Lydgate. The novel also explores issues of political and social reform, the power of rumor and reputation in a small town, and how ambitions and social expectations rarely coincide. The interconnectedness of the stories reflects those forces. Mary Garth, for example, is the niece of Mr. Featherstone, and Fred loves her, but she won’t marry him until he has made something of his life. Meanwhile, she refuses Featherstone’s deathbed request to burn his second will, which leaves his fortune to Joshua Rigg. The original will had named Fred Vincy as heir. Thus, Mary’s unwavering morality and desire to avoid being seen as anything but upright ends up costing Fred a fortune, but that also forces him to discover who he really is and become a better person, whereas he probably would have wasted his fortune and life on leisure had he inherited.
Lydgate is a doctor who comes to Middlemarch with all sorts of crazy ideas, like sanitation. He works at the Fever Hospital, which is funded by the somewhat shady Nicholas Bulstrode. His modern views on the practice of medicine make him unpopular in the conservative town, but he still is enough of a catch to draw Rosamond’s eye. Once married, however, she quickly outspends his means. Lydgate represents the rejection by the town of outside influences; he never finds happiness there, because he is never truly accepted. He is almost completely destroyed financially when Bulstrode is exposed as a liar and fraud, thanks to John Raffles.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
* Mental Floss has a list of 15 Intriguing Facts about George Eliot. Number 8 is particularly interesting, and explains her choice of pen name.
* Want to check out response to Eliot from her own time? The Guardian has a review of her novel Daniel Deronda from 1876.
* She’s known for her novels, but Eliot also wrote two volumes of poetry. Learn more about her work in that genre here.
* Middlemarch was made into a TV production by the BBC in 1968, and again in 1994. An attempt to update the story was profiled in The New Yorker, and reimagines the story playing out with college students and Video postings. You can watch the series on YouTube here. Watch the trailer below:
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