Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Imperfection of Marriage
Most characters in Middlemarch marry for love rather than obligation, yet marriage still appears negative and unromantic. Marriage and the pursuit of it are central concerns in Middlemarch, but unlike in many novels of the time, marriage is not considered the ultimate source of happiness. Two examples are the failed marriages of Dorothea and Lydgate. Dorothea’s marriage fails because of her youth and of her disillusions about marrying a much older man, while Lydgate’s marriage fails because of irreconcilable personalities. Mr. and Mrs. Bulstrode also face a marital crisis due to his inability to tell her about the past, and Fred Vincy and Mary Garth also face a great deal of hardship in making their union. As none of the marriages reach a perfect fairytale ending, Middlemarch offers a clear critique of the usual portrayal of marriage as romantic and unproblematic.
The Harshness of Social Expectations
The ways in which people conduct themselves and how the community judges them are closely linked in Middlemarch. When the expectations of the social community are not met, individuals often receive harsh public criticism. For example, the community judges Ladislaw harshly because of his mixed pedigree. Fred Vincy is almost disowned because he chooses to go against his family’s wishes and not join the clergy. It is only when Vincy goes against the wishes of the community by foregoing his education that he finds true love and happiness. Finally, Rosamond’s need for gentility and the desire to live up to social standards becomes her downfall. In contrast, Dorothea’s decision to act against the rules of society allows her to emerge as the most respectable character in the end.
Self-Determination vs. Chance
In Middlemarch, self-determination and chance are not opposing forces but, rather, a complicated balancing act. When characters strictly adhere to a belief in either chance or self-determination, bad things happen. When Rosamond goes against the wishes of her husband and writes a letter asking for money from his relative, her act of self-determination puts Lydgate in an unsavory and tense situation coupled with a refusal to help. On the flip side, when Fred Vincy gambles away his money, relying solely on chance, he falls into debt and drags with him the people who trust him. Only when he steps away from gambling and decides not to go into the clergy do good things begin to happen for him. In particular, the character of Farebrother demonstrates the balance between fate and self-determination. This balance is exemplified in his educated gamble in the game of whist. Through a combination of skill and chance, he is able to win more often than not. His character strikes a balance between chance and his role in determining that fate. The complexity of the tension between self-determination and chance is exemplary of the way in which the novel as a whole tends to look at events from many vantage points with no clear right or wrong, no clear enemy or hero.
Each chapter begins with a small quotation or a few lines of verse known as an epigraph.
These epigraphs work as a way of summarizing the following chapter and moving the plot forward. They also work to place Middlemarch into a larger canon of literary works, as Eliot chooses quotes a variety of writers such as Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, and William Blake. Eliot was charged with being too intellectual for a woman author in part because of the learned nature of her chosen quotations.
Gossip and Speaking for Others
Often characters, especially characters of opposite genders, do not communicate to each other directly, instead using other characters to speak on their behalf. Carrying messages, sending “diplomats,” and not speaking for themselves draws attention to the weblike community of Middlemarch. Part of this web functions to maintain an intricate social web, but it also works to avoid direct communication. Gossip, another form of speaking for another person, plays an important part in the novel as it is often how information is conveyed. Characters frequently use the fact that the information will eventually come around to avoid direct conversation.
Debt and Borrowing Money
Debt appears throughout Middlemarch, and money often indicates elements of a character’s personality. The plot is driven by characters worrying about money or asking others for money. Fred Vincy must ask several people for loans, Lydgate incurs serious debt due to his failure to manage money and his wife Rosamond’s cultured tastes, and Raffles’s constant begging and blackmailing for money indicates his threatening role. On the other hand, Mary Garth’s refusal to take money from the dying Featherstone proves her good, honest nature. The exchange of money and the passing of debts ties the characters together in an economic subtext.
The Portrait of Ladislaw’s Grandmother
A miniature portrait of Ladislaw’s grandmother appears several times in the text and is symbolic of Dorothea’s future choice of giving up wealth for love. Ladislaw’s grandmother also gave up wealth to be with the man she loved. The portrait hangs in Dorothea’s bedroom at Casaubon’s house, and Dorothea often recalls the portrait when she thinks of Ladislaw. When Ladislaw comes to say goodbye to Dorothea in a tense conversation filled with romantic subtext, Dorothea offers him the portrait as a parting gift. When Ladislaw refuses it saying he has no need for the past, he indicates that the chance they will end up together remains.
The character of Raffles symbolizes the ominous return of the past. Most often he appears as a lone black figure walking down the country roads and is described as a man of ill-repute and questionable background, associating the danger of the past with the unsavory lower class. His repeated appearance disrupts the sanctity of Middlemarch, for he ties together the dark pasts of Bulstrode and Ladislaw. His death fuels neighborhood gossip that almost forces Ladislaw from town, causes Bulstrode’s downfall, and brings about the climax of the novel.
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