Middlemarch: Eliot's Novel of Provincial Life

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  • 0:05 Middlemarch
  • 2:10 Plot Summary
  • 14:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this lesson, we'll introduce the characters and many twisted plotlines of George Eliot's classic novel, 'Middlemarch.' Called the only Victorian novel 'written for grown-up people' by Virginia Woolf, this work is both expansive and highly realistic.


The first thing you need to know about Middlemarch is that the title refers to a fictional town. It's not a time of the year. It's not an entreaty to 'march in the middle.' Because it's a novel named after a town, you might be able to make a few guesses about what it's going to be like right off the bat. Unless we're in a kind of world like Pixar's Cars, except instead of cars that are people towns that are people - I don't know. Unless we're in some crazy land, we're probably dealing with multiple protagonists. That's what we get from naming it after a place instead of after a person or a theme or whatever. And its subtitle, A Study of Provincial Life, really confirms this assumption.

As in most studies, we're going to be examining a bunch of different people with the aim of figuring out something about provincial life. And you can note the removed tone right away. It's not a 'novel;' it's a 'study.' This novel - excuse me, study - is super long. My paperback copy, when I had this, was about 800 pages; it's a huge book. So it's more of a 'testing out a new heart medication' study than a, 'I'm a senior sociology major. Please fill out my survey!' kind of study. This is a big-deal novel. It's set against the backdrop of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which is aimed at making voting more fair in England. It redistricted stuff, so it was a bit more representational, and also extended the vote to more people.

So who wrote this novel? George Eliot, who is - psych - a woman! You don't want to get caught with your pants down thinking that George Eliot is a man because she is not; she is a woman. Her real name is Mary Anne Evans, and Middlemarch is probably her most famous novel - her most well-known, certainly. Virginia Woolf, who was a famous Modernist writer (so, in the early 20th century), characterized Middlemarch as 'the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.' You might worry that 'novel for grown-up people' is a synonym for boring, but in this case it's not! I mean, I like it, and do I seem like a real grown-up? (Don't let the blazer fool you.)

Plot Summary

So what happens in and around the town of Middlemarch and in and around this novel? As I mentioned before, we're dealing with lots of characters, and these characters have lots of intersecting storylines.

First we encounter Dorothea Brooke, who is a 'beautiful, smart and marriageable young woman.' But she's a little bit idealistic. We find her devising schemes to improve living conditions of her family's tenants, along with Sir James Chettam, who's clearly got the hots for her. But instead of marrying him like everybody expects, she decides that she's going to marry this guy named Edward Casaubon, who's an old guy and a scholar, and he's trying to write a book called the Key to All Mythologies. She thinks this is going to be a great work, that she can help him to do this and that she can share in his intellectual triumphs because she's smart, and she wants to do things that are helpful and good; that's her goal.

The next major character we meet is Tertius Lydgate, who is a young doctor, and he's also got aspirations to be a reformer. He's a smart guy. He's fairly highly born, but he still wants to be a country doctor. He's not going to go and make a lot of money. (He's not going to go into plastic surgery or whatever. I guess they didn't have that back then, but whatever the equivalent was, he's not going to do that.) Being a doctor, his ideas for reform are more medically based. He gets to Middlemarch and he starts his own hospital. He gets a good reputation as a doctor but he's also a 'marriageable' young man, and he's quickly ensnared by the beautiful Rosamond Vincy, who's the beauty of the town. She's the niece of a guy named Mr. Bulstrode, who's a prominent banker in Middlemarch. (He's important; we're going to get to him a little bit later, but just remember that name, Mr. Bulstrode. He's Rosamond Vincy's uncle.) She's super vain, but I guess it's kind of justified because she is really pretty. She's also actually pretty smart. She's educated, she uses this to her advantage, she's born middle class but she really wants to rise up to a better class. And since Lydgate is higher born (the doctor), she figures this might be the way to do it.

So we've started out right off the bat here with two marriages that we're pretty sure are going to end in disaster. We've got old man, young woman and scholarly pretensions - that doesn't sound like it's going to end well. And then we've got a medical reformer and vain wife who wants to use him for his money. That doesn't seem like that's going to work out. And right here we can note something that is actually fairly unique, at least compared to novels that came before this: a bunch of Victorian novels (and Romantic novels that came before, like Jane Austen and things like that) end in marriage. There's something that's called a marriage plot, where everything resolves itself by two people getting married at the end. And this is still pretty common today. If you've ever seen a romantic comedy, you've seen a marriage plot, where it ends in a kiss. In these kinds of books and movies, the marriage is the climax; it's the goal - the solution to everyone's problems. Eliot goes out of her way here to point out that marriage is actually the start of everybody's problems. She starts with these marriages instead of ending with them, and then she goes on to document these problems at great length. That's pretty much the whole rest of the book.

So we've talked about Lydgate and Rosamond; we've talked about Dorothea and Casaubon. There's a third player in this book: Rosamond has a brother, named Fred Vincy, who's supposed to go into the church. That's what his parents think he should do. He's kind of a drunk, and he's kind of bad with money - he likes to gamble. All he really wants to do is marry Mary Garth, who's his childhood sweetheart. She won't do it unless he gives up on the church because she doesn't want to be married to someone who hates his job (which makes sense because that's miserable). And he would have had money so he didn't have to go into the church because he had this inheritance from an old guy named Mr. Featherstone. But Featherstone rescinded it at the last minute, and then he tried to un-rescind it, but it didn't work. So, basically, Fred is stuck in a hard place because he's going to have to go into the church, but then he can't marry the love of his life. So that's a problem. That's sort of the third problem - we've got three main sets of issues, essentially.

These people are all connected because they live in Middlemarch, and if it sounds a bit scattered, it's worth knowing that Eliot actually didn't intend for all of these things to be in the same book at first. She was writing about Dorothea, and she was also writing about the other people. She ended up stringing them into this novel, weaving them all together. So that's why it sounds a little bit disparate, but it does all come together in the end, and I will tell you how … eventually. Basically, their paths are crossing all throughout.

Dorothea goes on her honeymoon to Rome (she's married this old guy). Quickly, the scales fall from her eyes, and she realizes that Casaubon doesn't really care about her helping him out with his work. She also begins to realize that his Key to All Mythologies probably isn't ever going to be finished because he just keeps working on it. He isn't really internally motivated for scholarship; he just wants to write this thing so that he gets famous. It's kind of like your friend who's been 'working on his screenplay' for five years and is convinced it'll drag him out of his life of obscurity working at Denny's. Except Casaubon does have money, so that's the difference, but it's definitely not a good thing. Also the sex is not that good. He's 'not passionate enough for her,' is how George Eliot puts it. I think we all know what that means. He's kind of an old dude, remember?

Anyway, all of this coincides nicely with her meeting one of his much younger cousins - whose name is Will Ladislaw - and I think you can see where this is going. Will's an artsy guy, and he runs into her in Rome, but Dorothea is loyal to Casaubon. She does not have an affair; she's not that kind of woman. George Eliot actually compares her to St. Theresa in a famous opening prologue. So she's not an adulterer, she's not Madame Bovary; this is not what we're talking about. Still, Casaubon is really not happy with Ladislaw's presence because he suspects there's something going on. They're definitely attracted to each other, but they're not going to act on it, at least not now.

They all come back to England, and meanwhile, Lydgate and Rosamond's marriage is totally falling apart like we predicted. They get into money troubles, in part because Rosamond's got really expensive tastes. Her charms are wearing thin on Lydgate, and his lack of money is making her love run dry because she's slowly realizing that this is not going to be the kind of life she anticipated with him. He ends up taking a loan from Mr. Bulstrode (remember, he's the banker who's Rosamond's uncle) to keep things going with his practice.

Meanwhile, it finally seems like Dorothea might catch a break because Casaubon is sick! And he's probably gonna die because he's super old! This is really exciting when you're reading the book because you're like, 'I hate this guy,' and you think, 'Maybe she'll get to marry Will Ladislaw! That would be great.' No! Casaubon has got provisions against that in his will. He does die, but it turns out that he's put all these stipulations that if Dorothea marries Ladislaw, she will lose her inheritance from him, which is really nasty. Up until now, we've probably just thought that Casaubon is just a little bit distracted, kind of old, not really that into stuff. But this is really directly mean; he's being nasty to Dorothea. So this is a problem. What's she going to do? We don't know.

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