Middlemarch – George Eliot

A panoramic view of small-town life, and a love-letter to the importance of empathy.

The early 1870s
British "condition of England" novels
Dorothea Brooke

The novel’s importance

*Middlemarch*, George Eliot’s sprawling and ambitious novel, was first published in 1871-72 as a serialized work in a popular magazine.

Today, it is widely recognized as one of the most important novels in English literature. Eliot (whose real name was Mary Anne Evans) displays an impressive mastery of both detail and dialogue, creating a rich and thought-provoking portrait of provincial Victorian society.


One reason that *Middlemarch* remains such an important and widely-read novel is that the themes and concerns that Eliot explores are still relevant today. In the book, she addresses the nature of love and marriage, the constraints that women faced in a patriarchal society, and the idea of self-discovery and personal fulfillment.

But *Middlemarch* is also admired for its complex and memorable characters, its psychological depth, and its expert storytelling. It is thus a work which entertains, enlightens, and engages readers on many levels.

Key themes

One of the central themes in Eliot’s *Middlemarch* is the tension between individual desires and societal expectations. Characters often grapple with the question of what it means to persevere and make a decision for oneself, in the face of social pressures to conform. This struggle is evident, for example, in Dorothea’s challenges in regard to her choice of husband—her initial decision is driven by societal expectations, while later in the novel she is driven by her own desires.

Another key theme in *Middlemarch* is the importance of communication and sympathy in human relationships. By creating a huge cast of characters, Eliot is able to demonstrate the importance of empathy, and the fact that all people are worth listening to and understanding. Characters who lack these qualities often face discord or isolation, while those who are able to empathize with others are more successful in forging meaningful connections. By foregrounding these themes, Eliot demonstrates her deeply humanistic sensibilities, and her belief in the importance of self-awareness and genuine connection in order to create a fulfilling life.

Historical context

*Middlemarch* was written in the early 1870s, a time when many characteristics of the British Victorian era were in full swing. Major developments in industry and trade had shifted the fabric of society, with heightened social stratification and greater disparities in wealth. A sense of moral duty and obligation, often linked to religious belief, was a driving force for many people in public life.


These currents in British society shaped *Middlemarch* in a number of ways. For one, the novel meticulously depicts the various strata of English society, signaling Eliot’s attention to these divisions. The novel is set in 1829, and frequently reflects upon the simpler, rural communities that were vanishing rapidly by the time Eliot was writing.

Intellectual and cultural context

The intellectual and cultural context of *Middlemarch* is a complex one. Eliot was writing at a time of great intellectual and social ferment in England: the mid to late nineteenth century.

Darwin’s *Origin of Species* had recently been published, secularism and new scientific theories were challenging traditional religious views, and the women’s rights movement was gaining traction. All of these ideas flavored the novel in various ways.

In terms of other books written at the time, *Middlemarch* is often seen as one of a number of British “condition of England” novels, which attempted to portray the lives of individuals from different social classes in a changing society.


Other examples include books such as Charles Dickens’ *Bleak House* and Anthony Trollope’s *The Way We Live Now*. These novels often explore social and political questions by revealing the impact of new ideas and economic forces on different members of society.


*Middlemarch* is an intricate, expansive, and very long novel, filled with characters and subplots that weave together to create a rich tapestry of life in a small English town in the early 19th century.


At the core of the novel are a few key storylines. Dorothea Brooke, a young and intelligent woman with high social standing, desires a life of intellectual engagement and significance, and marries the much older Casaubon in pursuit of this. This does not go as planned – Casaubon is a rather sour and pedantic scholar, and Dorothea quickly learns she will not find the fulfillment she longs for with him.

Other key storylines involve Tertius Lydgate, a talented and idealistic young doctor who eventually falls from grace, and Fred Vincy, a ne’er-do-well who hopes to change his ways and win the heart of his childhood sweetheart.

All of these characters, and many others, interact and overlap in unexpected ways, making for a novel that is both sweeping and intimately personal.

Narrative structure

One of the defining aspects of *Middlemarch* is its ambitious narrative structure. The novel presents different storylines in parallel, sometimes intersecting, sometimes diverging.

This creates a sense of breadth and scale; it feels as though we are watching an entire community unfold before us. This approach also helps to foster empathy in the reader. As we move between the characters, experiencing their different perspectives on events, we develop a nuanced understanding of each one as an individual, rather than simply seeing them as stock types.

The novel also makes use of shifting points of view, encouraging us to consider not only the characters’ actions, but the motivations and emotions behind them.

By employing this technique, George Eliot ensures that there is no single “right” way to interpret the story. Readers are able to empathize with varying characters at different points in the novel, and appreciate the complexity of human relationships and interactions.

Key characters

One of the most important characters in *Middlemarch* is Dorothea Brooke. Dorothea is a central character with the desire for a meaningful life, who seeks out knowledge and wisdom wherever she can.

In many respects, she is a symbol of the themes that George Eliot wanted to explore in the novel – those of self-fulfillment, education, and progressive thinking. Over the course of the novel, we see Dorothea navigate relationships, social situations, and her own expectations in order to find the fulfilling life she craves.

Another key character in *Middlemarch* is Tertius Lydgate. Lydgate is a doctor with aspirations of making a significant contribution to medical science. He is an outsider in *Middlemarch*, and his preoccupations with scientific investigation can make him seem arrogant and ambitious.


However, as we get to know him, we understand that he is deeply compassionate, and that his ambitions stem from a desire to alleviate human suffering. By including Lydgate in the novel, Eliot allows readers to explore questions of ambition, meaning, and the importance of intellectual curiosity.

Literary devices

Eliot employs a range of literary devices in order to create a multifaceted picture of life in *Middlemarch*.

One key feature is the use of an omniscient narrator, who provides readers with a comprehensive understanding of different characters and their motivations. This approach allows readers to make connections between disparate storylines and to develop a sense of the social tapestry of the town as a whole.

Another key aspect of Eliot’s technique is her use of symbolism to convey key themes of the novel. For example, her portrayal of the Great Reform Bill and the railway both represent broader changes that are taking place in English society.


By using these symbols in *Middlemarch*, Eliot is able to express the idea that towns like *Middlemarch* are undergoing great transformations, and that individuals must learn to adapt in order to thrive in this new environment.


In *Middlemarch*, George Eliot employs a variety of metaphors and analogies in order to communicate complex ideas to her readers. For example, she frequently uses imagery associated with light and dark in order to signify the contrast between knowledge and ignorance.

When she writes of characters being “enlightened” or “blinded,” their wisdom or lack thereof becomes instantly recognizable for what it is.


Eliot is also known for drawing on the symbolism of the natural world in order to convey deeper meaning in her novels. The changing of the seasons, for instance, is often used to represent the fluctuations of human life, and the progress of time.

Flowers are also a prominent symbol in *Middlemarch*, with specific blooms being used to communicate emotions such as love, hope, and sadness. By using these metaphors and analogies, Eliot is able to convey her message in a way that is both engaging and memorable for her readers.

Critical readings

Some critics have focused on how *Middlemarch* confronts the changing norms and expectations of the Victorian era, and how the novel critiques the rigidity of society at that time.

They argue that through vivid characters and social commentary, Eliot is subtly championing the importance of change and social progress. Others focus on themes such as politics, morality, and religion, contending that the novel explores the conflict between individual desires and societal expectations.

Other readers have focused on the novel’s stylistic elements, admiring the way Eliot balances her immense cast of characters and manages to make each one important to the story.

The intricate plot, slow pacing, and abundance of detail are sometimes cited as masterful examples of the realist novel form. Among the world’s most respected literary academics, most would argue that *Middlemarch* surpasses Eliot’s contemporary Charles Dickens in terms of realism, because Eliot is less reliant on caricature and melodrama in her characterization.


*Middlemarch* has had a considerable impact on both culture and the history of the novel.

Many critics argue that it stands at the centerpiece of 19th century English fiction, garnering considerable praise for its social realism and masterful portrayal of human relationships.


As such, the novel has inspired subsequent generations of writers, who have drawn on its structural elements and themes in order to create similarly complex and compelling works.

At the same time, *Middlemarch*’s influence extends well beyond literature. The novel was written during an important period of social reform in Britain, and its discussions of issues surrounding marriage, politics, and education reflect questions that were being asked by society at large.

As a result, Eliot’s work, along with Dickens’s, has often been cited as a key text for understanding the changing social landscape of that era, as well as for providing unique insight into the lives of ordinary people in the Victorian age.

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