By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: George Eliot
Narrated by: Juliet Stevenson
George Eliot’s book, Middlemarch, explores social complexity beginning with character development, middling through human delusion, and ending with social balance, a balance tinged with fragility.
Middlemarch vivifies English society in the 1830s; i.e. a society in transition that resonates with discontents in 21st century American’ society. Women are seeking equality; living-wage jobs are scarce; wealth is held by a small minority; and a rumbling underclass demands reform through elections.
Then, as now, education is the engine of society’s change. Eliot’s most interesting characters are either driven to, or driven by, education. The heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is a beautiful wealthy young woman who aspires to improve lives of the poor by providing decent housing. Because of her wealth, she enjoys the privilege of the well-born but decries her lack of education and naively marries a man 30 years her senior because she mistakenly believes him to be a scholar (her delusion) that can help her fulfill dreams of scholarship and good works.
The man Dorothea marries is Edward Casaubon. He is a Whiggish reverend by education and wealthy land holder by inheritance. Casaubon is obsessed with the history of mythology based on a false premise that informs all but Casaubon of the incorrectness of his life’s work. Though a diligent researcher, he ignores the truth of information that would lead a true scholar to redirect his research. He spends his life in search of a truth that does not exist. Dorothea begins to recognize Casaubon’s academic delusion soon after their marriage.
Tertius Lydgate is a young handsome physician, trained in Paris, who settles in Middlemarch to find local colleagues that are unacquainted with the latest medical treatments of their profession. As a result of their differences in the science of medicine, Lydgate is shunned by Middlemarch’ medical colleagues; while coveted by many residents cured by his superior medical treatment. Lydgate is a man of science that conflates human relationship with facts and figures in a delusional belief of perfect marriage.
Fred Vincy is a young man supported by a merchant father that wants his son to become an educated clergyman. Fred nearly completes his education but fails his final exam. He has little interest in becoming a clergyman and prefers the idea of being a prodigal son with the prospect of receiving an inheritance from a near-death relation. The inheritance does not happen and Fred is compelled to return to school to get his degree. The irony of his graduation is that, like today, colleges often fail to provide an education that adequately prepares graduates for a job. Fred lives with the delusion of a college degree and marriage as keys to the kingdom of a good life.
Will Ladislaw is a young cousin of Casaubon. His mother is a deceased relative of the Reverend. Ladislaw becomes educated as a result of Reverend Casaubon’s financial support. Ladislaw is highly energetic but unfocused. He does not know what he wishes to do with the education he has received. As the story progresses, Ladislaw falls in love with the Reverend’s wife. Ladislaw, from the consciousness of his affection for Dorothea, refuses any further financial support from Reverend Casaubon. He becomes a newspaper editor and political adviser. Eliot foreshadows a mystery surrounding the inheritance by Casaubon, at the expense of Ladislaw’s benefaction. Ladislaw, like many men, conflates love with unavailability; i.e the delusion that a companion who one cannot marry is the most desirable.
There are many more characters of consequence in Eliot’s story. There is Mary Garth and her family; Nichola Bulstrode, a banker that seeks penitence for his transgressions by imposing religious good works on Middlemarch society, while holding a key to the mystery of the Reverend’s inheritance; and two suspicious characters, Rigg Featherstone and John Raffles, that unwind Middlemarch’s mysteries.
In the end, a listener is impressed by Eliot’s ability to reveal how happenstance, both good and bad, is a significant part of one’s life. Many inferences about education, inheritance, marriage, science, religion, and humanism are made by Eliot. All one can do, when the happenstance of life slaps you down or builds you up, is move on; i.e. happenstance is concretely revealed in Eliot’s examples of the misdirection of life caused by human’ delusion.
In the 21st century, women are still seeking equality; living-wage jobs are still scarce; wealth is held by a small minority; and a rumbling underclass demands reform through elections. In the 19th century, Eliot is saying it is time to move on. Eliot infers people should live life as best they can; with as few delusions as they are capable of grasping. But in the end, even in the 21st century, all one can do is move on.