Middlemarch: Chapters 23-26

Chapters 23-26 (Fred’s Debt and Illness)

Fred owes 160 pounds to a moneylender for gambling debts. He is afraid to go to his father for money, so he goes to Caleb Garth, the father of his childhood sweetheart, Mary, to get him to sign the note. To raise the money to pay him back, Fred gambles with the 20 pounds from Featherstone’s gift. When this fails, he decides to go to a horse fair to trade his horse. He gets a horse he can sell for a profit, but the horse lames itself, and Fred must go to the Garths to explain he can’t repay their money.
Fred’s conscience and love for Mary make him humbly confess to the Garths and give his remaining 50 pounds. The Garths live frugally in an old farmhouse with their six children. Everyone works to support the family. Mrs. Garth tutors children in her kitchen while she is cooking, Mary takes care of Featherstone, etc.
Mrs. Garth had saved 90 pounds over four years for the apprenticeship of one of her sons, and now she will have to sacrifice her son’s future for Fred’s gambling debt. Fred feels bad because he loves this family, and they love him. He promises he will pay them back someday. Mr. Garth is a generous man who loves to work but is not good at managing finances. He believes in work as a sort of salvation, and therefore, cannot understand the idleness of someone like Fred.
Fred confesses to Mary, and she calls him selfish for his thoughtless life. He says he would change for her love. He still secretly thinks all will be solved when Featherstone dies and leaves him his money, but Mary treats him as though he must depend on himself alone. Mary gives her earnings to her family to help them in this crisis and promises her father never to marry a man who is not independent.
Fred falls ill of a fever, and the old fashioned physician, Wrench, bungles his care. Lydgate is called in and cures him. This makes Lydgate enemies in the medical community, and a rumor goes around that he is the “natural” son of Bulstrode. Mrs. Farebrother says that though this is no doubt false, the rumor is probably true about some other son.
The episode between Fred and the Garths displays a clash of values between the old class system in which it was enough to be a gentleman and the new work ethic coming in with the industrial revolution. Romantic authors like Wordsworth had glamorized the purity of the working classes over the corruption of their masters. The Garths are such a romantic family; in fact, they are probably closest to the author’s model of common sense and a virtuous life. Fred will have to come up to their humble standards if he wants Mary’s hand. This is the reverse of the pattern where the poor boy must become a gentleman to win the lady.
The clash of old and new medical ideas is represented in Wrench and Lydgate. Lydgate uses a stethoscope and has other new-fangled practices that earn him enemies in the provincial town opposed to change.
The rumor about Bulstrode’s natural son foreshadows something underhanded about the pious community leader that is suspected by the population.