Middlemarch: Waiting for Death

The third book of Middlemarch, “Waiting for Death”, contains three sick people and two big marriage mistakes. It begins with the hopeful Fred Vincy trying to come up with money to pay a debt. He particularly wanted to pay this debt on time because he is in love with Mary Garth, whose father is security for the debt. Fred is “unfortunate”, however, and must acknowledge to the Garths that he is unable to pay. Mrs. Garth must give all the money she had saved to apprentice one of her sons and Mary must still give some of her savings, too. Fred has an epiphany. Before, he had just been pained that he “must seem dishonorable” and the Garths wouldn’t think as well of him. He now realizes that his breach might actually inconvenience and injure them: “at this moment he suddenly saw himself as a pitiful rascal who was robbing two women of their savings” (ch. 24). Mary’s father is afraid that her happiness may be wrapped up in Fred, but she assures him, “I will never engage myself to one who has no manly independence, and who goes on loitering away his time on the chance that others will provide for him” (ch. 25). It’s too bad that other characters in this novel do not have the clear view of marriage that Mary has.

689415596Fred comes down with typhoid fever. It is misdiagnosed at first and he was in some danger, but Mr. Lydgate successfully treats him. Mr. Lydgate also attends on Mr. Casaubon, who has a “fit” or “attack” of some kind (just the sort of thing to be expected from him, according to Sir James). He has a heart condition which could cause him to die suddenly. Lydgate tells Dorothea that Mr. Casaubon must take more rest from his work and avoid mental agitation. The last prescription hits Dorothea hard, as the attack occurred after a quarrel between herself and her husband. The third sick person is Mr. Featherstone, who is also attended by Mr. Lydgate. Fred fully recovers, Mr. Casaubon is at least temporarily stable, but the end has come for Mr. Featherstone.

Mr. Casaubon should not have married. He wanted an unquestioningly adoring wife, “a soft fence against the cold, shadowy, unapplausive audience of his life” (ch. 20). Unfortunately, he also wanted an intelligent wife. If he had been less afraid to share his fears with Dorothea, they would have gotten along better. She was fully capable of loving him and encouraging him, but, without knowing his real thoughts and feelings, she couldn’t give him the comfort he wanted. “His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known” (ch. 29). Unfortunately, this shrinking from pity is in relation to his life’s work, so he doesn’t want Dorothea too closely concerned in what he spends almost all his time on. Obviously, this is a bad foundation for marriage. Secrecy doesn’t work very well in that relationship.

519836020The second big mistake made in regard to marriage comes from Mr. Lydgate. After some very obvious hints to him that he is engrossing too much of Rosamond Vincy’s attention and harming her marriage prospects, he backs away. He doesn’t think he is in a position to support a wife and has no intention of getting married. Furthermore, he is not in love with Rosamond. She, however, believes herself to be in love with him and pines after his withdrawn attentions. In a moment of naturalness from her, Lydgate realizes that “this sweet young creature depended on him for her joy” (ch. 29), falls in love with her, and immediately asks her to marry him. “In half an hour he left the house an engaged man, whose soul was not his own, but the woman’s to whom he had bound himself.”


This is part of the Eliot Project which “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. Read “Sophie’s” notes on the third book of Middlemarch here: “Waiting for Death”.

Screencaps from the 1994 miniseries of “Middlemarch” with Patrick Malahide as Edward Casaubon, Douglas Hodge as Dr. Lydgate, and Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond Vincy.

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