Casaubon’s Obession

Casaubon’s allowance of collaboration in his work signifies an acceptance with mortality, and a transference of the acidic obsession which slowly eats away at his and Doretha’s mind.

“This is the first step in a sifting process which I have long had in view, and as we go I shall be able to indicate to you certain principles of selection whereby you will, I trust, have an intelligent participation in my purpose”. (447) In the events leading to his death, Casaubon has become a self destructive force of torment, in keeping with one of his first assertions “I feed too much on the inward sources; I live too much with the dead.”(16) In his jealously, the feeding turns literally on himself. “Thus his intellectual ambition which seemed to others to have absorbed and dried him, was really no security against wound-least of all against those which came from Dorothea.” (391)  Dorothea’s yearning for thoughtful intellectual engagement had been the strongest draw to Casaubon since the beginning of their acquaintance, when the notion of their marriage first enters her thoughts. She seeks a knowledge: “she wanted to justify by the completest knowledge; and not live in a pretended admission of rules which were never acted upon…the union which attracted her was one that deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance,” (27)

Their final interaction of intimacy comes from the reading aloud, which played a crucial component to the beginning of their connection. “She had the very considerate thought of saving my eyes” (60). This final return to familiar patterns signifies a final attempt at connection before departing, which makes the reader aware of how drastic the change of emotional tone has become between the two. Dorothea is in distress, suspicious of “the conjecture of some intention on her husband’s part which might make a new yoke for her.” (449) Gone are the words of liberation

Stepping Away from Middlemarch as a Reader

As this epic story of minutiae, deep thinking, social networks, unfulfilled expectations and the incongruencies and patterns of human behavior continues to unravel, what I am most impressed by and even grateful for, is Eliot’s ability to continue to make space around the story, even though the plot seems to continually compound in degrees of character and plot. Eliot (and the omniscient yet distinct voice of the narrator) does this work in a number of ways.

One way that space around the story is made is through quotations before each chapter. By inserting quotations from real writers outside of the world of Middlemarch, Eliot asserts that the story, despite being fiction, is built around a very real culture, one that the reader might recognize as their own.  Some of my favorite moments in the book (and one of the most effective contextualization tactics that the narrator uses) are when the narrator takes the reader aside, inviting them to step away from the story and look back at it in some way. This might mean looking at a character that may deserve some judgment and pointing out to the reader that humans can often behave against their interest, or solely in their own interest, or without any idea of why they do what they do. These asides are psychological, historical and often humorous – sometimes the narrator even criticizes themselves. At the end of chapter XXXV, the narrator reflects on their duty as the teller of this strange story and the ways their reader might take the story on a whole: “And here I am naturally led to reflect on the means of elevating a low subject…It seems an easier and shorter way to dignity to observe that – since there never was a true story which could not be told in parables…whatever has been or is to be narrated by me about low people, may be ennobled by being considered parable; so that if any bad habits and ugly consequences are brought into view, the reader may have the relief of himself virtually in company with persons of some style. Thus while I tell the truth about loobies, my reader’s imagination need not be entirely excluded from an occupation with lords…” (320).

This strange reflection, like many others, inserted into a story of such complexity and depth is somewhat startling. At this point in the book, I have become so overwhelmingly invested in the characters, the stakes, the plot and what the book has in store, that it is startling to be told that this is a fiction meant to be taken with some grain of salt – that this story may act as a parable. After such care is given to describing the inner and outer lives of each character and the complex threads that connect them with one another, the narrator still takes time to remove themselves from the world of Middlemarch and invites the reader to do the same.

These insertions, however, do not deflate the story, but rather uplift it into the reality of the reader in a way – they force the story into the context of the reader’s life if they have not invited it in already. In this way, the narrator continually asserts that this epic story does not nearly capture a complete network of humanity – because it couldn’t. Social networks, like family trees, extend endlessly over time and earth, and to say that this story is complete in that way would be false and flat. People, places, histories, and ancestries and inherited chains of knowledge are infinitely deep and, as the narrator asserts earlier in the book, “all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.” (132)


Expectation vs Reality in Middlemarch

Having finished Book V, flipping back through I reread this of the narration over Rome: “I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the doorsill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight — that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin” (184). This description illustrates the threshold crossed in marriage from the freedom to look forward to the necessity for that ’expectation’ to be ‘concentrated on the present’. In marriage this threshold is vivid, when seen from the point of view of the narrator, because one’s idea for spending the remainder of their life with another, comes full-force into the reality of how the other determined the value of the commitment, as expressed through every action of the spouse. Outside the marriage, outside the present of demarcated possible futures, then, one imagines a limitlessness to which their marriage can hardly compare.

Much of the differences explored through parallel encounters between husband and wife stem from societal expectations, which grow and are sustained by the method of gossip in Middlemarch which turns each persons own interests into cogs on the machine against open-mindedness paired with seriousness which could (theoretically and likely to be tested by end) open such relations to a shared understanding which would open the voyage of the present to the open vistas of the sea, through another. But everything does not manifest from inherited conceptions, for each relation the novel explores is quite different in substance; rather their parallel natures consist of multitudes of differences. On page 346, Ladislaw would warn Dorothea not to mention their conversation to Causubon, had he not the conception that “To ask her to be less simple and direct would be like breathing on the crystal that you want to see the light through.” While Dorothea would suggest Will “lose no time in consulting Mr. Causubon’s wishes, but for her to urge this might seem an undue dictation.” The two idealizations become impulses of restraint: through their own understanding of protocols and of the wishes of the other (not wholly wrong), they allow misunderstanding to fester which turns to actions which cause a schism between, which can only be crossed the imperfect navigation of discourse between two expectations, evolved from the first and the last and all other interactions not properly represented without a timely sort of authenticity and equally as timely receptivity. It is not always so easy to make the best out of the best intentions, nor to go back in time, entangled in events so often written to be understood as linear.

Just a Figurehead

A pattern I’ve seen over and over again throughout Middlemarch is the presence of figureheads. The figureheads are typically high society individuals, while the brains generally are low society individuals. A notable figurehead in the first two hundred and fifty pages of this novel is Sir James. He takes Dorotheas idea of providing cottages for impoverished residents throughout his estate. Taking this idea makes him appear charitable and heroic, thereby elevating his social status. While Dorothea comes from money,  she is considered low a society individual since she is a Victorian woman with little freedom.

The main figurehead for the next two hundred and fifty pages is Mr. Brooke.  When Mr. Brooke goes to visit his tenet, Dagley, about Dagley’s son illegally hunting on his estate, he realizes how much his tenets hate him. Understanding his lack of qualification and not wanting to be disliked, Mr. Brooke realizes that he should re-hire Caleb (who he had fired years prior due to some dispute) to manage his estate. Without Caleb’s help, Mr. Brooke’s status as well-respected land-lords will be placed in jeopardy (Eliot 373-376).

Similarly, Mr. Brooke uses Will to help run his editorial and provide him with the knowledge to sustain his political campaign. In practicing for his campaign, Mr. Brooke agrees with everything. Will insists that if Brooke ever wants to win the election, he must have an opinion. Otherwise, people will view him as ineffective (431-432). Without Will, both Brooke’s editorial and campaign will likely crumble

Generally, it appears that the most high-society individuals in the novel need the aid of low society individuals to thrive. From an outside perspective, it looks like high society individuals, like Sir James and Mr. Brooke, are incredibly intelligent and successful; however, by getting a glimpse into the inner-workings, we realize that their knowledge and success are attributed to people deemed beneath them.

Questions: Can you name a high-society character in the novel who receives no form of assistance–particularly from a ‘low society’ character? Which high society individual is most reliant on low society individuals?

Why Always Dorothea?

The beginning of chapter 29 starts with the sentences, “One morning some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage” (261). Upon reading the first line, I was shocked by the possibility that Eliot was talking to the reader directly. Was Eliot unhappy with the novel’s partial focus on Dorothea? Was she tiring of her as a character, or perhaps just illustrating a frustration with her choices? It was, after all, her own marriage, so why shouldn’t Dorothea be given the right to express her feelings about the union? My mind was spinning around, trying to understand this shift of authorial involvement in the tale. Of course, after reading the next sentence, I understood that it was, in fact, Casaubon who was the ill-tempered speaker, but knowing Eliot as such a strong writer, she would not create such a moment without meaning.

The act of using Casaubon as a sort of conduit through which to speak to the reader about Dorothea makes me question more about both Dorothea and Casaubon as characters. I personally am much more fond of Dorothea than Casaubon, but the question of “why always Dorothea” places her into a harsher light in my eyes. She was foolish to marry Casaubon and, unsurprisingly to many, hasn’t had the most successful of marriages, so I don’t see her as the most pitiable of characters. The constant trouble she appears to be going through can get frustrating, but a reader must still acknowledge that her situation was worsened by a lack of real guidance from those who should have tried harder to sway her from making the decision which led her down this path of many difficulties.

In terms of Casaubon, the fact that Eliot is using him as the mouthpiece for her own agenda is pretty funny when you think about how highly he regards his own opinions and thoughts. Now take that and add on the fact that the words he is speaking are coming from a woman. Knowing his unfortunate beliefs regarding the overall intelligence and complexity of women, it’s great to see his character being taken over by one, thus undermining his ideas about gender equality.


Eliot and Networks

One of the points that stood out to me in the McWeeny reading was the discussion of maturity. McWeeny suggests that “maturity” consists of a narrow focus. Children get distracted, whereas adults live in a world that consists of “more focus,” and of “monogamous modes of interest and desire (63).” This is why, according to McWeeny, Middlemarch is a paradox; Eliot, for a good portion of the novel, focuses largely on Dorothea — a seemingly mature decision — only to have Eliot completely turn that pattern on its head. Clearly Eliot did not see a narrow focus as “mature,” or “correct.” Either that, or, more likely, she had no interest in being “mature,” and “correct.” Her decision to add “ — but why always Dorothea?” appears, in the context of these ideas, to be self-deprecating and childish. However, to me this feels like a more calculated, bold, and transparent move. She is indicating to the reader that they should expect a shifting focus for the rest of the novel. She is also expressing, very directly, how she believes a story should be told or how the explanation of a network should be approached — through detailed perspectives of the many rather than the few. To do it another way would be to take the easy way out, and to offer an incomplete telling. 

This pushed me to consider Eliot’s own ideas about networks and how they should be approached manifest themselves in the story. On one hand, there is Casauban, who dedicates his life to writing “The Key to All Mythologies.” Eliot chose this title to indicate to readers that Casauban took on a project that is impossible to complete. The scope is way too wide; he is attempting to dissect and explain a never-ending network. This impossible task drains him, and eventually, he dies. Here Eliot demonstrates that one cannot approach a web of relations with the intention of fully understanding and explaining every part of it. She also illustrates, through Mr. Brooke, that an attempt to enter a network with too narrow, or shallow an understanding of that network will be unsuccessful. Mr. Brooke’s speech with which he attempts to enter the political sphere illustrates this fact. “I am a close neighbour of yours, my good friends — you’ve known me on the bench a good while… (474).” Soon after, “an unpleasant egg broke on Mr Brooke’s shoulder (475).” Mr. Brooke, in addition to lacking political knowledge, also lacks genuine connections with the people in his audience. Therefore, when he tries to connect, he fails, and if he tries to understand, or explain, he will also fail.

Although I undoubtedly lack a full understanding of Eliot and the way she thinks, these characters, as well as her interjection about Dorothea, give insight into complex way in which she thinks about relations. To fully account for all the parts of the network, one cannot narrow their focus too much, but too broad of a focus is impossible to achieve. Instead it is necessary to go in depth on a number of “parts,” or in this case, characters — an idea, which, if true, helps explain the length of Middlemarch.

A Pointedly Unsocial Form of Intimacy

We discussed the narrative style of Middlemarch a bit during class last week but McWeeny’s “Comfort of Stranger,” seemed to parse it out in a way that better describes its use within the novel. While getting into the thick of the novel for this week’s reading I began to think of the narration’s free indirect discourse as a kind of mind-reading. The way the narrator jumps around from an omniscient presence to revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of a character makes the reader, or at least me as the reader, feel like I’m an invisible character who is privy to what’s happening in the minds of the other characters if it suits the story to reveal them a bit. McWeeny says that “In trying this form of narration to an impersonal intimacy or the well-socialized self, it is nevertheless important to observe that what free indirect style instances is a pointedly unsocial form of intimacy. It is, in fact, an intimacy predicted on the impossibility of anything like actual social contact between its participants,” (McWeeny, 90). What he put into words here is how that feeling we get while reading, of being involved and connected to each of the characters, is not felt by the characters in the book. While we may know what each of them is thinking and feeling towards the others, they have no knowledge of it. The “impossibility” of our viewpoint while reading relies on the lack of intimacy or feigned social contact in the world of Middlemarchers.

I’ve read other novels with this type of narration but its role here seems particularly important to what Eliot is doing with all the intersecting relationships and plots in Middlemarch. McWeeny describes how the narrative style helps the different voices of characters from various classes by describing it as transmuting “‘noisiness,’ the abstract or indistinct qualitities of strangers and their awkward fit with the socially codifying impulses of plot, into the central narrative,” (McWeeny, 89). Not only are the interjections of character’s viewpoints “unsocial” but also “awkward,” because of the improbability of them all being heard on the same level in the nineteenth century like the way we are reading them now. One instance that stuck with me where I saw this come through was towards the beginning of chapter 46 when the narrator sets the scene by saying “Middlemarch was becoming more and more conscious of the national struggle for another kind of Reform,” (Eliot, 431). Mr. Brook and Ladislaw are discussing another election, and during their chat, we get an inner-look at how Ladislaw is planning his future moves under Mr. Brook while they are together, “Mr. Brook might be in the Cabinet, while I was Under-Secretary…little waves make the large ones,” (Eliot, 433). In the same conversation the narrator provides a general opinion from the town about Ladislaw saying that he had lost “caste”  and his own relation, Casaubon, didn’t really like him (Eliot, 434). This kind of layering of personal thoughts and information characters would never actually share with each other, but do think about, connects them in a web of indirect discourse that links their individual plots together into one often unnoticed community.

No genius in another could please me

“I found that no genius in another could please me. My unfortunate paradoxes had entirely dried up that source of comfort.



One morning some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea– by why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” pg 261


This famous turn in the novel is confusing in tone as McWeeny points out at the start of their second chapter. The narrator is obviously exasperated, interrupting themselves to exclaim, “by why always Dorothea?” However, as McWeeny asks, who are they irritated at? Dorothea? The reader? The multiplicity of characters that they must keep track of? For it is a rather confusing complaint for them to make– “Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” No, she is not the only one with dominion over the complexities of this marriage, but it is her marriage. It seems odd for the narrator to become annoyed at this exact minute. If we were going to look for authorities on the marriage of Dorothea and Edward, it would be Dorothea and Edward. 

While the narrator uses this moment to pivot from Dorothea to Edward, it still seems like a very forceful insertion of themselves for a rather minor movement. Additionally, while Dorothea may not be the reader’s favorite character, she is more likeable than Edward, I would argue. It is as if the narrator, however, has grown bored, or even perhaps fed up, with Dorothea. The second question, “Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” feels directed specifically toward Dorothea. However, given the Prelude, we would not expect Eliot to target a female character with such pointed animosity; rather, we would expect a more neutral, if not favorable, approach to a potential Theresa. Unless we posit that the narrator is a different speaker than that of the Prelude. Or perhaps we can find more information from the epigraph. 

“I found that no genius in another could please me,” is a very pessimistic statement. If we take it to reflect the narrator’s point of view, and potentially that of some readers at this point, we perhaps understand the interjection. Middlemarch is a multitude of narratives, but expressed by a singular narrator. In order to conceptualize an even slightly unbiased narrator, we have to assume that they are almost entirely removed from the story that they are telling. Middlemarch’s narrator is able to stick with this story because they have limited stake, they are not a part of the narrative that they are telling. That being said, they remain unmoved by the genius of the other characters. The “unfortunate paradoxes” of the other characters in Middlemarch are just that– trivial minutions that evoke passing emotion, but are paperdoll-like in their substance. One simply gets tired of always talking about Dorothea if one does not find her very interesting to begin with.

Swans in a Brown Pond

Dorthea is placed as the antithesis of all that is Middlemarch. She is serious where others are frivolous. She is studious where others are shallow. She is the swan amongst the ducks all swimming in a brown pond. Yet, her nature does not completely isolate her. It only forces others to take a greater notice in her, whether she is aware of this attention or not. However, her would be counterpart Will Ladislaw is in many ways her direct opposite. He has the ability to drift between households and class lines fluidly. People regard him not as intimidating, but ostentatious. Yet he is also distinguished as a social oddity. Pages 434 to 445 focuses on Will’s interactions with his new neighbors. His escapades include, “…pick[ing] up a troop of droll children…another was, that in houses where he got friendly, he was given to stretch himself a full length on the rug…whom [Miss Noble] it was one of his oddities to escort when he met her in the street with her little basket, giving her this arm in the eyes of town” (435). All of these actions are seen as infractions to the social norms set by the population of Middlemarch. So why is Will allowed to break these prescribed conditions and Dorthea is seen as an outsider? It could be because Dorthea was born into the brown pawn, meanwhile Will is given the space due to his position as an outsider. One could argue that Lydgate is comparable to Will because of their shared circumstances as arriving to Middlemarch instead of being born in Middlemarch. While this is true, there is one key difference between Will and Lydgate. Will swims on top of the brown pond, interacting dexterously with the co-inhabitants, Lydgate is drowning. He falls deeper into debts, both monetarily and socially. Will is exemplary of how an outsider can survive in the consuming Middlemarch. He is able to dodge any sort of major ties to politics, and is versed enough socially to converse with any person regardless of class standing. Dorthea is tethered to her constraints of class, home, and marital obligation. She is an aloof swan, gracing the ducks with her presence. Will is still a swan, but one who has learned how to convert and make friends with his fellow pond-er. Yet, the pool is starting to grow too small for so many big bodies.


As we continue to read the many narratives of Middlemarch, a common theme of “expectations” continues to come up. We touched on this last class, specifically in relation to Mr. Lydgate’s assimilation (and expectation to assimilate) to Middlemarch society. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that one of Eliot’s intentions in this mass novel is to define and redefine expectations we have for everything and everyone around us. This notion came to me when I was reading McWeeny’s chapter; they mention that, “to think of narration as working to loosen a character’s hold on its interest may feel strange, in part because Middlemarch’s narration is distinctive preciselt in being carefully attuned to the ethical and perceptual effort involved in being attentive to other people” (63). However, I would have to disagree. I believe that, in adding these slightly abrupt and intuitive marks from the narrator, Eliot is only enhancing that motif of expectations.

In a novel that discusses the minutia of each character’s expectations, and the relief or irritation that stems from the reality of them, it only makes sense that we are able to also see the narrator. In this sense, we are able to view the narrator as a character with genuine thoughts, feelings, and emotions about the story that they are sharing. A moment that was most intriguing and amusing to me as I read was on page 289, at the end of Chapter 31 (I have a different edition, my apologies): “The right word is always a power, and communicates its definiteness to our action”. The definite usage of words like “the”, “always”, and “our” helps underline the narrator’s understanding being  on our same plane of existence. Meaning that, they sort of get how we may be reacting or thinking of the narrative and the greater meanings of the narrative. I think this is one of Eliot’s most fascinating and, quite frankly, exciting skills that she employs.

Therefore, when something tragic or funny or exciting occurs in the novel, I sort of look forward to the narrator’s side comments. I expect them in a way that makes the overall experience much more invigorating. We are able to feel how timely this piece is.