Chapters 13-16 (The Social Web of Middlemarch)
When Mr. Vincy arrives at Mr. Bulstrode’s to talk about Fred’s unfortunate position, he finds the banker busy with another visitor, Mr. Lydgate. The latter has come to see Bulstrode about plans for a new hospital where Lydgate will be able to serve as a regular physician and also to observe and study closely some of his theories on the origin and behavior of fevers.
In pious language (Bulstrode is a prominent member of the Evangelical church), he informs Lydgate that he is more concerned with the moral than the physical health of Middlemarch. He then explains that of the two candidates for the position of chaplain at the hospital, Mr. Farebrother and Mr. Tyke, he favors the latter and he expects Lydgate to support his choice if he wants financial support for his work. Lydgate shows himself to be honest and outspoken and begins to object when Mr. Vincy walks in.
Bulstrode then begins his power politics with Vincy, his brother in law. He begins moralizing on Vincy’s laxness with his son, Fred. He says he does not want to write a letter clearing Fred’s name because money and piety do not go together. Vincy points out the hypocrisy of that remark as Bulstrode is a rich banker. Bulstrode is married to Vincy’s sister, so he finally agrees to write the letter clearing Fred’s name to Featherstone.
Fred brings the letter to Featherstone, who has been bullying Mary Garth and making her cry. Still, she tells Fred, it is a better job than being a governess. Featherstone is a small minded man who enjoys using his money to make other people jump. Fred expects a present from his uncle that will pay his debt, but Featherstone gives him only 80 pounds.
Fred courts Mary, telling her he loves her and wants to marry her, but she says her father would never allow her to marry a man in debt with no honorable work. Fred is loveable, though weak, and it is clear Mary cares for him. Fred moans, “How is a man to be good for much unless he has some woman to love him dearly.”
We turn to a portrait of Tertius Lydgate, the young idealistic doctor, representing the progressive scientist of 1829, hoping to make a great discovery in medicine–namely, the primitive tissue from which all tissue grows [cell biology]. He has a great intellectual passion and desire to advance medical knowledge, but he has fatal flaws: his arrogance about what he can achieve and his “spots of commonness.” That is, for all his nobility and vision in some areas, he has only conventional ideas about women. His first love, Madame Laure, was an actress who killed her husband on stage. Lydgate insists it must have been a tragic accident, but she tells him she meant to do it. He has forgotten this revelation of the unknown territory of the female mind as he begins to court Rosamond Vincy.
Bulstrode the banker has opposite motives from Lydgate’s. He does not want to advance the human condition; he wants to enslave others, though he represents himself as a man of God. He knows everyone’s business and interferes, using “his neighbor’s hopes and fears.” The narrator reveals him as a hypocrite. This is the man Lydgate has to deal with.
But at a party at the Vincy home, Lydgate forgets his troubles with good company and the charming Rosamond. We hear conversation among the guests that shows the conservative nature of the town, against the reform that is stirring in the country. For instance, the office of coroner is still given to a lawyer, and Lydgate proclaims only a medical man could fill those shoes.
Vincy, the mayor, believes Mr. Farebrother should get the chaplain post at the hospital, and when Farebrother comes in, Lydgate sees he is a good man. He agrees that the best man should get the post, but he secretly hopes Bulstrode’s choice is best because he needs to go along with him.
Rosamond knows how to display herself to advantage, and Lydgate believes she is the perfect woman: “polished, refined, docile.” He knows, however, that he is not ready to marry, being poor and dedicated to his work.
Eliot weaves the webs, the interrelationships, that will trap or free her characters, depending on their choices and flaws. Lydgate is set up for a promising young man with a great career ahead of him, and yet, immediately we see two threats looming on the horizon: the politics surrounding the hospital appointment and his weakness in understanding women. Featherstone and Bulstrode are introduced as the men of power who try to control others with their money.
Fred and Lydgate are on opposite ends of a spectrum. Fred is the young man who looks as though he is going to bungle his life but who has one redeeming feature: he loves a woman of sense who could turn him around. Lydgate, on the other hand, is the man of talent with the noble ambition to help humanity, who is poised for success, unless his “spots of commonness” trip him up.
Eliot creates a parallel quest in Lydgate’s search for the primary tissue and Casaubon’s quest for the “key to all mythologies.” She treats these quests for knowledge with both sympathy and irony. A man’s reach often exceeds his grasp, she seems to say. She admires the characters who have ideals, but as a realistic writer, she focuses on the “retarding friction” of everyday life. What is it internally and externally that holds someone back from realizing ideals? Every person has to deal with the web that society has already woven and the “spots of commonness” in his or her own mind.
On the very same page, the narrator reveals the high point and low point of Lydgate’s inner life. He has a refined intuitive ability (“the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illumined space”) that he bestows on his studies, and yet, he does not use this intelligence to illuminate the topic of marriage. For that, he accepts uncritically what he has heard from books. The narrator says that Lydgate and Rosamond lived in two different worlds and could not imagine the other. Rosamond is always acting the part of a perfect lady to her own inner audience.