As England prepares to vote on social and political reform, the inhabitants of Middlemarch find their personal lives in upheaval. The idealistic Dorothea Brooke sacrifices herself in a loveless marriage while newcomer Dr. Lydgate finds himself ensnared by the town’s flirt. Young Fred Vincy pines after his childhood friend, but she refuses to have him until he decides on a career. Peter Featherstone’s relatives wait for his death while Mr. Brooke’s friends fear his public disgrace. Meanwhile, the arrival of a young man of questionable heritage throws the entire town into panic as they consider the consequences his presence could have on the reputations of some of their leading men and women.
Middlemarch presents a sweeping vision of a rural community, weaving together the stories of the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the kind and the selfish, in a stunning tapestry that illustrates the hidden connections that bind us all. Though the upper echelons of Middlemarch desperately want to believe themselves independent of the lower orders of society, George Eliot deftly illuminates how all of us depend on each other and how anyone can make a large difference in the lives of those around them. Some of her characters, like Dorothea Brooke and Dr. Lydgate, actively seek to do good in the world, but even those who act unthinkingly or who suppose their actions small, often create large ripple effects in the community. Thus Middlemarch elevates itself from a mere depiction of rural life to an extended commentary on the nature of love, the role of the individual in society and in family life, and the social pressures that shape those individuals. It is, without question, a masterful work and one that fully deserves the title of classic.
Though Middlemarch deftly balances a large cast of characters, the two most prominent are, perhaps, the idealistic Dorothea Brooke and the ambitious Dr. Lydgate, almost mirror images of each other cast in the opposite sex. Fervently religious, Dorothea longs to do some good in the world, but finds herself stifled by her identity as a woman–society expects her to do works of mercy and to be good, but offers her few resources to wield any power. Dr. Lydgate, meanwhile, dreams of helping hundreds through the medical profession, not only by reforming the practice but also by creating new and better hospitals and performing cutting-edge research. Dorothea will initially throw her life away, sacrificing herself in a loveless marriage in the mistaken belief that her husband will allow her to help him in his good work. Lydgate, meanwhile, will begin promisingly only to find himself beaten down by the small-mindedness of the society he lives in. Their struggles to remain committed to morality in a world concerned mostly with prestige, wealth, and power, is enacted on a smaller scale by many of the other characters who surround them.
Eliot’s authorial voice occasionally intrudes upon the story, calling attention to a particular point she wishes readers to reflect upon. Her interruptions, however, do little disservices to the story. Indeed, one feels bound to pay close attention to what she has to say, for in Dorothea’s struggles to find her own voice and to make her mark in the world, despite the disadvantage of her womanhood, one suspects that one catches a glimpse of Eliot’s own trials as a female. The author’s remarks thus take on a sort of poignancy, becoming more than signposts to the story and instead integrating themselves into it, almost like the thoughts Dorothea might have if she dared to express them.
Middlemarch is a work of staggering vision, intricacy, reflection, and beauty. It is, furthermore, simply a good story filled with a host of intriguing characters and presenting a sophisticated plot that brings everything together in the manner of Dickens, but with far more subtlety. Even a book this large cannot satisfy my need for more George Eliot. I look forward to reading her more in the future.