“I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”
George Eliot’s Middlemarch, first published serially in 1871-1872, is a work of almost unrivalled complexity set in the Great British Countryside. AS Byatt has suggested that the title is both a nod to the geography of the novel, and a reference to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno: “In mezzo cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva scura” [“In the middle of the road of our life / I found myself in a dark wood”]. Certainly, the main characters are all beset at various stages in the novel by the obstacles life hurls at them.
Middlemarch was famously the conflation of two separate narratives the author was working on simultaneously: the first, a study of provincial society revolving around the character of Dr Lydgate; the second, a short story entitled “Miss Brooke”, with Dorothea Brooke occupying centre stage. The resulting dual-protagonist structure of Middlemarch has been a source of confusion for readers and critics ever since, doubtlessly exacerbated by the fact that Eliot did not contrive to have her two main characters end up romantically entwined. However, to describe Middlemarch in terms of two parallel stories would also be simplistic, there being a huge number of other characters whose separate entanglements are also central to the overall makeup of the novel. In fact, it has often been noted that the underlying metaphor of the book is that of “the web”, holding the various strands together in an intricately woven arrangement.
Besides Dorothea Brooke and Dr Lydgate, much can be made of Bulstrode the morally dubious banker, Mary Garth the sensible daughter of the local land agent, Ladislaw the principled outsider, and even Mr Brooke the delusional would-be man of politics. Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in 1973, observed the debate that had already begun to rage regarding the identity of the novel’s true protagonist, noting that some even viewed the town itself as the lead player. Unfortunately, Mr Sedgwick ultimately appears to have become caught up in Eliot’s carefully constructed web of interconnected plot-lines and overlapping characters:
“It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch. The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated.”
He thus concludes as follows:
“In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers.”
It is not our intention in this series to get bogged down in a similar state of despair, so we will not be attempting anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the novel. Instead, we plan to look at a few of the characters individually, to see what still resonates about them and the way Eliot presents them to us. The idea is that by putting some of the key character under the microscope separately we might learn something about the way Eliot conceived her characters, both as someone fascinated with the concept of freedom and choice, and more generally with the intertwining paths of human life.