How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Dorothea’s Brook in Middlemarch: Moral Streams and Ripples

Shows large gray stone mansion Arbury Hall, its estate managed by George Eliot's father.*

Arbury Hall. George Eliot’s father managed Arbury Estate, giving his daughter ample opportunity to observe people from every background.

A Monumental Saga

The Wall Street Journal says we should read Middlemarch. In 2014, the Guardian’s Robert McCrum chose it as one of the top 100 novels written in English, ever. I have told friends for years it’s like a soap opera for smart people–or to update the comparison, let’s say it’s a binge worthy Netflix “town and family” saga. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is bursting with yearning, beautiful young people, dysfunctional marriages, bemused mothers and fathers, business people both honest and shady, medical men of various skill, clergy, manipulative rich uncles, politicians, newspaper publishers, innkeepers–people from every social class and background whose fates and choices form an interconnected web of mutual cause and effect.

The telling of this giant tale is liberally interlaced with gentle humor, empathy, psychological penetration, and philosophical discussion by one of the wisest narrative voices in literature. For these and other qualities, both the light and the deeply philosophic, I have loved Middlemarch for over 30 years. I love it for its humane and intricate presentation of the psychology of so many kinds of people. I love it for its careful analysis of how communities function—how opinions form and spread, whether well-founded or no, and how individual choices impact the larger social network. I love it for understanding how the petty daily-ness of life can chip away at our ability to achieve great and ideal goals, and yet, paradoxically, that’s all right.

Above all, I love Middlemarch for showing us that our individual moral choices matter. Our smallest moral acts, both good and ill, can spread like ripples in a stream, affecting others far beyond ourselves.

Red brick buildings surrounding southern basin of Coventry canal. Coventry possible model for Eliot's Middlemarch.

Coventry Canal basin. Coventry was possibly Eliot’s model for Middlemarch.*

Brooke and Lydgate

Eliot creates a myriad of interesting characters, plots, and subplots to illustrate this important idea, but most of them center on two major characters, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. Dorothea is a 19-year-old upper class girl while Lydgate is a young, well-educated physician. Both have the same inconvenient thing in common: they have very high, idealistic goals for their lives. Lydgate wants to reform the practice of medicine by declining to sell his own medicines and to make scientific discoveries to advance medical knowledge. Dorothea doesn’t know exactly what she wants, since few fields of endeavor were open to well-bred women in the 1830s. She just knows that she doesn’t want to spend her life playing piano in the parlor and embroidering altar cloths for the local church. Like Lydgate, she is looking for a way to make a serious contribution to improving the world.

Rosamond and Lydgate. 1910 illustration.

Rosamond and Lydgate. 1910 illustration.*

Both Lydgate and Dorothea can see the beauty of high, far-off goals their neighbors can’t. But they can’t see the close-up, everyday truths so obvious to everyone else. Lydgate’s failure to anticipate the tangle of local politics and his fellow doctors’ resentment of his proposed reforms hurt his quest. His quick marriage to the town beauty, whose inner mind turns out to be less elegant than her appearance, ultimately derails it.

Meanwhile, Dorothea horrifies her neighbors by marrying the much older longtime bachelor clergyman Edward Casaubon. Casaubon is a scholarly soul, having worked for years on his “Key to All Mythologies,” which later turns out to be a useless labor. Dorothea hopes to find a serious purpose for her life in aiding him in this supposedly important work.

Two Sisters, Eliot’s Deep Dialogue

Everyone but Dorothea can see that the marriage is a huge mistake. Before she makes this decision, Eliot highlights Dorothea’s odd “blindness to the obvious” through Dorothea’s rich dialogues with the magnificent character of her younger sister Celia. These Dorothea-Celia conversations provide a great example of Eliot’s method of deep character development: they show us a continually fascinating detailed play-by-play of how people act, think, and influence one another. In this passage, Celia explains to Dorothea (“Dodo”) that Sir James Chettam is nice to her because he is courting her, not because he cares about Dorothea’s plans to build new cottages for his farm workers, as she believes. Dorothea had assumed James loved Celia:

“Why do you catechise me about Sir James? It is not the object of his life to please me.” “Now, Dodo, can you really believe that?” “Certainly. He thinks of me as a future sister — that is all.” Dorothea had never hinted this before, waiting, from a certain shyness on such subjects which was mutual between the sisters. . .. “Pray do not make that mistake any longer, Dodo. When Tantripp was brushing my hair the other day, she said that Sir James’s man knew from Mrs. Cadwallader’s maid that Sir James was to marry the eldest Miss Brooke.” “How can you let Tantripp talk such gossip to you, Celia?” said Dorothea, indignantly, not the less angry because details asleep in her memory were now awakened to confirm the unwelcome revelation. . .. “I see no harm at all in Tantripp’s talking to me. It is better to hear what people say. You see what mistakes you make by taking up notions. I am quite sure that Sir James means to make you an offer; and he believes that you will accept him, especially since you have been so pleased with him about the plans. And uncle too — I know he expects it. Every one can see that Sir James is very much in love with you.” The revulsion was so strong and painful in Dorothea’s mind that the tears welled up and flowed abundantly. All her dear plans were embittered, and she thought with disgust of Sir James’s conceiving that she recognized him as her lover.

Celia hasn’t the least understanding of any of “Dodo’s notions,” such as her desire to improve the lives of Sir James’s farm workers, but she can plainly see all the mistakes Dorothea makes with men.

There are many, many more instances of similarly rich dialogue throughout Middlemarch. Readers are treated not only to the overt dialogue but are also taken into the inner thoughts and emotions that continually unfold during personal interchanges, usually unguessed by their conversational partners. Middlemarch illustrates many human truths, but most certainly it shows that we seldom perceive even a part of what another person is really thinking and feeling.

We See Ourselves in the Center

Middlemarch asserts that this blindness to the inner lives of others is a common human condition. Likewise is the tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe. Our egos naturally arrange the world around ourselves, the way random scratches on a table appear to circle around a candle that is set down upon the surface (Eliot’s metaphor). Trying to help people overcome these human shortcomings was the main reason Eliot embarked on novel writing in the first place. She believed that novels that depicted the realistic truth about people could foster empathy and understanding of others.

Eliot’s novels attempt to show us that although no one person is the center of the universe, our actions do have significant impact within the vast web of human relationships. That is why even small moral choices matter. Over and over, characters in Middlemarch have moral choices to make, some small, and some large, and all have consequences.

Beeswax candle, lit and tilted forward.

We see ourselves at the center, like a candle in the center of the table.

Dorothea’s Choice

Dorothea and Will Ladislaw. 1910 Illustration.

Dorothea and Will Ladislaw. 1910 Illustration.*

The climactic moral choice in the book falls to Dorothea, at that point a one-year widow, when she learns that the idealistic physician Lydgate has fallen under a cloud. The townspeople suspect him of failing to properly treat a man who knew discreditable things about Bulstrode, Lydgate’s former patron. When the man dies, Lydgate is in danger of losing all his patients.

Now more mature than she was at 19, Dorothea rightly judges Lydgate to be thoroughly honest. When she hears that his wife Rosamond has become downcast and suspicious by these reports, she determines to visit Rosamond to express her full confidence in Lydgate, to bring her cheer and comfort. Unfortunately, when she arrives at Rosamond’s parlor, she accidently observes the young man she has come to love, Will Ladislaw, in an apparently compromising position with Rosamond, holding both of her hands in his.

Will does not love Rosamond, and is merely fending off her advances. But Dorothea assumes the worst, and leaves without accomplishing her errand. After struggling with this knowledge for a day and a night, she determines to try again to help Rosamond, despite her personal disappointment, and prepares to return with her message of encouragement about Lydgate. She startles her maid by calling for her new dress and bonnet, unworn and neglected for the past two months. She thinks new clothes will give her courage to embrace a stronger moral self:

“Dorothea wished to acknowledge that she had not the less an active life before her because she had buried a private joy; and the tradition that fresh garments belonged to all initiation, haunting her mind, made her grasp after even that slight outward help towards calm resolve. For the resolve was not easy. Nevertheless at eleven o’clock she was walking towards Middlemarch, having made up her mind that she would make as quietly and unnoticeably as possible her second attempt to see and save Rosamond.”

This visit does not fix the marriage problems between Lydgate and Rosamond, nor save his career in Middlemarch, not shake the world in a major way. But it does help make Rosamond more sympathetic to her troubled husband, and enables the Lydgates to go forward as a couple. Dorothea’s kind, selfless action makes life better for the people around her, and strengthens and beautifies her own character.

Small Actions, Large Moral Victories

Some readers have been disappointed that Dorothea, with such fine intelligent idealism and a burning desire to do good in the world, does not end the novel by making some significant mark in the world. She founds no religious orders or political movements; she writes no poems or novels; she leads no protests. Instead, she marries a well-meaning man who goes into Parliament and works for the betterment of others, and she raises her children.

To some, this seems a sad waste, but Eliot makes two wise observations about Dorothea’s fate that greatly encourage me, and I hope, other readers. First, though we might wish to accomplish great things, we cannot work independently of the society in which we find ourselves. If we fail of our most idealistic goals, that’s partly because of factors we can’t control:

“Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.”

Eliot’s second point is her final statement of the major theme of Middlemarch, that individual good deeds and moral choices matter, even though we fail of worldly greatness:

[Dorothea’s] finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Keeping in mind that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” can encourage all us ordinary folk to “never tire of doing good,” even in small ways, because small acts have a way of reverberating into something bigger.

Middlemarch Revival?

Speaking of encouragement, I am heartened that interest in Middlemarch is undergoing a revival. Suddenly there is no shortage of people to tell us why we should read it and how reading Middlemarch affected their lives. For instance, Adelle Waldman wrote about how “Middlemarch Showed Me How to Live” in the New Republic in 2014.  Rebecca Mead published a whole book about how reading Middlemarch impacted her life.  Also in 2014, British literary editor and novelist Robert McCrum chose Middlemarch as one of the top 100 novels ever written in English, calling it a “cathedral of words.” In 2015, explained “Why Middlemarch is the Greatest British Novel.”  And earlier just this year, Alliysia Finley wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “George Eliot Knew a Thing or Two about 21st Century Politics,” noting that “George Eliot’s opus “Middlemarch” (1872), set in a small English town in the early 1830s, isn’t on most high school or college core reading lists. It should be. The novel’s vexing political questions foreshadow the debates taking place today.”

With all this buzz, you’d think all avid readers would already be reading Middlemarch, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t. There are a few barriers that might keep many from picking it up. The style will seem unfamiliar at first; the Victorians preferred longer, more formal writing with a lot of visual detail. Try being patient while you get to know George Eliot. Soon, her graceful, humane, sometimes humorous, always sharp narrative voice will become as familiar as that of your most interesting friend.

The 800-plus page length of Middlemarch may daunt some folk. A lot of people today seem to be looking for fast reads and “un-put-downable” books. See for instance this list from “Modern Mrs. Darcy” of books that she read in 24 hours.  It is fun to read books you “can’t put down” and finish them fast, but sometimes it’s even more enjoyable and enlightening to read a book you WANT to put down—not because it’s dull, but because it’s so interesting, you want to stop and think about it. Don’t be in a hurry with Middlemarch. Savor the characters, descriptions, and ideas as you meet with them. There is no rush to finish it. Middlemarch’s original readers read it a little at a time, since it was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in eight installments issued every two months in 1871 and 1872.

Readers who overcome any barriers to reading Middlemarch will be richly rewarded, being allowed to live for a while inside the heads and hearts of all the denizens of a whole country town. Even more, they will be enriched by spending quality time with George Eliot, a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans, a writer who is deeply intelligent, intensely moral, hard-headedly realistic, yet kindly understanding of the difficulties of being human. I hope the renewed interest in Middlemarch portends a renewed interest in practicing kindness, empathy, and civility in all our dealings with others.

"George Eliot" (Mary Ann Evans) at age 30. Painting by d'Albert Durade.

“George Eliot” (Mary Ann Evans) at age 30. Painting by d’Albert Durade.*

Photo Credits:

Arbury Hall. David Stowell [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Coventry Canal Basin. By  Snowmanradio at English Wikipedia (Original text: snowmanradio) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 , GFDL  or CC-BY-SA-3.0 /)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rosamond and Lydgate. By Published by The Jenson Society, NY ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dorothea and Will. By Published by The Jenson Society, NY, 1910 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Eliot. 1819 – 22 December 1880), aged 30, by the Swiss artist Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade (1804-86), whose family she lived with while in Switzerland. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



  1. Helene Kirzner

    I was drawn in to this small fictitious town from the beginning. Seeing the pecking order of the classes, the assumptions that arise by miscommunications and thoughts not shared with spouses. Life is difficult enough to not share what is hidden inside with those we are closest to.

    Additionally, anti-Semitic rhetoric while espousing religious right and quoting the Decalogue’s meaning are a dichotomy.

    At least in Victorian England the women were able to inherit land and money. There was not much women could do to earn money and become independent.

    • MJ Booklover

      Your comment does a good job capturing the major themes in Middlemarch. The novel certainly does a masterly job of depicting the social order and typical interactions in small towns (“pecking order,” as you say).

      As you point out, life is more difficult when spouses or other close relations don’t communicate, and Eliot shows us in detail how many wrong assumptions we can make about each other. Do you think the people in Eliot’s culture seemed a little more reticent to speak their minds than people are today? Things may have changed somewhat–at least we recognize that open communication is important. But it is still very difficult to understand completely any other person’s point of view, even when we try.

      Anti-Semitic rhetoric was very common in Victorian times, unfortunately. As Eliot’s truthful descriptions show, most people didn’t see a contradiction with the tenets of their own faith, though I believe Eliot herself did. Her last book, Daniel Deronda, considers the topic of Jewish identity and Zionism, and is sympathetic to this cause.

      To your point on inheriting land and money: women could inherit, and then manage, their deceased husband’s money, but when they married, all their money was by default under the husband’s control, unless legal agreements were made to the contrary before marriage. Novelists like Eliot were part of a long battle to increase opportunities for women. If Dorothea had been alive today, when women have more opportunities, what do you think she would have done with her life?

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

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