An Introduction to 'Middlemarch'

By Serena Kerrigan-Noble - English Student @ Lincoln College, Oxford

George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch (1870-71) is set in a fictional town in the Midlands, and follows the intersecting stories of characters from different social backgrounds. Among its many concerns are the status of women, scientific advances, the industrial revolution, marriage, religion, political reform and education. The events in the novel are set against the backdrop of the 1832 Reform Act, the building of the first railways and the accession of King William IV. It sought to capture what F. R. Leavis has called a “rich human interest…an imaginative sympathy”. The ethical concerns of the novel correspond with John Stuart Mill’s claim that “selfishness [is] the primary cause which makes life unsatisfactory”. The myopic world view of the small community of Middlemarch finds its analogue in the self-interestedness of characters such as the banker Nicholas Bulstrode, and the manipulative miser Peter Featherstone. The moral development of characters such as Dorothea Brooke is tied to their capacity for sympathy, in contrast to the self-absorption which afflicts so many of the characters in the novel. George Eliot’s vision becomes one in which “the growing good of the world” is largely “dependent on unhistoric acts” (889), which are none the less crucial to human progress.

Henry James criticised the vast design of the novel in 1873 as being “an indifferent whole”. However, in doing so, he failed to recognise that the wide scope of the novel, accommodating a wide range of narrative discourses, social perspectives and settings is linked with the novel’s commitment to achieving a sympathetic vison which incorporates all aspects of life. The narrator’s interrogative, “why always Dorothea?” alerts the reader to the novel’s concern with the expansion of our imaginative faculties to accommodate conflicting experiences.

The image of the web which recurs throughout the novel and which was the design for the novel, initially conceived of as “two quite separate novels, two worlds”, which were “woven” into a whole” is a pivotal symbol for the interweaving of different strands of existence uniting humanity together in the novel. The narrator tells us that the function of the history which they relate is to act as a “web…unravelling certain human lots” (145). The subtitle of Middlemarch purports to be “A Study of Provincial Life”, a history which focuses on common life, rather than the grand narratives related in conventional accounts of history. George Eliot suggests that, just as we must change our perspective when watching “the stealthy convergence of human lots”, we must shift our perspective to discover the “preparation of effects from one life on another” (96). The analogy of a candle held to a pier of glass creating the illusion of scratches arranging themselves “in a series of concentric circles around that little sun” represents the egoism which afflicts most of the characters in the play, and which Eliot seeks to mitigate through the enlargement of human sympathy.

Middlemarch captures Eliot’s liberal humanist belief that the “moral progress” of humanity could “be measured by the degree in which” its members were willing to “sympathise” with others. The novel encourages the reader to gaze with a sympathetic eye on the everyday experience of people who live different lives from their own. This impulse finds its analogue in Dorothea Brooke opening her parlour window to gaze on people who, whilst unknown to her, make her feel “part of that involuntary, palpitating life” (838). The novel suggests that the progress of humanity is built upon small acts of sympathy carried out by those resting in “unvisited tombs” which, nonetheless, have an “incalculable” influence on those around them.

Further reading:

  1. Eliot, George Daniel Deronda. (London: Everyman Publishers, 1964)

  2. Eliot, George, The Lifted Veil. (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2016)

  3. Eliot, George, Letters. ed. Gordon S. Haight, The George Eliot Letters. (London: Oxford University Press, 1954)

  4. Eliot, George, Middlemarch. (London: Vintage, 2007) first published in 1871-2.

  5. Carroll, David, George Eliot: The Critical Heritage. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1971)

  6. Eagleton, Terry, The English Novel: An Introduction. (London: John Wiley & Sons, 2013)