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Literature / Middlemarch

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Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? If it happens to be cut in stone, though it lie face downmost for ages on a forsaken beach, or 'rest quietly under the drums and tramplings of many conquests', it may end by letting us into the secret of usurpations and other scandals gossiped about long centuries ago: — this world being apparently a huge whispering-gallery.

Middlemarch : A Study of Provincial Life is a novel by George Eliot, first published in instalments from 1871 to 1872 and often considered to be her masterpiece.

The novel centres around several groups of characters in the provincial town of Middlemarch and its surrounding villages, between the years 1829 and 1832. This was a time of political change in England, during which Parliamentary reform was proposed to increase the number of eligible voters and to remove "rotten boroughs" - constituencies in which a Member of Parliament could be returned by only one or two voters. The differing political and religious views of some characters form part of the background of the novel. Mr. Brooke, for example, stands for reforms that are unpopular with other members of the town's gentry.

Against this background, three main plot strands concern three different couples or relationships.

Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent, idealistic young woman marries Mr. Casaubon, a much older man whose life's work on a Key to all Mythologies she thinks will provide a fulfilling role for her. She looks forward to helping Casaubon in his great project, and imagines that it will open a new understanding of culture, art, language and life. Meanwhile, Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's orphaned cousin from a disgraced branch of the family, is searching for direction and a way to gain a useful living away from Casaubon's patronage.

Fred Vincy is the son of a successful Middlemarch manufacturer. His prospects in life are bright, but rely on an expected inheritance from Mr. Featherstone, a rich uncle by marriage. While waiting for this, he's happy to live on his expectations and try to maintain the life of an educated gentleman-at-leisure, while dreaming of a future with his childhood sweetheart, Mary Garth.

Rosamond Vincy is Fred's sister, who finds herself attracted to the good prospects and glamorous background of Lydgate, the town's new doctor. Lydgate himself has thoroughly modern ideas and looks forward to replacing the town's old-fashioned medical practices, while carrying out research at the new fever hospital to which he is appointed.

Other characters include the wealthy and seemingly respectable banker, Bulstrode, who sponsors Lydgate and deals with the financial affairs of the Vincys, and Mr. Farebrother, a clergyman who is in the running for the chaplaincy at the new hospital.

Over the course of the novel, Eliot deals with the way in which these various plans and dreams play out, and how circumstance, and the expectations and scruples of an often small-minded society can interfere with happiness and change.

Eliot also seems to have been quite conscious of the tropes she was playing with; her essay "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" sets out many of the 19th century literary tropes subverted in the Dorothea story arc. In brief, Eliot didn't think much of novels written by women in which the protagonist, generally both a Mary Sue and The Pollyanna , would go around bettering the lives of the wretched, showing how smart she was and then making a good marriage. This should sound familiar to readers of the novel.

Two television adaptations have been made, in 1968 and in 1994. No film has yet been made, although Sam Mendes was once reported to have been producing one.

This book provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Raffles. It ultimately leads to his not-exactly accidental death.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Spectacularly subverted in Dorothea's case. Casaubon's age and demeanor make him more attractive to her, not less.
    • Subverted in Mary Garth's case as well: she makes it very clear to Fred Vincy that he has no chance with her if he continues to live recklessly and idle.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Will Ladislaw, considering his appearance, his Polish heritage, and similarities with the Jewish protagonist of Eliot's later novel Daniel Deronda.
  • Asshole Victim: Raffles.
  • Author Avatar: Two candidates, neither exact:
    • Dorothea is religious and bookish, much like Eliot was in her youth.
    • Mary Garth is plain, but attractive for other qualities, much like Eliot was reputed to be.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Questioned, as per the usual in Eliot's fiction.
  • Blackmail: Why Raffles decides that now would be a really good time to pay Bulstrode a visit.
  • Break the Haughty: Bulstrode and Lydgate, in particular.
  • Catchphrase: Mr. Brooke's "You know, that kind of thing." or some variation thereof.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Fred Vincy and Mary Garth.
  • Clear My Name: Dorothea rallies her friends to Lydgate's side once he is wrongly implicated in Raffles' death.
  • Contrived Coincidence: A less extreme example than some, and somewhat disguised, but the way that Raffles finds Bulstrode, and the fact that Bulstrode turns out to be Ladislaw's step-grandfather, both seem to be large coincidences. Par for the course in a Victorian novel, though.
  • Decided by One Vote: Lydgate has the deciding vote on the chaplaincy of the new hospital.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Casaubon tries desperately to avert this, and with a Thanatos Gambit seeks to ensure that even in the event of his death the survivors could never marry.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Dorothea Brooke's problem. The narrator suggests that Society Is to Blame, to a certain extent.
  • Doorstopper: It's 800 pages and the most exciting things that happens are the deaths of two characters, a provincial doctor's threatened disgrace and the coming of age of a idealistic young woman.
    • Probably the Britlit equivalent to War and Peace — the Guardian once held is up as an example of that great novel that you really should have read, but never did.
  • English Rose: All three main female characters are subversions.
    • Rosamond was raised to be, and seen by most outsiders as, an archetypal English Rose: beautiful, gentle and chaste, when inwardly she is shallow and selfish.
    • Mary Garth is perfectly honourable, sensible and well-mannered, but she is quite plain, and a proper English Rose has to be pretty.
    • Dorothea is the one that comes closest to playing this trope straight, as she is at once beautiful, incredibly modest (in both senses of the word) and a seriously good person, but she's a bit too independent to be considered a completely decent lady in 19th century England.
  • Extremely Lengthy Creation: In-Universe. Rev. Casaubon's life's work, an unfinished book The Key to All Mythologies, is intended as a monument to the tradition of Christian syncretism. It turns out his life's work is useless as he is behind on current studies (he doesn't read German, so his scholarship is incomplete). He is aware of this, but has put too much time into his research to admit it.
  • Friend to All Children: Will Ladislaw, who is followed by a troop of children during his election campaigning.
  • The Gambling Addict: Mr. Farebrother supplements his meagre income by betting on whist, which is somewhat scandalous for a clergyman. He has no problem giving up when he's given a better-paid post, though. Fred Vincy also flirts with the idea, when looking forward to life as a landed gentleman.
  • Gold Digger: Rosamond Vincy is a subversion. What she originally expects to achieve through marriage is sophistication and an escape from provincial boredom rather than getting filthy rich. Her family are comfortably well-off (though by no means rich) and she repeatedly turns down suitors who are wealthier. It's flat-out poverty that crushes her spirit.
  • Greedy Jew: Possibly. Mr Dunkirk, the crooked dealer and Will's grandfather, is referred to more than once as a "Jew pawnbroker", though it's unclear whether the word "Jew" is merely being used as an epithet in this context.
  • The Hedonist: Rosamond and Fred Vincy, neither of whom are able to control their spending despite not being rich. Fred manages to redeem himself; Rosamond, not so much.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Bulstrode, after being shunned or Raffles' death, does try to put things right for Fred Vincy.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Farebrother is in love with Mary Garth.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Tertius Lydgate and Edward Casaubon, quite explicitly, but Dorothea Brooke as well.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Farebrother doesn't try to come between Mary and Fred.
  • Lousy Lovers Are Losers: Pompous scholar Edward Casaubon is heavily implied via euphemism to be impotent due to his sickly frailty, and unable to enjoy "family pleasures" with his young wife Dorothea. He acts unapologetic about it, and treats her more or less as his assistant for his scholarly research, while at the same time not really respecting her intellect, making the marriage both sexually and emotionally unsatisfying for Dorothea.
  • Love Triangle or Love Dodecahedron: There are several love triangles, some of which intersect. Will, Casaubon and Dorothea, then Lydgate, Rosamond and Will, then Farebrother, Fred and Mary. Sir James also had a thing for Dorothea before marrying her sister instead.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Or, rather, Bulstrode turns out to be Will's step-grandfather.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Will's English mother was disowned by her family for marrying a Pole, and he and Dorothea get a touch of the same treatment when they decide to marry, though there are other reasons.
  • Mal Mariée: Dorothea marries the elderly Reverend Casaubon after falling in love with his scholarly works, only to realize that he's boring, jealous, and actively discouraging of intellectual pursuits for women. He's also implied to be impotent. Luckily for her, Casaubon dies shortly after she falls in mutual love with his kind, adventurous nephew Will. Unluckily, Casaubon was bitter enough to write in his will that Will and Dorothea would have to give up all of his inherited fortune if they ever married.
  • Meaningful Name: Farebrother, Rosamond, Casaubon, Raffles.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Raffles (another link to the gambling theme).
  • Names to Trust Immediately: Mr. Farebrother.
  • Never Lend to a Friend: Fred gets the somewhat financially naive Mr. Garth to underwrite his debts, which causes the Garths to lose their life's savings.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: ...Possibly. Casaubon may have been modeled on one of Eliot's acquaintances, the Oxford scholar Mark Pattison, then engaged on a biography of Isaac Casaubon. Pattison was over twenty years older than his wife.
  • Parental Substitute: Mr. Brooke for Dorothea and Celia.
  • Passed-Over Inheritance: Peter Featherstone's will disappoints his entire family, especially Fred.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: See Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The codicil to Casaubon's will.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: There are at least four major intersecting plotlines.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Casaubon and Dorothea.
  • Uptown Girl: Dorothea's fortune and Will's poverty and foreign background is one of the obstacles between them.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Both of Dorothea's marriages come in for this.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The Finale.