The Characters of ‘Middlemarch’
George Eliot’s Middlemarch is generally accepted as one of the finest works of literature in the English language. To see how they felt about this distinction, Kate and Corey tackled this classic within a few months of each other and, after having a lot of feelings about it, decided to launched The Ides of Middlemarch, a month of discussion and celebration here on Literary Transgressions. Click here to see all posts in the series.
Corey: Okay, favorite and least favorite character time: I think we can all agree that Rosamund is The Worst, followed closely by Mr. Causabon in terms of selfishness.
Kate: They totally are. But I think both the failed Lydgate and Causabon marriages fail less because Rosamund and Causabon are, as we’ve agreed, THE WORST, and more because they go into marriage with disparate expectations. Causabon wants a woman who will basically just sort of…be puttering around and managing his house. Dorothea wants to give of herself in a totally different way, which she doesn’t make clear to him at all. I think that if Causabon had truly understood what she wanted, the marriage never would have happened.
Rosamond also envisioned herself just spending a well-off husband’s money, whereas Lydgate wanted more of a helpmeet. Actually, Dorothea and Lydgate might have made a much better match together than either of their separate marriages.
Corey: That’s a great point. Dorothea and Lydgate are, interestingly, two of the very few male/female pairings who actually communicate on the same level. (See also: Fred and Mary Garth, although even they need an intermediary sometimes.) Dorothea and Lydgate share their stories and concerns plainly and, consequently, they understand each other perfectly. It’s a shame Lydgate had already stumbled into the marriage with Rosamund by the time he gets to know Dorothea, although the freedom he has to spend time with her is certainly a result of her widowhood and his being a married man.
Kate: True, and isn’t it funny that Dorothea and Lydgate could become friends because they were married, but that Will and Rosamund are suspected of adultery, even though Rosamund is married? Not that I think Rosamund and Will would have made a good couple at all — Rosamund is too Becky Sharp-like for that sort of thing.
Meanwhile, the marriages that did work were based on parallel expectations. Mary Garth makes very clear to Fred Vincy what he needs to do to make her happy and to make a marriage possible; Sir James and Celia are perhaps an even better example. She wanted to be better off, financially and socially; he was happy to support her solely for the pleasure of having a pretty, well-mannered wife to grace his home and raise his children. There are no illusions in this marriage, and, as a result, the pair develop a friendship and a type of love that is really admirable.
Corey: Yes! And your examples also made me think of the characterization throughout the novel. Eliot is amazing at effortlessly jumping from character to character and deeply engaging with each person’s personality, history, and social status, no matter who they are.
Next week: What do we make of Middlemarch in the decades and centuries after its publication? Kate explores what it means to be a “book for grown-up people” and Corey takes a look at Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.