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Marriage in Middlemarch

Over the years there have been many critical reviews of George Eliot’s work, Middlemarch. Sometimes hailed as an insightful look into Victorian English society, and sometimes scorned as being droning and plot less, Middlemarch is nevertheless, a book about the complicated web of people’s lives. Although there are many stories within the story, George Eliot’s revealing look into the dynamics that make up relationships, and more specifically marriage, is the focus of the “Three Love Problems”. While looking at the character development in this story it is relevant to take into consideration the background of George Eliot herself.

Coming from a period of time when, much like her characters, intellectualism in women was generally frowned upon, it is no wonder many of the female characters are so compelled to find intellectual freedom. Moreover, in the sexually repressed Victorian era in which she lived, Eliot’s own circumstance of finding herself generally on the fringes of respected society are telling in her characters as well. Over the course of her life she had several embarrassing attachments to married men, and finally started a serious relationship and began living with a married man.

The affair was scandalous and proved difficult socially. Although they eventually married the social damage had been done. However, taking from her own experiences, Eliot’s own views of society often leak from her pen in the views and actions of her characters. In general, it appears that Eliot’s basic view of marriage was rather simple. She seemed to believe that most of marriage was set up to fail, because of the disillusionment of one or both of the partners regarding the expectations the other lead them to believe were attainable.

Often Eliot shows us the slippery slope that couples walk when falling in love, almost blindly, and then the rude awakening to the motives and realities of the marriage. The different way in which characters tend to deal with this disillusionment is also just as varied as the characters themselves. With closure ranging from the tragic to the hopeful, it appears that Eliot was working out in her own mind the different possibilities of dealing with the unhappy reality of ill-matched couples. In regarding the messages on marriage in Middlemarch it is necessary to look at the three main couples of focus in the story.

The first couple, Dorothea and Edward Casaubon, are a fitting example of a woman looking for intellectual freedom and shared compassion for humanity through her husband. Young, ambitious Dorothea wants to change the world and make it a better place. Dorothea desperately wants to transform society, but is clueless at how to go about it. She finds herself choosing for a husband a much older clergyman in Edward Casaubon. With great hopes of finding knowledge and human goodness, she is sorely disappointed when she is faced with the reality of his cold, overbearing and jealous nature.

Disillusionment has barely had time to settle in before Dorothea is introduced to Edward’s cousin Will. Much to the anger and resentment of Edward, Dorothea and Will greatly enjoy each others company and over time Dorothea finds the understanding, warm and compassionate companion in Will she had hoped to find in Edward. Although she is devotedly faithful to Edward, she longs for the connection she has with Will. In this particular scenario Eliot creates a lovers triangle. She is sometimes criticized for the lack of believable sexual attraction that is acknowledged between the characters, but perhaps this is for a reason.

From Eliot’s own perspective, and being known as a very unattractive woman, perhaps it was her defense mechanism for dealing with her lack of any beauty. The desire to be loved for your character and personality alone, irregardless of physical attraction seems a strong message. Nonetheless, with a much deeper searching for meaning, the repetitive theme of disillusionment comes to the foreground. On one hand Dorothea and Edward did not know each other long enough on romantic terms to really experiment with their ability to ford a lasting, satisfying connection.

This is paralleled by the many years that Will and Dorothea have to slowly understand the character of the other, and find traits in the other that would strengthen them as a couple. This is also compounded by the frankness of both of their natures, and aversion to play the pompous and deceptive roles of the privileged. The recurring message by Eliot here appears to be the inadequacy of taking the time to know the person to whom you are about to marry coupled with the diving into marriage for reasons that are opposite of what will bring the desired happiness. Also, a closer look at the frustrations faced by Edward himself is very telling.

Although he knows himself not to be the great intellect that Dorothea sees in him, he plays the charade anyway. He busy’s himself with an impossible task that he knows he is not capable of completing, but hides behind it nevertheless. He is stubborn and refuses any sort of compromise, whether in thought or deed. As he sees Dorothea’s increasing awareness that he is not who she thought he was, he becomes even more difficult. When his jealously of Will is added, although Dorothea never does anything to substantiate it on her part, he stubbornly holds to his misconceptions like a security blanket.

He, like Dorothea, is miserable. The difference in their unhappiness is that Edward chooses to remain locked in a disillusionment of his own creation. This allusion, of finding happiness in another, is even more prevalent in the relationship of Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. Lydgate is attractive, young, intelligent and more character-encompassing, idealistic. He has great desires to improve mankind through discoveries in medicine. Rosamond, however, is an escapist and wants only to improve her social standing. She uses her allurement as town beauty to snag her prize of a husband, and start her social climb.

Interestingly, Rosamond’s character is also painted as selfish, petty and indifferent. Finally, Lydgate forfeits his ideals to save his marriage which end with the unhappy despondency that eventually takes his miserable life as he breaks himself to satisfy a demanding wife. This disillusionment of the Lydgate’s has many parallels with the Casaubon couple. One partner crushes the other with tyrannical demands, and emotional cruelty, as is clearly evidenced in Edward’s harsh and thoughtless treatment of Dorothea and Rosamond’s manipulation of Lydgate.

Even while the other partner loses the essence of themselves and all meaningful happiness at the hands of the one person with which they had hoped to find a loving, lasting fulfilling relationship, the choice to continue to be loving and hopeful is ever present. Another subtle message emerges as Eliot pairs beauty and society-seeking with shallowness as seen in Rosamond. One wonders at Eliot’s own revulsion from London society. Was it because of her gross unattractiveness, or her brash behavior? Or was the brash behavior kindled from the glaring unacceptance?

Even in the choice to use a man’s name instead of her own, was Eliot’s fighting back merely a way of fitting in? As the story progresses and unhappiness in marriage seems the norm, Eliot provides us a breath of fresh air in the relationship of Mary Garth and Rosamond’s brother Fred. Mary is a plain, clever girl who works hard to help her family and comes from a working family that is known for upholding their ideals of hard work and self-respect. Contrary to this, Fred is lazy and troublesome. He has loved Mary since they were children, and although Mary tries to hide it, she also loves him.

There are many interesting ideas planted in Mary and Fred’s relationship. Firstly, Mary and Fred know each other for what they are. Fred does not try to hide away his bad character traits from Mary, only displaying what he wants her to see. In return, Mary makes no mistake in sharing her distaste for the weaknesses she sees in Fred. This strange courtship actually seems to be where the strength of their eventual union stems. Instead of attacking the courtship with a blind and fanciful enchantment of each other, true appreciation for the others faults and strengths are openly admitted from the onset of the relationship.

Differing from his sister Rosamond, frank is compassionate and tender, and most importantly, capable of improvement. This fact does not go unseen by Mary’s father, who eventually becomes the means by which Mary is able to marry. Fred at all. Another trait Eliot gave Mary was that of plainness. This is sharply contrasted with the beauty of Rosamond. Eliot paired Rosamond’s beauty with unsavory personality traits, and Mary’s plainness with appealing ones. Eliot herself came from a background similar to Mary’s. The social commentary on her views of the building blocks of character and of the unity of marriage appear connected.

The spoiled Rosamond’s marriage fails miserable, while the wholesome Mary’s marriage is a success. Although there are many revolving relationships in Middlemarch, these three operate at the core of the issues of George Eliot’s views on marriage. Her hidden opinion that marriages contrived on shallow pretenses, trading beauty for money or station for example, is the basis for a faulty foundation. Also, Eliot tries to dispel the notion of love at first sight, and replace it with a more realistic opinion that a marriage partner should be carefully chosen with both eyes wide open.

Eliot makes it clear that the threat of disillusionment hangs as a menacing figure over marriages where couples are poorly matched because of lofty and untrue perceptions of the partner before marriage. However, she leaves us with a solution in the example of Fred and Mary. Although imperfect, they are accepting, honest, hard-working and humble. In conclusion, it seems clear that Eliot’s picture of marriage was not a rosy one with “happily ever after” as the reward for the wedding ceremony. . Some characters find themselves trapped in disillusionment and unable to get out, as in the case of Lydgate.

Others found themselves unhappily disappointed, but devoted to the task of trying to make happiness a reality, as Dorothea’s character attempts to do. Still others, like old Edward Casaubon, choose misery and refuse to let go, whereas Rosamond plays the part of instigator unconcerned with anyone else’s happiness but her own. Much like real life, there is much disappointment and many rude awakenings when discovering the truer characters of the people that make up our closest relations, as well as ourselves.

And although this unsatisfying realization leaves a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of the hopeful, it can also be viewed as an honest peek into the inner workings of the masked relationships often seen only from the outside. Obviously George Eliot had many perceptive and meaningful insights into the workings of complex relationship, like marriage, and unwittingly told her own story through her fabricated characters. . Works Cited Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1873. Questia. 6 Mar. 2009

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