Middlemarch: The Dead Hand


George Eliot filled Middlemarch with young people brimful of high aspirations. Dorothea wants to make life beautiful for everyone. Lydgate wants to make new medical discoveries. Now Will Ladislaw, too, means to do great things. With Mr. Casaubon dead, Will has more fully realized the gulf between himself and the very wealthy Dorothea. He decides to go away and earn a place worthy of her. “He could speak and he could write; he could master any subject if he chose, and he meant always to take the side of reason and justice, on which he would carry all his ardor. Why should he not one day be lifted above the shoulders of the crowd, and feel that he had won that eminence well?” (ch. 51). But before he goes, he wants to make sure that she knows he is doing it for love of her. Will still does not know that there is another obstacle between them — Mr. Casaubon’s will.

Mr. Casaubon died suddenly. He was attempting to obtain a promise from Dorothea, “whether, in case of my death, you will carry out my wishes: whether you will avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire” (ch. 48). Dorothea thinks he wishes her to finish his Key to all Mythologies (which is part of what he wants) and feels that devoting herself to him while he is alive is one thing, but binding herself to a work she feels is useless after his death is another. She tells him, “it is too solemn — I think it is not right — to make a promise when I am ignorant what it will bind me to.” In the end, however, she decides that she cannot refuse to comfort him in this way and will give him her promise. Before she can do so, however, he is dead.

Personally, I think that Dorothea should have refused such a vague promise. If Mr. Casaubon wanted her to promise to do something he was unwilling to tell her about, chances are that it was not something he should be asking. I understand why she decided to promise, but I don’t think she was right to.

Mr. Casaubon’s will leaves everything to Dorothea, but with a codicil: she loses the property if she marries Will Ladislaw. (Mr. Featherstone, too, was fond of codicils and wanted to thwart others after his death.) Dorothea is repulsed when she learns what her husband did. She feels effectually hindered from doing anything to help Will.

Before her husband’s death, Dorothea came upon Will spending time with Mrs. Lydgate in the absence of Mr. Lydgate and it finally occurs to Dorothea that, as she finds this troubling, so Mr. Casaubon may have viewed her private meetings with Will. I like Will better when he is away from Dorothea. He has dedicated himself to public work and doing it well. He is also fond of children and the picture of him putting on puppet shows for a troop of ragged children is both humorous and pleasing — much preferable to him trying to lessen a wife’s good opinion of her husband, while trying to gain a special affection for himself.

Mr. Bulstrode has come more to the forefront of the story. Though convinced that “there was a total absence of merit in himself;” apparently this doctrine “may be held with intense satisfaction when the depth of our sinning is but a measure for the depth of forgiveness, and a clenching proof that we are peculiar instruments of the divine intention” (ch. 53). I don’t think the apostle Paul would approve of this viewpoint.1 I’m not sure that Mr. Bulstrode is going to hold it much longer himself, as soon he is going to demonstrate the fearful truth “be sure your sin will find you out”.2 Furthermore, since “the pain, as well as the public estimate of disgrace, depends on the amount of previous profession” and Mr. Bulstrode had a definite “holier than thou” attitude, it is likely that this exposure will hit him very hard. In terms of the story, this has commenced with the introduction of a highly unpleasant character: Mr. Raffles.  It is also hinted that Mr. Raffles knows something about the Ladislaw family, which will no doubt be extremely distasteful to the irritably sensitive (a trait he seems to share with his deceased second cousin) Will.

There are three books more to Middlemarch, in which to explore all this, along with what will happen to all Middlemarch’s many hopeful young people.


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 fifth book of Middlemarch here: “The Dead Hand”.

1 “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” (Romans 6:1-2a) — Not that Mr. Bulstrode was exactly “continuing in sin”, but the idea of being even mildly satisfied with our sinfulness because it shows the depth of God’s forgiveness is a bit twisted.

2 “But if ye will not do so, behold, ye have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out.” (Numbers 32:23)

Screencap from the 1994 miniseries of Middlemarch with Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw.

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