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After returning home from Rome, Dorothea contemplates the portrait of Casaubon's ill-fated aunt and feels a reluctant kinship with her because she experienced marriage difficulties. Brooke comments to her that Casaubon looks pale. Celia tells Dorothea that she is engaged to Sir James Chettam. Casaubon thought he had found everything he wanted and more in Dorothea: a ready helpmate with "the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex." He wanted a wife who would admire him uncritically, but he doesn't experience the bliss he expected.
Two letters from Ladislaw arrive, and Casaubon reports that Ladislaw suggests that he would like to visit Lowick Manor. Casaubon tells her he must decline because Will's presence would distract him from work. Irritated, Dorothea responds that she could not take pleasure in anything that would displease him. Her evident headstrong nature makes Casaubon nervous. Casaubon begs her to drop the subject. They work for a short while until Casaubon collapses with some kind of fit. They send for Sir James, who suggests that they have Lydgate examine Casaubon. Sir James regrets anew that Dorothea married herself to such an elderly man.
Lydgate advises Casaubon to be satisfied with moderate work and frequent relaxation. In private, Dorothea begs him to tell her if she is to blame for Casaubon's heart attack. He tells her that she is not guilty. He states that Casaubon could live another fifteen years only if he is careful to follow Lydgate's advice. Dorothea reads Ladislaw's letters. He writes that he plans to return to England. He wants to deliver Naumann's painting of Casaubon in person. She requests that Mr. Brooke write Will and tell him not to come to Lowick because Casaubon is ill. Brooke invites Will to come and stay at Tipton Grange without telling Dorothea.
Selina Plymdale, Ned Plymdale's mother, tells Mrs. Bulstrode that she believes Rosamond and Lydgate are secretly engaged. She is annoyed that Rosamond rejected Ned in favor of a newcomer in Middlemarch. Mrs. Bulstrode visits Rosamond to ask her about her secret engagement. Rosamond informs her that she has not become secretly engaged to Lydgate. Mrs. Bulstrode warns Rosamond that Lydgate is not wealthy and that the medical profession is not likely to make him wealthy. Rosamond tells her that she is sure Lydgate has good connections, so he must not be poor.
Mrs. Bulstrode questions her husband and learns that Lydgate has said nothing indicating plans to marry soon. Mrs. Bulstrode hints to Lydgate that Rosamond has gotten the wrong idea. Lydgate resolves to stay away from the Vincy household. Rosamond becomes very unhappy. However, one day he has to go see Mr. Vincy because Featherstone's health is beginning to fail. Vincy is not home, but Lydgate sees Rosamond, whose obvious heartache touches him. She begins to cry, and he kisses her tears away. He leaves the Vincy household as an engaged man. He asks Mr. Vincy's permission to marry Rosamond. Vincy is so delighted that Featherstone is on the brink of death—he hopes Fred will inherit his estate—that he gives his blessings.
The news of Featherstone's imminent demise brings all of his relatives to Stone Court. They all watch one another suspiciously and quarrel over who deserves to get Featherstone's money and land. Featherstone refuses to see any of them. One night, Featherstone tells Mary that he has written two wills, and he plans to burn one of them. He asks her to open his iron chest and take out the will inside it. She refuses. He is too weak to do it himself, so he tries to bribe her. Mary says she won't compromise her reputation. Featherstone dies that night clasping his would-be bribe money and the key to his iron chest.
Casaubon first noticed Dorothea for her intelligence and assertiveness. However, these very qualities make him unhappy after his marriage. Casaubon isn't the "great soul" that Dorothea wants him to be, and she isn't the docile, submissive woman he wants her to be. Casaubon is an insecure man. His life-long work, the Key to All Mythologies, is impossible to complete. He views the process of beginning to write it with apprehension and anxiety.
Dorothea's early adoration of Casaubon's intellectual pursuits bolstered his self-esteem. She thinks her insistence that he stop accumulating notes and begin writing is encouragement. However, Casaubon interprets it as criticism. Before, she admired his project from afar. As his wife, she wants to become involved.
George Eliot sympathetically represents the disappointment of both Casaubon and Dorothea. She presents human nature as a necessarily contradictory thing. The qualities that Casaubon admired before marriage become a threat after marriage. Casaubon views Dorothea's involvement with his project as intellectual rivalry. Her desire to learn Latin and Greek further increases this feeling. As a woman and a wife, her rivalry with his field of research heightens his self-doubt. An unambitious, appreciative wife would bolster his esteem. However, Dorothea only exacerbates his pre-existing anxieties.
Dorothea's passionate, emotional temperament bewilders Casaubon. She needs an emotional response, but he is too strictly rational. His inability to give her what she needs makes him feel inadequate as a husband. The collective effect of these anxieties doesn't dispose him to react positively to Dorothea's relationship with Will. Dorothea's attempt to become involved in his dealings with Will further increases his self-doubt. He takes it as a tacit criticism of his ability to do his duty towards Will.
Casaubon's heart attack forces him to face his mortality. His embittered response to Lydgate's advice reveals his fear of dependence. He doesn't want to enter a second childhood or a period of extreme infirmity. Dorothea's anxious concern for his health increases his feelings of helplessness. These personal difficulties generally highlight Casaubon's fear that he is slowly losing his masculine pride. He cannot mold his wife into a model of appreciative submission; she threatens to rival him in conventionally masculine scholarship, and he feels inadequate to deal with her emotionally. He feels threatened in his capacity to do his duty toward Will, both by Dorothea's interference and Will's rejection of his financial assistance. He must rely on Dorothea after his heart attack. He is continually described as old, unattractive, and dry, descriptions that emphasize his frailty and lack of virility.
Whether Lydgate likes it or not, his flirtation with Rosamond is public material. Their mutual interest in one another angers Rosamond's previously frustrated suitors. Lydgate's naive disdain for the importance of the web of social relations has only succeeded in making him a very unpopular man. His belief that he can work with Bulstrode and still remain independent of any personal or professional consequences is equally naive. Unlike Bulstrode, he can ill afford unpopularity.
Rosamond regards Lydgate as a character from a romance novel come to life. Lydgate himself, despite his rational scientific zeal, is attracted to this role. His gallant behavior towards the actress, Laure, who killed her husband on stage, implies that he enjoys playing the romantic hero. However, the discovery that the actress actually intended to kill her husband shattered his romantic fantasy. He resolves to avoid such romantic entanglements afterwards, but he nevertheless plays the romantic gallant when he sees Rosamond's tears, forgetting the practical matter of his meager income. Like many characters in Middlemarch, Lydgate deceives himself.
Lydgate's disdain for the effect money has on people's action is not exactly unfounded. Featherstone's relatives surround the dying man like vultures around a carcass. His manipulation breeds more manipulation as the relatives watch one another suspiciously. The way he uses his wealth brings out the worst in himself and others. As a sick, old, unloved man, he would be completely impotent if it weren't for the power his money gives him. However, his unscrupulous deception renders him helpless in the end. Mary Garth will not take his bribe money. She knows the danger of tainted money, and she refuses to compromise her reputation by participating in his crowning act of manipulation. In the midst of dozens of suspicious relatives, she couldn't take the risk of taking his money even if she wanted it. She also achieves a somewhat poetic form of revenge. Featherstone's continual manipulation of Fred is partly to blame for Fred's gambling debt. Therefore, Featherstone is partly to blame for her family's financial troubles. Featherstone dies impotent, clasping his money. At the very last, it signifies his helplessness rather than his power.
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