A Study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot
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Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot

A Study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is regarded as George Eliot’s masterpiece. It is a lengthy work and it was published through 1871-72 in eight parts. In 1872 it was once again published in four volumes. It revolves around changing scenes in the society and Virginia Woolf described her work as “One of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Mary Ann Evans wrote works which reflected the changes that came about after industrialisation. Her pen name was George Eliot. In Middlemarch she has portrayed all sections of the society – the clergy, professional men, businessmen, landed gentry, farmers, and labourers. The new woman is also hinted in this novel but she does not really break free from social norms. It looks at the marriage of two people Dorothea Brooke and Teritius Lydgate. There are many other characters who are equally prominent.  The symbolism, allegory, imagery, writing style, genre, and tone will be analysed.


The narrator in Middlemarch is a third person who knows everything and everyone very well. A third person narrator is a timeless style in presenting a story. Many famous writers have resorted to this to make the reading pleasurable. In the case of Middlemarch, it is so lengthy with so many characters it is only sensible to have the narrator as a character different from all the others in the story. Here it is a narrator who knows them all through their good and bad times and one who is their soul as well. When it is a third person telling a story it is very objective giving justice to all the characters.


Middlemarch was written between 1871 and 1872 and has characters and situations from forty years before that. It is based on the past but not any are real characters so the work is a fictional novel. Since it is based on history it can be called as Historical Fiction. Some argue that forty years before is not really history. It is observed that Waverly, the first novel written by Sir Walter Scott was about historical events that had taken place sixty years before he wrote the novel. So if sixty years can be history so can forty years. So, one can say that Middlemarch is historical fiction.


Eliot was an erudite scholar so the words used and the sentences in her novel are very descriptive. There are a lot of scientific, cultural, historical and literary references in her novel. She has exhibited controlled writing and in the end all the plots falls in place. Generally a novel has an epigraph which tells you the important aspects of the novel so that the reader knows what the novel is about. In Middlemarch there is no epigraph but there is a prelude – a prelude which is mostly about the St. Theresa of Avila. The seed of her story is found in the life of St. Theresa. St. Theresa wanted to live an “epic life’ from the age of seven but was restricted by family and society. She had to be satisfied by reforming the lives of the Catholic nuns in Spain.  However there is something like an epigraph before every chapter and they are quotes from some previous work of literature. Her style and content has earned her the name “Victorian Sage.”


The mood and the temperature of the story are known by studying the tone of the book. Is the story cynical? Is it critical or playful? Is it hopeful or depressing? All these are some indicators for the tone of the novel. The full name of the novel is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life and the title actually gives a feeling it is some documentation of events. It also sounds scientific. It is a documentation of lives of different people in the society but not a dry documentation, there is flesh added to it with its hopes and despairs, love, hate and fear. Yet there is a scientific detachment to the whole story and this can be because of the narrator being a third person.

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It is a fictional town in England where the story happens – the town is Middlemarch. The events happen in the 1830s and reflect those times. There are some flashbacks to France and references of Rome but the narrative mostly stays in Middlemarch.


Middlemarch has many stories weaved into the main plot. Some run parallel to the lives of the protagonists while some cross their lives. Plot analysis of the main characters will be looked into here.

Surprise Right at the Beginning

Generally stories end with “they got married finally and lived happily ever after”. In Middlemarch the protagonists Dorothea and Lydgate get married at the beginning, at the end of the first volume of the book. Dorothea and Lydgate have a strong bonding of ideologies but they follow their heart and Dorothea marries Mr Casaubon who is much older and Lydgate marries Rosamond. This too gives an interesting twist to the story right at the beginning.


Soon into the marriage Dorothea realises that Mr. Casaubon is so engrossed into his own little world of scholastic progress that he has very little time for her. Mr. Casaubon on his part feels that his pretty wife might be attracted to other young and feels that she is not looking up at him as before the marriage. Lydgate also realises that Rosamond is not the girl he had in mind. He wanted his wife to be docile and he would be the chivalrous man in her life. He is disillusioned that her docility was just an act and that she was a very stubborn girl. Rosamond realises that Lydgate loved his profession more than her. The marriages which happened turned sour inside but both the protagonist live their lives without exhibiting their disillusionment.

Complex Relationships

Will Ladislaw, a cousin of Mr Casaubon, shows up in Middlemarch and Mr Casaubon is initially happy but he realises that Will is in love with Dorothea of which Dorothea is not aware for a long time.  Will also visits Lydgate and Rosamond. Rosamond develops a crush on Will which Will does not reciprocate as he is not aware of it and also because he had eyes only for Dorothea.

Conclusion to the Confusion

After the death of Mr Casaubon the will is read and it said that if Dorothea marries Will, she will not get his wealth. Dorothea by now realises that Will is in love with her but does not encourage him. Will does not know about the codicil in the Mr. Casaubon’s will. Later Dorothea is willing to relinquish her share in the will because she was in love with Will. Dorothea sees Rosamond and Will together in a private conversation and thinks Will is in love with Rosamond and walks away but later comes back to see Rosamond to help save her marriage. At that time Rosamond reveals that Will never loved anyone else other than Dorothea. Dorothea is very happy and they get married. Lydgate leaves the town as his name gets tainted. Dorothea is the only one who sticks with Lydgate and gives money to redeem him from a tainted loan. Lydgate dies and Rosamond is free to remarry. Eventually there is peace in the characters of Middlemarch.


The themes that stand out are marriages, social expectations, chance versus grit, dreams and hopes, and spirituaity.


All the marriages are out of love but very soon it turns sour. Only Fred who is asked to become a clergyman and who loves Mary wait a few years. Mary does not move away from her decision to marry Fred in spite of offers from others and finally they marry and are happy after that.  The main protagonists marry for love and in haste and find that their marriage was not to be. The second marriage of Dorothea with Will is successful. In Middlemarch marriage is not seen as only romantic and without problems, but it is seen as having shades of grey and black.

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Social Expectations

There are expectations as to how women should behave. Lydgate wanted Rosamond to be docile. Dorothea was drawn to Mr. Casaubon’s knowledge but after marriage she realised that he would not share his ideas with her- women were not capable of it. A mixed lineage was looked down upon by the society as in the case of Will Ladislaw. Fred Vincy was nearly disowned because he did not study to become clergy.

Chance Vs Grit

In Middlemarch chance and grit are not contrasted but are placed alongside. When they believe in chance bad things happen and it is the same for grit as well. When Rosamond goes against the wishes of her husband on the horse she loses her child. When she writes to Lydgate’s uncle for money against his wishes there is a tense situation between Lydgate and his uncle. When Fred takes a chance with gambling he loses and incurs debt.

Dreams and Hopes

There are many ambitious characters in Middlemarch. Dorothea wants to do something to change the lives of the people and make the world a better place to live in. Casaubon wanted to prove all mythologies are related. Lydgate wanted to discover some basic principles of biology. Then there are mundane hopes like Rosamond’s dreams of living a luxurious life. Mr. Brooke wanted to become a politician. Unfortunately none of these hopes and dreams of the characters are fulfilled.


There is religion in Middlemarch but not in the typical form of Catholicism, Anglicanism or Methodism. It is more spiritual. Will does not take the tainted money from Bulstrode. There is discussion on being clergy -a clergy who did not be a model one. Another who did not want to become a clergy because he knew he was not fit for it. Bulstrode is a wealthy banker but his money was earned by selling stolen goods. He even cheated Will’s grandmother, whom he married first, about her daughter who had left home. He apologises to Will for that. He tells his past to his wife and seeks pardon. When mistakes are atoned then that is moral sense and a feeling of spiritualty.


There are many allusions to debt in both literal and figurative sense. Fred gets into debt by taking a loan from Caleb Garth which he cannot repay because of his callous ways. Lydgate also runs into debt because he goes away from the trodden path in medical practise. Many doctors ask people not to go to him and his practise dwindles. And marriage does not make things easier for him. To clear his debt he takes a loan from Bulstorde not realising it is a tainted loan. To clear Lydgates’s name Dorothea gives Lydgate to give it back and now he has to repay Dorothea. Eliot is trying to show that in some way we are always indebted to each other.

Horse riding is another imagery in the story. There are many discussing horse riding. Dorothea enjoyed it but gives it up very early in the plot when she decides to marry Casaubon. Rosamond also loves horse riding and does it even when she is pregnant and loses her child.

George Eliot was inspired by St. Teresa’s life story and wrote this epic novel Middlemarch. She was not in favour of lady novelists and even lady leaders. So Mary Ann Evans wrote in a male pen name George Eliot. This book became famous because it broke a lot of conventions. The ‘Victorian Sage’ made her point very strongly and with élan.