George Eliot

Book II: Chapters 13-16

Summary Book II: Chapters 13-16

Even though Bulstrode is extremely powerful, he too must deal with the constraints within the web of social relations. His marriage with Walter Vincy's sister socially legitimizes him because the Vincy family is an old, influential Middlemarch institution, but he is also under familial obligations to them. He lectures Vincy about his son's extravagant ways, but he clears Fred's name because he can't afford to alienate his wife and her family.

In many ways, money performs the function that family honor once did. The growth of the middle class has increased social mobility and freed many individuals from the constraints imposed by ideas of family honor. Vincy wishes to allow his children the opportunity to advance socially, but Featherstone and Bulstrode use money to manipulate his son. Vincy himself uses his money to force his son to conform to a profession not of Fred's own choosing. Fred naively believes that the promise of old Featherstone's money and property will eventually free him from the obligations of his father's financial support.

Most characters in Middlemarch suffer conflicts with independence. The prevalence of these conflicts owes largely to the transitions undergone by most social relations. There is more opportunity for independence because of social mobility; family name and honor don't outright determine an individual's life choices, but they still carry influence. The blurred definition of "debt" carries social pitfalls. Bulstrode and Featherstone deliberately keep the matter of "debt" indistinct. They leave the question of "debt" somewhere in between its strict financial meaning and the vaguer notion of personal obligation. In this way, it never really becomes clear when the "debt" is paid. Is the debt paid after the money has been returned? Fred obtains Bulstrode's denial of the rumor, but Featherstone gives him a "gift" to keep the "debt" from really being cleared. Moreover, Fred persuades Caleb Garth to co-sign on his debt. This "debt" is more than a financial obligation. This "debt" will soon carry greater consequences for the Garth family.

Another pitfall awaits Lydgate. He believes he can flirt with Rosamond with no consequences. Both Rosamond and Lydgate have unrealistic, idealistic ideas about marriage. Rosamond is also a skillful manipulator, and Lydgate's inexperience in dealing with the web of social relations will later lead him into trouble with Rosamond.