“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”
— Dorothea (Middlemarch, by George Eliot, chapter 72).
A theme in Middlemarch, not central in George Eliot’s earlier novels, is marriage. The Casaubons’ and Lydgates’ marriages are portrayed and analyzed in detail. Long before book eight, of course, the Casaubons’ marriage has been ended by Mr. Casaubon’s death. In “Sunset and Sunrise”, the final book of Middlemarch, however, Dorothea Casaubon brings her experience to the aid of the Lydgates’ marriage. In book seven, much emphasis was put on Lydgate and Rosamond’s disintegrating relationship. Of Lydgate, it was said, “[H]e dreaded a future without affection, and was determined to resist the oncoming of division between them” (ch. 64); and of Rosamond, “It is a terrible moment in young lives when the closeness of love’s bond has turned to this power of galling” (ch. 65).
Lydgate and Rosamond, at the beginning of book eight, are both struggling with the effects of the rumor about Lydgate taking Bulstrode’s money and then helping him make away with Raffles. Through all his money troubles and marriage difficulties, Lydgate has been brought down from his lofty intellectual life to the plane of “soul-wasting … worldly annoyances” (ch. 73), as George Eliot puts it. Now Lydgate is absolutely miserable and he fears hurting Rosamond in his anger.
Rosamond, on her side, is thoroughly listless and dissatisfied with her life and seeking diversion by trying to have an emotional affair with Will Ladislaw who, she thinks, would have been a better husband than she has found Lydgate to be. “No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband” (ch. 75). Completely self-absorbed, Rosamond is not about to sacrifice her desires to help her husband.
After offering to talk to Rosamond on Lydgate’s behalf, Dorothea discovers Will and Rosamond together. Though she immediately leaves, crushed by the belief that Will loves Rosamond, Dorothea comes back to try to help her. She tells Rosamond,
“Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings. Even if we loved some one else better than — than those we were married to, it would be no use … I mean, marriage drinks up all our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort of love. I know it may be very dear — but it murders our marriage — and then the marriage stays with us like a murder — and everything else is gone.” (Ch. 81)
Though unable to really fix the Lydgates’ marriage, Dorothea does help Rosamond to be less discontent with her husband in the short run. Dorothea is rewarded for seeking to help Rosamond, despite her devastation over Will, for Rosamond admits that, though she was seeking comfort from Will, he was telling her that no woman existed for him beside Dorothea.
Before quitting the subject of marriage, I must mention Mrs. Bulstrode. In what I found to be the most touching scene in Middlemarch, Mrs. Bulstrode, having just learned from her brother what had been discovered about Mr. Bulstrode’s past, she goes to her room to adjust herself to her altered life, and then goes down to her husband to be his help meet in his trouble. The author points out, “There is a forsaking which still sits at the same board and lies on the same couch with the forsaken soul, withering it the more by unloving proximity” (ch. 74) — but that is not Mrs. Bulstrode. She mourns, but she is compassionate and loyal.
Another subject explored in Middlemarch is materialism. The Apple Dictionary defines materialism as “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values”1 — a “tendency” clearly demonstrated by Rosamond. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines materialism as “a preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than intellectual or spiritual things”2 and if Rosamond considers her own consequence and comfort as of supreme importance, Lydgate and Dorothea equally demonstrate a “preoccupation” with intellectual or spiritual values.
Lydgate is brought down from “the supremacy of the intellectual life” (ch. 73), his high aspirations of making scientific discoveries and doing great good in his medical profession defeated. Rosamond’s materialism wins in that relationship. Dorothea, who lives out a spiritual rather than a materialistic life, marries Will Ladislaw. She helps him in his political career, happy to be part of the struggle against wrongs in the world.
Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, some of the most enjoyable characters in the book, demonstrate the value of actually getting to know the person you are going to marry in something besides social gatherings. They never became rich, but were very happy and had three sons. Unlike her mother, Mary gave her sons very little formal teaching, much to the former’s alarm. “Nevertheless, they were found quite forward enough when they went to school” (Conclusion) — providing an interesting peep at George Eliot’s views on education.
1 Dictionary, Version 2.2.1 (156), Apple Inc., 2005-2011.
2 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Co., 1981.
Screencaps from the 1994 miniseries of “Middlemarch” with Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw, Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke, Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy, and Rachel Power as Mary Garth.