Middlemarch by George Eliot

Subject: Literature
Pages: 8
Words: 2217
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: PhD


Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among critics to refer to the 1872 novel Middlemarch by George Eliot as such that continues to represent much literary value even today. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that despite having been written in the late 1800s, the novel contains a number of the discursively legitimate insights into what account for the functioning-principles of just about any industrialized society. In my paper, I will aim to substantiate the validity of this suggestion at length, with respect to the notion of ‘realist’ (systemic) construction of society and human behaviour (as seen in the novel) and the broadly relevant images and metaphors, used by Eliot to describe human relations.

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Main body

One the novel’s most notable characteristics has to do with the fact that its numerous sub-plotlines are concerned with enabling readers to have a spatially extended overview of the relationships between the featured characters – hence, the epic proportions of Middlemarch. There is, however, even more to it – the mentioned attribute invariably results in endowing Eliot’s masterpiece with the strongly defined societal sounding. This simply could not be otherwise – the novel’s size-wise format presupposes the continually altered essence of such interrelationships, as well as their overall systemic (social) effects on people. As Gindele noted, the novel’s characters are represented as “interdependent social beings, in a network, responsible for their effects on other beings and therefore not free” (256). Partially, this explains the fact that Middlemarch is rich with metaphorical references that are meant to accentuate the ‘networking’ effects of one’s continual existence as the fully integrated society member on the very manner, in which he or she aspires to achieve self-actualization, as an individual. In particular, Eliot refers to the notion of ‘web’, as such that extrapolates the author’s understanding of the fact that a person’s behaviour cannot be discussed as a ‘thing in itself’, outside of what happened to be the qualitative aspects of the surrounding social environment:

I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web (352).

Apparently, the author understood perfectly well that, even though just about any society consists of individuals that are primarily driven by the considerations of self-interest; these people’s lifestyles of systemically integrated beings cause them to address life-challenges in the socially sound way, which has nothing to do with the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ principle.

Such Eliot’s awareness appears fully consistent with the main provision of the Systems Theory – the process of a particular system (such as human society) becoming progressively more complex, results in the emergence of the qualitatively new patterns of this system’s functioning. These patterns, however, do not directly derive from what used to be the same system’s operative principles, before it has reached a new level of complexity (Thelen 260). What it means is that as the society grows ever more complex, its overall quality becomes increasingly affected by what happened to be the interactive relationship between its individual members, and less influenced by their actual quality as human beings. This is exactly the reason why, despite the fact that at the beginning of Eliot’s novel most featured characters do exhibit the lack of societal conscientiousness in one way or another, throughout the novel’s entirety the behavioural patterns of these people (with the possible exemption of Edward Casaubon) transform to be increasingly less selfish.

The author clearly wanted to promote the idea that the very process of people staying closely tied to each, in the communal sense of this word, results in their eventual ‘betterment’. After all, while coexisting in the highly interactive atmosphere of the 19th century’s provincial town (such as Middlemarch); its inhabitants were naturally prompted to learn that whatever they do to others would have a close and personal effect on themselves (Coovadia 822). In its turn, this implies that there are no innately good or wicked people and that if some individuals nevertheless do exhibit the reduced ability to adhere to the virtues of a morally sound and socially-responsible living, it means they have not yet become the part of the ‘communal network’ – something that will be fixed with the passage of time. As one of the novel’s most socially integrated characters, Mr. Farebrother suggested: “Character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do” (Eliot 1312).

This metaphorical reference correlates rather well with the omnipresent narrator’s insistence that, because the influence of the surrounding social environment, it is perfectly natural for just about anyone to change its opinions: “There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it” (Eliot 1492). Therefore, there is nothing too odd about the fact that at the end of the novel, the act of just about every character is being revealed reflective of the varying degree of his or her interconnectedness with the rest. In this respect, Middlemarch can be discussed as one huge ‘metaphor of the web’ (network) of its own. The realisation of the above-stated, on the part of readers, is the crucial precondition for them to be able to understand the socially predetermined essence of the main protagonists’ psychological leanings/anxieties.

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The character of Dorothea Brooke illustrates the validity of this suggestion better than any other does – being presented as the embodiment of the virtues of altruism and self-sacrifice; she is there to show that there is nothing truly phenomenological about some people’s tendency to act in the strongly unselfish manner. It is quite clear that the author strived to predispose readers to think of Dorothea as a saintly figure – something that explains why Eliot has made a deliberate point in drawing metaphorical parallels between the concerned character and Saint Theresa. Apparently, the author wanted to expose readers to her own conceptualisation of what the notion of a ‘social being’ stands for:

Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life… Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self (Eliot 3).

This provides us with one important insight into what used to be the author’s outlook on the nature of the relationship between a single individual, on one hand, and the society to which he or she happened to belong, on the other. Unlike most British intellectuals of the era, who used to promote the theoretical conventions of the 19th century’s political economy, Eliot never considered consumption to be the actual purpose of one’s existence and something that enables a person to attain happiness through self-actualisation (Purdy 809). Rather, she believed that it is specifically one’s commitment towards remaining on the path of a continual self-perfection, which enables the concerned individual to experience the sensation of existential fulfilment, in the first place. And, nothing can help better an individual to grow ever more perfected than his or her willingness to prioritise serving the community above everything else. Hence, the clearly Socialist sounding of many of the novel’s ideological overtones: “Middlemarch retains thematic and conceptual connections to the socialist tradition… Before all else, ‘socialism’ insists that, morally and epistemically, the individual must be understood as a constitutive part of a larger communal entity” (Allison 723). However, the author does not only use the character of Dorothea to illustrate that it is thoroughly natural for a person to aspire to lead a life of social significance but also to show that his or her aspirations, in this regard, never cease undergoing a qualitative transformation.

For example, at the beginning of the novel, Dorothea’s ‘proto-socialist’ anxieties appear to have had a self-centred quality to them. That is, by deciding to marry Edward Casaubon, Dorothea did not strive to benefit humanity quite as much as she sought to gain the fame of a self-sacrificial contributor to humanity’s well-being. Hence, the essentially egoistic sounding of her marital aspirations:

It would be my duty to study that I might help him (Casaubon) the better in his great works. There would be nothing trivial about our lives. Every-day things with us would mean the greatest things (Eliot 46).

Nevertheless, as time went on, it was becoming increasingly clear to Dorothea that, for her to be able to make its life count, she must first fulfil her biological calling as a woman (Ashton 160). Apart from the fact that she did love Will Ladislaw, such Dorothy’s realisation appears to have been the foremost reason for her to decide to marry him in the end. This provides us with yet another important clue, as to the novel’s stance on the socially relevant issues. Apparently, the author never doubted the validity of the assumption that there is a dialectically predetermined need for the society’s stratification alongside class/gender lines and for the willingness of men and women to live up to what happened to be their biological roles in ensuring the society’s spatial permanency.

The indirect proof that this indeed must have been the case can serve the fact that Middlemarch never became much too popular among the promoters of the feminist cause/feminist critics. After all, as Austen aptly pointed out: “The feminist critic calls for a literature that will show women active rather than docile, aggressive and am bilious rather than retiring and (sexually) submissive…” (551). Yet, most female-characters in Eliot’s novel do seem to be preoccupied with thinking ‘sexually’ to a varying degree. For example, the character of Rosamond has gone as far as admitting that she would enjoy being able to incite the atmosphere of sexual tension while in the company of men – quite despite her would-be formal status of a married woman:

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How delightful to make captives from the throne of marriage with a husband as crown-prince by your side – himself in fact a subject – while the captives look up forever hopeless, losing their rest probably, and if their appetite too, so much the better! (Eliot 774)

However, it rarely occurs to anyone that the reason why Eliot’s novel does not seem to adhere to the ideal of women’s liberation has very little to do with the presumed narrowness of the author’s intellectual horizons. It is rather the other way around – the concerned quality of Middlemarch is best discussed as resulting from of the fact that, due to its strong inconsistency with the idea of a highly communal (networking) living, promoted throughout the novel, the feminist agenda of helping women to achieve complete independence from men is utterly counterproductive. The reason for this is that, as it appears from the novel, men and women are socially ‘fused’ to such a degree that their continual interactions with each other create the discursive realm of its own. Therefore, there can be a very little rationale to a woman’s predisposition to assess things from the innately egoistic/gender-centric (feminist) perspective. Throughout the novel’s entirety, the author continues to use metaphorical analogies to promote essentially the same idea:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun… The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person (Eliot 471).

This, in fact, explains yet another prominent feature of Middlemarch – there is much wisdom and ethical soundness to the narrator’s line of logic, even though she does not always bother to substantiate her claims by trying to appeal to the sense of logos in readers. Apparently, the web-like structure of people’s interrelationships in the town of Middlemarch resulted in endowing the community of residents with its own ‘collective mind’ (often voiced by the narrator) – hence, the narrator’s tendency to refer to this town as a living entity: “Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably” (Eliot 71). Although this metaphor may seem ill-suited for the novel’s realist format, it is nevertheless thoroughly consistent with the author’s addenda of promoting the values of socially integrated existence.


In light of what has been mentioned earlier, it can be safely confirmed that, in full accordance with the paper’s initial thesis, Middlemarch does offer many discursive insights into what constitute the society’s actual ‘fabric’, as well as into how does it feel being fully ‘interwoven’ with it. What is particularly notable the provided acumens is that they are thoroughly systemic – something that increases the novel’s value rather dramatically, especially given the fact that it has been written in the late 19th century. This, in turn, implies that one’s exposure to Eliot’s novel should prove highly beneficial, in the sense of allowing the person to become emotionally comfortable with the idea of mutual interdependence between the society members. Consequently, this would make it much likelier for the concerned individual to end up acting in the socially responsible way.

Works Cited

Allison, Mark. “Utopian Socialism, Women’s Emancipation, and the Origins of Middlemarch.” ELH 78.3 (2011): 715-739. Print.

Ashton, Rosemary. “The Intellectual ‘medium’ of Middlemarch”. The Review of English Studies 30.118 (1979): 154–168. Print.

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Austen, Zelda. “Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot”. College English 37.6 (1976): 549–561. Print.

Coovadia, Imraan. “George Eliot’s Realism and Adam Smith”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 42.4 (2002): 819–835. Print.

Eliot, George 1872, Middlemarch. Web.

Gindele, Karen. “The Web of Necessity: George Eliot’s Theory of Ideology.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42.3 (2000): 255-289. Print.

Purdy, Dwight. “The One Poor Word’ in Middlemarch”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 44.4 (2004): 805–821. Print.

Thelen, Esther. “Dynamic Systems Theory and the Complexity of Change.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15.2 (2005): 255-283. Print.