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Middlemarch

George Eliot
Summary

Prelude and Book I: Chapters 1-6

Summary Prelude and Book I: Chapters 1-6

Mrs. Cadwallader, learning of Dorothea's engagement from Mr. Brooke, reports the news to Sir James. Sir James reacts with disbelief. Mrs. Cadwallader states that Dorothea is too high-flown and strictly religious for him anyway. However, she had planned to play match-maker for Dorothea and Sir James since she had come to live with Mr. Brooke. She resolves instead to get Sir James and Celia married. Sir James decides to be a gentleman. He continues collaborating with Dorothea on the cottages according to her plans.

Commentary

The Prelude alludes to the life and work of Saint Theresa, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic. She devoted her life to a combination of religious contemplation and practical works. The narrator states that her "passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life." Yet, there are many "Theresas" who have been born since then without the opportunity to have an epic life. The narrator attributes this to the absence of a "coherent social faith and order" through which they could enact great works. It is obvious that the Prelude positions Dorothea as an unsung Theresa. When reading the novel as a whole, it is important to keep this in mind. The real Theresa is a famous, well-known saint. All of her good works are recorded in history. Dorothea, however, is an ordinary, unknown woman in a small, provincial community.

The Prelude characterizes such an unsung Theresa as a cygnet among ducklings. Eliot uses this metaphor to point out that even the most ordinary life can be extraordinary. Dorothea stands out even in poor dress. She is not the general standard of feminine virtue like her sister, Celia. Social convention requires women to avoid too much learning and to dress with a touch of the coquette. Celia is forever chiding her sister for being much too intellectual. Women are supposed "to have weak opinions." Moreover, social conventions require that women never act on these opinions. However, Dorothea clearly does have strong opinions; she criticizes Mr. Brooke for not spending his money on socially responsible projects. Her interest in politics and social reform sets her apart from other women.

Dorothea wants to live a grand life. She feels she has a calling to be an intellectual philanthropist, but because she is a woman, social conventions deny her access to politics and higher learning. She hopes to live out her dreams through Casaubon by marrying him. She relates to Casaubon not as an individual, fallible human being, but rather as a "great soul." To her, he is the abstraction of "The Scholar." As his wife, Dorothea hopes to aid Casaubon in his scholarly pursuits like the poet John Milton's daughters aided their father. Through this role, she can gain access to the education available to men only.

Casaubon and Milton are somewhat like doubles. Milton was blind, and Casaubon's eyesight is failing. Milton's daughters worked as scribes for their father. Dorothea views such unfailing devotion as the mark of happy companionship. However, Milton's daughters regarded their father as a tyrant, and they never really enjoyed working under his direction. The comparison between Casaubon and Milton foreshadows Dorothea's eventual dissatisfaction as Casaubon's wife and helpmate. She makes Casaubon into her ideal potential husband, and she will later suffer for her idealism.

Dorothea also has little self-knowledge. She dreams of submitting herself to an epic theory of self-sacrifice and virtue. However, she has more pride than she knows. Celia's off-hand suggestion that she wear the emerald ring and bracelet in company stings Dorothea's pride. She responds haughtily to the suggestion she would give into ostentation even though she admires the beauty of the jewelry. Her own personal desire for the jewelry belies her outward presentation of herself as one who doesn't like ostentation.