When I first tried to read Middlemarch perhaps six or seven years ago, I got bored several hundred pages into the book. I tried again several months ago and I couldn’t figure out why on earth I had been so bored originally. It is a magnificent book, and I mean magnificent in its specific meaning of great, impressive, grand, intricate, exalted.
There are so many characters and so much going on in this book, but one theme stood out to me and that is the pursuit of greatness and one of the brilliant things about Eliot is that she should set her magnificent novel of the pursuit of greatness in a humble village called Middlemarch. But, as she writes of Dr. Lydgate, who has come to Middlemarch to study fever:
Does it seem incongruous to you that a Middlemarch surgeon should dream of himself as a discoverer? Most of us, indeed, know little of the great originators until they have been lifted up among the constellations and already rule our fates. But that Herschel, for example, who ‘broke the barriers of the heavens” – did he not once play a provincial church organ…Each of those Shining Ones had to walk on the earth among neighbors who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments…
Great deeds are not always played out on great stages and can get tangled up in petty concerns. But Middlemarch is also about the failure to achieve extraordinary things and by the end of the book it was difficult for me to tell if Eliot was celebrating the subtle power of ordinary life or lamenting how ordinary life prevents people from being extraordinary.
There are many characters in Middlemarch, but the two main ones are Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate. Dr. Lydgate comes to Middlemarch to study fever, but through his disastrous marriage to a woman who neither appreciates his work nor is willing to bend a little to help him, Lydgate leaves Middlemarch a failure in his eyes and instead becomes a financially successful doctor for wealthy patrons.
But Dorothea Brooks is a different case. She longs to achieve greatness – Eliot compares her to a St. Theresa in soul – but unlike Lydgate she has no specific outlet for her dreams. She is the rare sort of genuine saint who never thinks of herself and devotes her entire energies to trying to help others. But she rarely has a clear idea of how. The best she can do is to marry a great man and help him achieve his goals. This is what she thinks she is doing when she marries Mr. Casaubon, an elderly scholar who turns out to have a dry and shriveled soul that has stunted his capacity to perceive life. And when Casaubon dies and she falls in love with his cousin, Will Ladislaw, she marries him and disappoints her family and friends.
Many who knew her thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another [Will] and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done…
Even the author does not tell us what Dorothea should have done. Dorothea herself always had felt that “there was always something better which she might have done if she had only been better or known better.” It is difficult for me to imagine what that could have been, though. But she does achieve great things in a small way. The book ends as follows:
But the effect of her [Dorothea] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.
It is a beautiful and true thought and it almost seems like Eliot is suggesting that true greatness can be found in living modestly for those around us. But that’s not really the full story. Lydgate certainly could have had a greater impact on the world if he had been wiser and been able to follow-through on his work. And regarding Dorothea, Eliot bemoans that “the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape [ardent deeds of saints like Theresa, who Dorothea should have been like] is forever gone.” Lydgate self-destructs; the trouble with Dorothea seems to be that she lives in a society where there is no room for a woman to really do much work. Dorothea doesn’t know what she wants to do because there is no context for her to do anything except marry a man and help him be great. Instead, she lives in what Eliot calls “the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty.” She has free time and nothing to fill it with. Lydgate could at least become a doctor.
I have often heard it said that it was a great tragedy that Lydgate and Dorothea did not marry, but that strikes me as unsatisfactory. She would still be “absorbed into the life of another,” just as with Will and Mr. Casaubon. It is true that Dorothea and Lydgate understand each other, but that is because of their shared perspective. Dorothea says to Lydgate in a beautiful scene near the end of the book, when Lydgate is in disgrace in Middlemarch and Dorothea seeks to help him, “There is no sorrow I have thought more about than that – to love what is great and try to reach it, and yet to fail.” Lydgate understood this perfectly and what is so lovely about the scene is that it is the first time, for either of them, when they have met another person who knows what they feel. For one brief moment, a part of them that was always lonely is shared with another and they are not lonely. But Lydgate still sees Dorothea in terms of how she could inspire another man to greatness.
In the end, Eliot seems to be trying to have things both ways: on the one hand there are people who long to do extraordinary things and on the other hand there is plain, ordinary life. At the end of the book, Eliot admonishes the ‘insignificant people” that their small deeds create the milieu in which people like Lydgate and Dorothea live. The question is whether the insignificant people, combined, have a greater affect than the individuals who long for more. The happiest people in Middlemarch seem to be people like Mr. Garth, the land agent, who has no particular pretensions to achieving anything, but does a great deal of good throughout the book.
But in many ways, it is a book about people trying and failing and Eliot honors the nobility in their efforts. Even the businessman, Mr. Bulstrode, has tried to achieve a great work for God and through his own failings is brought down. But at the end of the book, Eliot’s plea to the ‘insignificant people’ is not for Bulstrode or Lydgate, but for Dorothea. Unlike Bulstrode or Lydgate, she did not have the means to achieve anything at all. The tragedy is not that she failed, but that her general desire to achieve greatness was never able to become anything other than a vague desire.