Middlemarch: Theme Analysis

Human Wisdom
George Eliot was a humanist, one who believed wisdom was found in the accumulated thought of the greatest human minds, whether famous or not. This humanitarian bent went beyond the confines of formal religion, for Eliot recognized the inherent worth of the human heart itself, regardless of class, race, or religion. The narrator of her novels represents cumulative human wisdom, gathered from experience, rather than from doctrine. In addition, she is a romantic in that her best characters grow through Wordsworthian epiphanies or moments of insight in which they surpass their smaller selves to become larger. In this way, she shows the possibility for humans to realize their potential; character is a process and unfolding towards fuller humanity, and this benefits the whole race. In the humanist tradition, Eliot believes we must purge ourselves of egoism in order to progress.
We Reap What We Sow
The universe is morally efficient and runs through cause and effect; we reap what we sow–that is the hard lesson each person must learn. All Eliot’s characters are shown getting what they deserve. The headnote to Chapter 4 reads: “Our deeds are fetters that we forge ourselves.” Dorothea’s life turns out all right despite her mistakes, because she gets back the good she has given. Likewise, Casaubon’s plans backfire because the codicil to his will is a vindictive slur on Dorothea and Ladislaw and an attempt to control them. His mean-spirited nature is shown up for what it is, and the ultimate irony is that Dorothea’s opinion of him is lost forever. Bulstrode, who actually uses his religion as a cover for his sins, is revealed to be a hypocrite who stole Ladislaw’s inheritance and hastened the death of Raffles. His punishment is a virtual banishment from the town he once had in his pocket.
Illusion vs. Reality
Every human being has preconceptions about life that are tested through experience. Eliot goes inside the minds of her characters to illuminate their illusions and then shows them having to confront the truth. For instance, Lydgate is the brilliant young doctor perfectly capable of making important scientific discoveries, and yet his career is cut short because of his “spots of commonness,” his native prejudices. Lydgate is arrogant, believing that he will save the ignorant people in Middlemarch with his superior knowledge, feeling sure they can have no power over him. Instead, “Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably” (Chapter 15, 114). And, it does. Lydgate does not take into account the power of his wife, Rosamond, for instance, to completely change the direction of his life, or Bulstrode’s power to compromise his reputation. Lydgate underestimates “the retarding friction” of the world, because for one thing, he looks in the wrong direction.
Dorothea, likewise, tries to make Casaubon into Milton or Locke who will rescue her and teach her a higher life: “Here was a man who could understand the higher inward life, and with whom there could be some spiritual communion. . .” (Chapter 2, p. 16). Celia from the first sees Casaubon from a common sense point of view, with a wart on his nose, and Mrs. Cadwallader correctly assesses Casaubon to be Dorothea’s “hair shirt” (Chapter 6, p. 45). Dorothea’s realization comes painfully after marriage: “[she] shut her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits, that she might be petty enough to please him. In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate” (Chapter 42, p. 313).
Love and Sacrifice Sustain Society
It is not the people who talk loudest or have the most money that sustain society. Eliot shows that the truly humble are the wisest: the Garth family, Dorothea Brooke, Will Ladislaw, and Fred Vincy are quietly behind the scenes making a difference in the quality of Middlemarch life. Caleb Garth passes on his work ethic to Fred Vincy and makes a man of him. Mary Garth’s decisions are crucial in shaping Fred’s life, though she is a poor governess. Her integrity and personal sacrifice in not touching Featherstone’s will, keeps Fred from inheriting a fortune and becoming lazy. Her insistence that she will not marry him if he becomes a clergyman keeps him from taking the wrong profession. Her love guides his happiness at every turn, and he trusts her influence. He doesn’t mind giving up the glamour of a gentleman’s life for a farmer’s, with Mary at his side.
Will has artistic talent but gives up his gypsy nature. Instead, he puts his talent to practical use in politics. Dorothea’s passionate belief in others can get her into trouble (marrying Casaubon), but it can also sustain the worthy (her rescue of Lydgate and giving up a fortune to marry Will). Everyone flourishes from the hidden efforts of spiritual and loving hearts like Dorothea’s (see Finale).