The “Wonderful Whole” of Eliot’s Middlemarch

There are moments of narrative personality amidst the social expansiveness that is the world of Eliot’s Middlemarch. The divergent perspectives beyond that of Dorothea’s populate the social milieu of the novel and give consideration to the “un-narrated” (McWeeny, 69) voices. The narrator’s sporadic moments of opinion hint at Eliot’s redefining of the social web, as a field of knowledge in its own right. “This particular web” gives way to the interconnected stories and narratives of seemingly peripheral characters, including Mary Garth and Fred. The narrator comments on how “a human being in this aged nation of ours is a very wonderful whole, the slow creation of long interchanging influences; and charm is a result of two such wholes, the one loving and the one loved” (Eliot, 383). The notion of how any being is an amalgamation of interwoven pieces, shared experiences, and social contingency illustrates the “democratization in  [the world of Eliot’s] fiction” (McWeeny, 69). As the aforementioned excerpt illustrates, even though Dorothea appears as the protagonist, readers (as we have seen in class discussion) are not wholly absorbed by her perspective.

The expansive vista of Middlemarch’s social world brings tangential characters to the foreground. In the above quote, the narrator calls readers’ attention to the world of characters nearby Dorothea: the shadows of ordinary life that populate Middlemarch. Paying close attention to these subplots and the lives of the common people resists unilateral, two-dimensional labeling of characters as good or bad in favor of a much more nuanced telling of experience. Mary Garth cannot believe what the Vicar and Fred see in her “brown patch” of self (383); this passage significantly points to the brownness—the commonness— that Eliot paints as the make-up of a real British town. While romantic novels sought out ideals and representations of people and places, Eliot gives attention to the extensive open-endedness yet simultaneous commonness of the webs that make up the real British social field.

On page 383, the narrator’s noticing of how a person is made up of continuous influences insinuates that “charm,” or social norms of love at the time, is not a mutually exclusive or autonomous entity. Charm functions in the context of the social multitude and the complexity yet mundaneness that make up ordinary lives. An intensive, close reading reveals the series of strings that are knotted, tied, cut, and retied together to eventually result in some form of attachment between beings. Love does not occur in a vacuum, according to Eliot’s narrator. Factors go into, variables mediate and moderate, and the end result is constantly changing and adapting to present forms of being. In this regard, Eliot’s novel of social contingency relies on the resistant of persistent stranger-hood.

Despite the fact that some characters may at first appear tangential to Dorothea or Lydgate’s main plot, they are quickly brought into focus. Such is the reality of social life. Eliot’s grey areas and shadowy characters come so uncannily close to portraying the tedium and ordinariness of the social field that I cannot help but become further enveloped and embedded in the world of her novel. How can one resist the urge to burrow beneath the layers of the multifaceted social milieu, the glimmers of the ‘other’ perspective, and the nuanced voices of female interiority that are intertwined in Middlemarch’s chapters?




Pain and Painting within Middlemarch

There are several allusions to portraits and paintings throughout Middlemarch. I am interested by the role they and art overall plays in this book, especially in the context of romantic poetry. Porphyria’s Lover, a poem we just read, describes a mown physically and consequent violence against her, and her position between life and death. William Wordsworth’s A Perfect Woman describes the male gaze looking upon a woman, and ambiguiuty on whether she is alive. Though art has been mentioned numerous times, I first noticed the frequent mention of portraiture through the disastrous honeymoon to Rome. I may focus a little bit on this chapter from last week’s reading, but that is because it works so well with the art theme and stuck with me as I read the following 250 pages of Middlemarch. Sometimes when reading forward in a book, I tend to think about which of the pages I already read had stuck with me even more.

Firstly, Dorothea does not initially enjoy or understand art. In Rome, Will explains to her how art is “an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing” (Eliot 193). Will is able to teach her about art, in contrast to Casabuon not teaching her about fine literature and poetry – Will lets Dorothea into his world, while Casabuon excludes her.

In chapter 19, Will Ladislaw and his friend Naumann gaze at Dorothea as if she were a work of art, rather than a woman going through depression, dissatisfied in her marriage. They see her as just as beautiful as the statues she is looking at, and though Nuamann wants to paint her, Ladislaw rejects that idea. He thinks she is too complicated to capture in painting form, that she is too dimensional to be captured in two-dimensional picture. The idea of being captured in painting form interests me – it is like restraining her, holding her in a cage, keeping her locked up to be gazed upon and digested by others. This reminds me of male works that describe a woman in poetry or literature, but do not capture her fully. It is like art is caging her in, stopping Dorothea from being her full self, restricting her multi-dimensional potential.

Will, an artist, is an escape for Dorothea, when they spend time together looking at sketches, she is acknowledged rather than being ignored by Casabuon. And in Chapter 28, a portrait of Will’s grandmother reminds her of him. She describes the painting, “Here was a woman who had known some difficulty about marriage. Nay, the colours deepened, the lips and chin seemed to get larger, the hair and eyes seemed to be sending out light, the face was masculine and beamed on her with that full gaze.” (258). She seems to associate the painting with Will but also feels as if the woman in the painting sympathizes with her. Perhaps this is because she thinks Will understands her, and thus the woman too, as a relative to him. However, maybe there is a deeper connection there. By sympathizing with the work of art, or rather projecting its sympathy onto her, she is creating a relationship and engagement with art, though it is an imperfect relationship.

Middlemarch also boasts several mini works of art within Eliot’s work, in the epigraphs that begin each chapter. She is calling attention to what these writers are doing as artists. They put Middlemarch and its themes in context with each chapter, but also call to attention the interesting and complex works these writers achieved. She is drawing attention to works that boast complex themes and have problematic characters. For example, she takes quotes from Shakespeare’s the Tempest in Chapter 32, or Henry VI in Chapter 33 or Henry VIII in Chapter 42. These quotes and many more from other works come from a complicated narrative and complex stories. But furthermore, the vast range of quotes from authors of poetry, play, and narrative, from all over the world, creates a feeling that Middlemarch is a complex work that takes influence from many interesting authors, that make complicated narratives.

Perhaps by establishing Dorothea as a work of art, Will as an artist, and epigraphs of writing at each other, George Eliot is trying to establish that she wants society to embrace more complicated forms of art. She wants poetry, paintings, statues, and literature to demonstrate realism rather than conform to convention. She wants the complications of the real world to be mimicked in an artistic medium, so she creates Middlemarch as an example of this.  And perhaps this theme of art as complication will continue through Middlemarch’s end.


Strangers Across Time and Space

In the excerpted sections of “The Comfort of Strangers” read for class, Gage McWeeny points to the “crowded” atmosphere that permeates the nineteenth-century novel (62). With regard to Middlemarch, he notes the “scores of characters both major and minor jamming its pages” who are “often not given speaking roles or even acquir[e] the legibility of being recognizable as characters” (62). Yet, they “nonetheless constitute the ambient social environment of a densely peopled world within its pages” (62). I found that McWeeny’s portrait of Middlemarch focuses on the most significant or essential aspect of the novel, which is the feeling of excess and crowdedness- heavily revolving around the blur of characters. Due to the profusion of characters in Middlemarch, the audience is incapable of passing through the novel with a full grasp of the people and environments surrounding them from page to page. As McWeeny puts it, “the strain of trying to grant every character, no matter how peripheral to the plot, some measure of narrative attention endows Eliot’s socius with an ambient sense of social density out of proportion to its actual number of characters” (62). Accompanying this point, McWeeny states that this style and construction found within Middlemarch  “makes it hard to look at the work as a whole” (62). 

I found this description of Middlemarch by McWeeny, and the construction of Middlemarch itself to strangely yet accurately imitate the reality of our relationships with others throughout our lives, both across space and time. Spatially, we are incapable of forming in depth relationships with everyone around us, we must pick and choose relationships to focus our energy on. But more interestingly, in my opinion, are our relationships across time. We can form very strong relationships with others during certain times of our lives. But, many of them slowly dissipate, until one day, ten years later lets say, you look back and feel so detached from that person and relationship, and they are just lost amongst a sea of other people and relationships that have faded away over time. On another note, we quite literally pass through seas of people everyday, without ever learning who they are or what inhabits their minds and unique lives. With the reading of McWeeney’s, one can see a sort of dissociation / detachment of individual from society that spreads throughout Middlemarch and our lives outside of the novel. A paralyzing effect is created as a result of this, and the overall multitude of characters, relationships, places, dialogues, events, details, etc which are presented. 


Entails and Environment

(Annah Otis)

Some of the most disagreeable Middlemarch characters are dismissed from Eliot’s pages in Books IV and V. Featherstone’s death comes as no surprise; Fred’s eagerness to claim an inheritance makes the old man’s final breaths seem overdue. Casaubon’s demise is more surprising, but no less welcome. Dorothea dreads the contents of her husband’s will for the same reason the Vinceys anticipate Featherstone’s: wealth and power. Her piety and strong sense of social justice dictate a life of well-planned philanthropy that seems to spurn materialism as much as it depends upon it. 

The social and financial implications of these wills are undergirded by Featherstone and Casaubon’s obligations to bequeath their land to a single person. Early nineteenth century inheritance laws and social custom dictated that landowners settle property on a single family member in the interest of maintaining a strict class order topped by landed gentry (Spring 41). Dividing land was simply out of the question, and even those gentlemen who wished to lease their property to mining or railroad companies had difficulty doing so (45). Small bundles of acreage were sometimes handed over to younger children, but selling or mortgaging was not permissible, except in the rarest circumstances (42). Land reformers were largely unsuccessful in pushing change through Parliament, and primogeniture lasted until 1925 (44).

By the mid-1850s, those few individuals who did not live under a landowner’s thumb were regarded with suspicion (Spring 50). Their small holdings posed a threat to aristocratic power, which was first and foremost based in supreme power over the land and the people living on it. Mrs. Cadwallader remarks that some of Featherstone’s funeral followers, “are quite different from [Arthur Brooke]’s tenants or Sir James’s – monsters – farmers without landlords – one can’t tell how to class them” (Eliot 306). Anyone who fell beyond the traditional social framework defied both descriptions and expectations.

In accordance with legal and social structures, Riggs walks away with Featherstone’s entire estate, while Fred and the other short-changed family members emerge with no land and little money. Dorothea is likewise the sole beneficiary of Casaubon’s estate. Yet, this second will is striking because Casubon could have just as easily left the property to Will Ladislaw, who was his closest male relation. Dorothea could have been given a large sum and sent back to live with her uncle at the Grange under the auspices that she might marry again. The injustice, or perhaps just the peculiarity, of the situation dawns on Dorothea almost immediately. However, Casaubon’s jealousy of Ladislaw prevents him from amending the will when she questions the provisions.

From an ecological perspective, entails prevented land from becoming prematurely fragmented, urbanized, and over-developed. A large tract of land owned by one person is less susceptible to abuse by the interests of many people. The legal precedents preventing landowners from selling land in turn slowed the construction of railroads. Many aristocrats were suspicious of the changes industrialization brought, and therefore resisted any encroachment onto their land. 

The gentlemanly activities Fred and Sir James engage in, namely fox hunting and shooting, required acres upon acres of uninterrupted land. Real-life gentry worked hard to defend their playgrounds from unwelcome development. As a result, ecosystems remained largely intact, if lacking in fox and pheasant populations. Entails perpetuated serious social problems, but the practice also aided in land preservation.

Spring, Eileen. “Landowners, Lawyers, and Land Law Reform in Nineteenth-Century England.” The American Journal of Legal History, vol. 21, no. 1, 1977, pp. 40–59. JSTOR,

Effects of Social Webs

McWeeny’s “Comfort of Strangers” expertly places Middlemarch “as interested in prying us away from the particularities of individual lives and social contexts as it is making us immerse ourselves in them… a Middlemarch preoccupied with forms of social experience that energized not by their specificity, but by their generality or expansiveness” (pg. 63). While McWeeny’s argument focuses largely on social density and neutrality as condensed in the stranger, or characters mentioned without much context or “meat” to them, these characters bounce off Dorothea in a comparative way. Every character mentioned in the social web of Middlemarch helps readers shape and refine the defining characteristics of Dorothea. Even in the events following Casaubon’s death, something that might typically be private and secluded, many people are involved in the happenings. Dorothea herself is out of the loop. The constant surrounding of many characters, demonstrates the interconnectedness of a community, for better or for worse, and shows how the people around you can shape the perception of you and your own character. Nothing in Middlemarch is done singularly, as with almost every occurrence there is a consultation that follows. For example, the loaded discussion between Farebrother and Mary about Fred. These interactions and conversations shape character perception, as Mary is seen as a traditional, faithful woman when she denied Farebrother’s emotional advancements. In this sense, as McWeeny put it, she becomes a sort of trope for a certain type of woman. A characteristic actor in a sociological environment — a commonsensical, ordinary, noncontroversial female member of society. She evokes a general, or universal experience. However individualized, she stands as a larger representation. The importance of community and social webs, contextualizes each character and while it benefits men, it shows women the capability society has to offer, yet doesn’t allow them to fulfill certain ambitions. The social strata of Middlemarch is often intersected, and these intersections are what help to build out characters.  

The Social Sublime

As Gage McWeeny’s “The Comfort of Strangers” highlights, one of the most important passages within the novel thus far is found at the beginning of Chapter XXIX. The narrator states, “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?” George Eliot separates herself from the pre-existing narrative perspective to implore the reader to consider the vast range of characters outside of the protagonists point of view. Additionally, McWeeny makes a thoughtful point on the fact that “Why always Dorothea” is distinctly effective in its language. Rather than asking “What about Casaubon,” the attention of the message is placed on the endless number of people outside of Dorothea rather than simply Casaubon’s individualized perspective that is being left out.

On a different note, I found myself growing cognitively exhausted of trying to maintain all the characters and their individual narratives. As a result, reading McWeeny’s work provided me with some relief and clarity. Specifically, his reference to the social sublime of the novel and how it is both massively beautiful and equally tragic resonated with me in a way that I could not find the words to explain prior to my reading. He states, “….such character imply stories beyond the role scripted for them by the novel…For all the almost overwhelming complexity interrelated plot lines it contains, then, the realist novel nonetheless impels a sense of still more, alternate stories that might have been narrated, but are not” (68). Through openly acknowledging the limitations of a one-side protagonists narration, Eliot is producing a sense of reality that is not static, but dynamic. Like in the novel, reality has its forms, but even those forms are constantly capable of changing and evolving. Dorothea could be narrating one moment, but whose to say she needs to the next? Eliot’s pure sense of quality in the book is not defined by any particular subject, object, or person, but rather an awareness of the formlessness and wholeness of the world we are intrinsically interconnected with. What does it mean to actively involve ourselves in the internal and external aspects of the same thing? Of the stories told and untold? What does it mean to preserve a reality that consists in relation to other things constantly? I realize now that what felt familiar about Middlemarch was it’s almost ethnographic account of the complex social environment surrounding Dorothea, or rather involving her.

Ideas vs. Actions in Middlemarch

Reading this next portion of Middlemarch, one thing I was interested to trace was the different “ideas” that characters have. Eliot seems to emphasize the difference between ideas and actualized reality, a theme that has been developing since the prelude, in which the author describes the “domestic reality” that gets in the way of realizing a person’s deepest and most heartfelt intentions. We see this pattern occur over and over again: with Lydgate’s plans for being a different kind of doctor being overthrown by social and romantic schemes; with Dorothea’s hopes for married life being foiled by her husband’s apathy; with Ladislaw’s aims to be a romantic artistic type overwhelmed by the political machinations of Middlemarch. Eliot introduces countless plotlines in which the idea of a character is disrupted or corrupted entirely, or in which the actions of a character do not reflect their thoughts whatsoever. She constantly demands that we not take actions at face value, but look at them in more critical ways.


“Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which see the blot?” the narrator asks at one point, commenting upon Mr. Casaubon’s doubt and jealousy of his wife’s relationship with his cousin (392). However, this is also a useful metaphor by which to consider the entire novel. It is easy to see a particular action – Dorothea’s letters to Ladislaw, or Lydgate’s vote in the election, or Featherstone’s supposed will – and leap to judgment, but with asides like this one, Eliot demands that we adopt another set of optics as we read her novel. It is perhaps the experience of unfulfilled good intentions that is the essence of the tragedy in this set of lives; Dorothea, since the earliest pages of the novel, carries within her a sense that she is not acting upon what she ought to be, but rather what is good for her. In a similar sense, Ladislaw admits that he is only involved with the ‘Pioneer’ “for the desire to be where Dorothea was” – in reality, his thoughts lie in Italy, where there is art, literature, and beauty (433). Even Lydgate, arguably the character who acts with the best intentions at heart for the people of Middlemarch, thinks of his time in this provincial town in a detached, idealized sense: “Rather enjoying the sense of belonging to no class; he had a feeling of romance in his position, and a pleasant consciousness of creating a little surprise wherever he went” (434). His “preoccupation with favorite ideas” is exactly what restricts him from affecting change in Middlemarch; because he is too much in his own mind, contemplating on the “magic” of Rosamond or the pleasant countryside around him, he is easily swayed from accomplishing what he came here to do (327, 331). Rosamond herself reflects on the difference between idea and action during the brief period before she and Lydgate are engaged: “Ideas, we know, tend to a more solid kind of existence, the necessary materials being at hand” (255). She, at least, is capable of actualizing what she envisions in her mind, through the ‘materials’ of her beauty, wit, and social graces. Almost effortlessly, she gains a husband and upward social movement through her match, as she intended. Eliot asks us to consider, however, how the realization of one person’s idea – a person of new money and power gained from the burgeoning industrialization of Middlemarch – can so drastically impact the actualization of another person’s, like the well-intentioned reformist Lydgate.

Middlemarch Coins

So a heads up: it’s my custom to ask students, on their personal honor, to decide whether they commit or do not commit to that project, and I want to let you know that we’ll be taking that pledge in class tomorrow. I’ll pass around a pledge sheet, privately, and you will or won’t sign it. I will not look at this sheet, ever. But I will pass your sheet back to you when we finish the novel. At that point, those who read the book fully will receive a MIDDLEMARCH COIN, an indestructible token of an experience that no one will ever be able to take away from you. The MIDDLEMARCH COIN will be designed by my daughter June (9), and made by her and me. She has come up with three prototype designs, which I attach here. We’ll vote in class tomorrow on which one we want. 

The Medical Community Debate

Eliot aligns the character of Tertius Lydgate with a progressive, reformist stance in the medical community which tracks accurately with real debates happening within the timeframe. The position is highly detailed, nearly obsessive, with provided information of the context of the professions landscape. The harsh stance given towards “quackery” by Eliot can be mirrored in the first edition of The Lancet published in October of 1823. The opening introduction of the journal, published by Thomas Wakely, states thy intend to fight the establishment “We are well aware that we shall assailed by much interested opposition; [in the process of spreading knowledge and fighting “ignorant practitioners”] but we will fearlessly discharge our duty. We hope the age of “Mental Delusion” has passed, and that mystery and concealment will no longer be encouraged. Ondeed, we trust that mystery and ignorance will shortly be considered synonymous. (Lancet, page 2)

Comedy is interfused into the debate “This was one of the difficulties of moving to good Middlemarch society: it was dangerous to insist on knowledge as a qualification for any salaried office.” (146) The authenticity of the assertions made by Mr. Chichely and Dr Sprague on page 147, regarding the role of the coroner and medical training tracks with very real debates made in The Lancet during the late 1820s and 1830s. In 1832, the Lancet published Samuel Cooper’s lecture “On Surgery”, which tackles the exact debate undertaken by Chichely and Sprague. Eliot’s detailed description of the medical community demonstrates a hyper awareness and dedication to research to set the novel in a very real time and mindset.




Self-Actualization and Ecological Language in Middlemarch

George Eliot’s endlessly dynamic, meaning-full, tangled language, plot and characters in Middlemarch have floored me. I find myself having a similar reaction to Middlemarch as I did to Donna Haraway’s piece; they both have some unearthly (or really, entirely earthly) ability to burrow roots of language across dimensions of knowledge, environment, and in Eliot’s case, character, plot, place, and time. I’m struggling to give myself the space to understand this novel in a macro sense – perhaps because we have yet to finish it, but perhaps too because the novel is so (wonderfully) vertically dense that in a single page a flurry of change can occur, and as pages accumulate, plot moves both quickly and slowly, progressing consistently but on a lengthy timeline.

I am interested, for now, given that I’m a bit overwhelmed by potential excavation of language and plot, in Dorothea’s perceived experience of self-actualization through her courtship, dynamic and projected relationship with Mr. Casaubaum. I was particularly struck by the ways that the natural world defines the language surrounding this process of self-making through devotion to another person. Middlemarch’s language of ecology is related to but critically different than the ways we’ve seen it used in other Victorian works we’ve read so far.

In Middlemarch, the characters (and narrator) seem to have an inherent, obvious closeness to the “natural” world around them that is less mystical but equally important than in, for example, Wuthering Heights. In this way, the language of ecology and nature is not as much a means to present the complex, emotional world of Middlemarch, but is rather exactly the world itself. Eliot weaves nature into her language with an unusual closeness. For example, during Dorothea’s first meeting with Mr. Casaubon, she is overcome by what she feels is the beginning of her self-actualization; falling in love with Mr. Casaubon: “Dorothea’s inferences may seem large; but really life could never have gone on at any period but for this liberal allowance of conclusions, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization. Has anyone ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?” (p. 21). This titillating, spiritual experience of intellectual and romantic courtship that Dorothea is swept into is not like a cobweb but actually is a cobweb. The cobweb is not there to help understand what Dorothea is going through but is the story itself.

This courtship becomes, for Dorothea, a process of romantic, intellectual and spiritual self-actualization – however temporary or un-romantic it might actually be. This actualization happens as Dorothea’s melting into nature; and perhaps nature melting into her. In the scene that follows this one, Dorothea walks outside through Tipton hoping to be noticed by Mr. Casaubon: “She walked briskly in the brisk air, the colour of rose in her cheeks…But there was nothing of an ascetic’s expression in her bright full eyes, as she looked before her, not consciously seeing, but absorbing into the intensity of her mood, the solemn glory of the afternoon with its long swathes of light between far-off rows of limes whose shadows touched each other” (25). In that first sentence, she and the air share an adjective, “brisk”; in this way, she and the air operate in, move through and perhaps are the same in the world. A rose rises in her cheeks and she absorbs the light of the afternoon into her body and mood. Simultaneously, distant “shadows” take on a kind of human spirit and “touch each other.” Dorothea is not becoming the natural world around her, and the natural world does not entirely succumb to anthropomorphization – yet these two spheres of earthly life operate on an equal plane of power at this moment. Neither controls the other, but they sort of cautiously and equally take on each other’s energy and fuse somehow, defining each other as they move into a new plane of meaning. This dynamic occurs throughout Middlemarch and is a key force of meaning-making in the novel thus far.