Study of Provincial Life

Topics: Middlemarch

A Study of Provincial Life, George Eliot’s Middlemarch explores life and death, reputation, and the gossip and scandal in between – found within the eponymous fictional town as it’s relayed through its female characters, specifically that of Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy, and Mary Garth. It’s through Dorothea’s consummate devotion to Edward Casaubon and subsequent fallout with his memory after his death, Rosamond’s desperation to obtain and maintain social standing by proxy of Tertius Lydgate which leads to her inadvertent financial ruin, and Mary’s practical before romantic expectations of Fred Vincy and charity (financial and otherwise), that Eliot illustrates the intentional and unintentional consequences that emerge as a result of desire, marriage, and self-determination as the women behave against the patriarchy, and their ideals Victorian society has adopted.

It’s through the further juxtaposition of these aspects that Eliot’s criticisms of the steep prices women pay – for their actions and inactions – within the text emerges, offering commentary not only to each character’s social standing and agency respectively, but also the established ideologies of the Victorian Era.

Furthermore, in comparison to the likes of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Middlemarch asserts itself as one of the premier novels of the 19th century by stating that marriage isn’t be-all-end-all, that submission per the status quo leads to frustration, and that the women of Middlemarch are inexplicably to blame and praise for the events that transpire based on their actions, be they intentional or not.

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Published between 1871 and 1872 in eight volumes, Middlemarch introduces Victorian and contemporary, readers to the idea that not only does life continue after marriage, but often these relationships can include terrible misunderstandings, severe incompatibility, and ardent practicality. Eliot uses three distinct couples to illustrate her various critiques in the representation of love and matrimony. Dorothea and Casaubon represent the Victorian mode of women who marry much older, as the older man is expected to be wiser, more financially responsible than the woman’s peers, and have a moral compass to ensure that his wife tends to the home so that he may be free to maintain his place in the public sphere, a separate space created in part by Victorian society to distance the sexes (Hughes, “Gender Roles in the 19th Century”). Rosamond and Lydgate’s marriage, on the opposite end of the spectrum, highlights misery and resentment, as well as the drama that follows manipulation and deceit, specifically in that of women who marry to advance their social standing and the men who bow to the will of women. Finally, Mary and Fred’s relationship exists in the periphery as a work in progress tale since Fred is drowning in debt and cannot take care of Mary in the way that Casaubon can Dorothea. Middlemarch follows how these characters work with and against themselves to resolve the sacrifices, and their consequences, throughout the novel, and how these individual choices then affect others because marriage “either improves or diminishes society” (Marks 27). Because of this, Eliot posits that not all marriages are created equal and that they do not fit. This stance distances itself from the likes of Mary Barton, whose ending is neatly resolved and (mostly) returned to its status quo in its resolve to maintain the Victorian ideal that happiness and fulfillment are not found specifically at the altar.

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Study of Provincial Life. (2022, May 08). Retrieved from

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