Monday, February 20, 2012

Middlemarch by George Eliot, Part II

Marriages in Middlemarch

Middlemarch is a study of a provincial English town in the 1830’s, at a time before the railroad when people stayed put --  most of them preferring it that way. The society in the novel is viewed through the prism of several marriages, and the progression of those marriages plays a key part in the plot. At the core of the novel is a study of two marriages – the Casaubon’s and the Lydgate’s. Both marriages, which end up crushing the husband and wife’s hopes, are based upon each partner’s mistaken apprehension of what the other will bring –that the other will fulfill them, propel them to their highest possibility. The ideal view of marriage is as a partnership. When times get tough, two are stronger than one. But the four are blinded by immature egoism, and so come to sorrow. What makes the book interesting and what gives the characters depth is that Dorothea and Lydgate accept their mistakes and try to make the best of a bad situation by sacrificing their dearest dreams and apply themselves to figuring the weaker spouse out.

Dorothea and Casaubon – Dorothea imagines herself a handmaiden to genius, and then she realizes her husband is a terrified little man with no intention of letting her get close, poking around his unfinished, indeed, unstarted Key to All Mythologies. She presented herself as a wonderful gift and he doesn’t even understand. But she doesn’t completely lose heart – she resolves to give him what he needs.

Lydgate and Rosamond – Once Lydgate realizes that Rosamond is never going to be supportive, he abandons his dreams of pure research and becomes a gout doctor. I guess that would be sort of like plastic surgeon or dermatologist in Beverly Hills nowadays. He gives up his dreams for his duty.
Mary Garth and Fred Vincy – Fred is a wastrel, but Mary is wise and won’t fall into the same romantic mistake as Dorothea and Lydgate. She doesn’t rush into anything but waits until Fred has swallowed his pride and lowers his expectations (improving his upper class illegible handwriting, for example)and starts making some money.

The Bulstrodes. Bulstrode is the villain but at the end he gets the comfort of a good marriage, because his submissive wife is prepared to suffer with him, and to stand by him and ease his suffering. This is contrasted with his first marriage in which he behaved like a criminal in order to inherit money from his wife.

What’s even more remarkable is that the novel is set at a time when women had not very much legal power and even less economic power. The only power they had was influence over the men in their lives. And it seems to this modern reader that many of the women have a significant amount of influence. However, the plot is bound by those old strictures. Like why doesn’t Dorothea run off to Vegas and get a divorce? And why doesn’t Rosamond go out and get a job so she can have some spending money? You might as well as them to fly.

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