Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

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.