What does Middlemarch reveal about marriage?

Monday 1 December, 1997

Marcus Wischik

One of the central themes that runs through Middlemarch is that of marriage. Indeed, it has been argued that Middlemarch can be construed as a treatise in favour of divorce. I do not think that this is the case, although there are a number of obviously unsuitable marriages. If it had been Elliot's intention to write about such a controversial subject, I believe she would not have resorted to veiling it in a novel. She illustrates the different stages of relationships that her characters undergo, from courtship through to marriage:

A fellow mortal with whose nature you are acquainted with solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same
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She not only includes the new couples (Fred and Mary, Celia and Chettam), but also the older ones (the Garths and the Cadwalladers and the Bulstrodes), as well as widowhood (Dorothea).

The marriage that would at seem most in need of a divorce, that between Dorothea and Casaubon, would be, ironically, the one that would last the longest if divorce had been available. Dorothea would not, indeed could not divorce Casaubon because of her honesty and the strength of her idealism. Despite the fact that Casaubon is clearly unsuitable, she still goes ahead with the marriage. It can be said that Dorothea represents the antithesis of Casaubon, where he his cold and severe, she is warm and friendly. Indeed, they are portrayed in clearly different ways: Dorothea represents light and life, while Casaubon is darkness and death. To Mr Brooke, Casaubon is "buried in books" (447), to Sir James he seems a "mummy" who has "not a drop of red blood in him". The very thought that Dorothea has come to be engaged to him causes Celia to start to "grieve" (48). Everything about Casaubon issues from this basic metaphor. His appearance - a pallid complexion, deep eye sockets, iron-grey hair (16) - makes his head look like a skull. Indeed, his proposal to Dorothea - in which his affection is introduced in parenthesis - shows that he is emotionally dead. Eliot could not have been precise on such matters, but he may be sexually impotent, for Dorothea is found "sobbing bitterly" on her honeymoon in Rome, and it may not simply be his deficiencies as a scholar that account for her disappointment (190).

It is not love that attracts Dorothea to the corpse-like Casaubon, rather her sense of duty; her desire to be like one of Milton's daughters. Dorothea, orphaned at a young age, would seem to long for a husband who can fill the role of the father she lost. Casaubon's age is no deterrence, indeed she would rather marry a teacher / father figure than a romantic person at the beginning of the novel. She learns, though, that this is a bad idea, and so finds herself attracted to Ladislaw. She is so possessed with the idea of contributing to the good of humanity through the assistance she can offer Casaubon, she does not even notice how patronising and self centred he is. Celia, however, when confronted with the same facts, has no illusions, and can see that Casaubon is entirely unsuitable, even if she expresses her objections to him in terms of his soup-eating technique. If Dorothea fails to see Casaubon for what he is, it is not due to circumstances (Her short-sightedness is a metaphor for her inability to perceive what everyone else can see clearly, in favour of the transcendent. Could the glasses she requires to correct her normal sight represent Celia, who is the lens through which she can see what others perceive as normal reality?), but due to her mind seeking to go beyond their earthly constraints. Dorothea, then is full of Christian hope, while Casaubon is characterised by pagan indolence and apathy - it takes Dorothea's prompting for him to even consider starting to finish his 'great' work. When Casaubon proposes marriage, she sees herself not as a bride to be married to a groom, more the Saint Theresa of the prelude preparing to take her holy vows as a nun - as a "neophyte" on the verge of a "higher initiation" (43). She presumably sees Casaubon as the "lamp" to light her darkness (84), but fails to notice that he lives at Lowick (Low wick).

Although the marriage is obviously unhappy, neither party, I believe, could end it. Dorothea because she is so determined to make something worth while come out of it, something that will benefit society. Casaubon couldn't end it, as it would be admitting that he had made a mistake in his choice of Dorothea as a wife.

Another marriage that is arguably unhappy is that of Lydgate and Rosamond. There is one similarity between Dorothea and Rosamond - they both see marriage as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Dorothea's motive is to get a wider horizon and to be part of a great and productive enterprise. Rosamond marries Lydgate to climb socially and to leave Middlemarch. It is this selfish view of marriage that makes their marriage unstable. This is illustrated when, once Lydgate had been implicated by rumour of dubious practices involving Bulstrode, he begs for understanding and sympathy from Rosamond. She has none to give him, as she is more concerned with her public image than with him. She married him as a means of escaping Middlemarch and to introduce her to the society of his uncle the Baronet, she therefore looks on him as only a means to her own ends. It had never occurred to her to imagine his "inward life" or his "business in the world" (164). She therefore has no idea what he is suffering at this moment, and therefore has no pity for his pain. All she can do, then, is stare at him in sullen silence (746). Rosamond's refusal to acknowledge the desires, indeed the independent lives of others makes her a destructive force - she cannot see that Lydgate would be completely unhappy if he were forced to become a rich spar doctor; she only sees him in terms of a means for providing the funds necessary to fuel her pretensions of rank. She would seem to think that, because of her education, she is above 'normal people' - she would like to think that, because she is married to a relative of a baronet, she has moved up in the world.

The marriage between Lydgate and Rosamond can be seen in materialistic terms. Lydgate is a biologist and a doctor; he is therefore concerned with things outward appearance, with their structure and their function. It is therefore not surprising that he chooses to marry Rosamond, as she represents all that a materialist would want - beauty. Rosamond does not aspire to the same lofty ideals that Dorothea does; she thinks continually of her appearance and her social standing - "She was by nature an actress of parts, that entered into her physique: she even acted her on character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own". It can be argued that Elliot is so harsh in her portrayal of Rosamond because she wishes to punish her for being beautiful, as Elliot was apparently somewhat plain. This is however doubtful, as Dorothea is also beautiful, though of a different sort. Rosamond, however exhibits the vice of every virtue that Dorothea possesses.

Rosamond is often pictured standing in front of a mirror, patting her blond hair, while Dorothea is shown standing in front of windows: She catches sight of men and woman working and suffering, which causes her to see the "largenes of the world", and is ashamed at having indulged in "selfish complaining" (776). It is not this kind of selfish that Elliot objects to, she is far more concerned with the total and complete egoism displayed by Rosamond at the start of chapter 27; if a candle is placed on a scratched surface, the abrasions that are in reality in all directions appear to radiate out from the candle. Rosamond is not only selfish in the usual sense of the word, but completely egocentric, locked in the prison of her own mind, incapable of escaping its boundaries, incapable of understanding or caring for anything but her own needs. Elliot stresses their antithetical roles when she presents Lydgate with the choice of the two. It is a combination of the fact that Dorothea is already married, and that Lydgate is more concerned with outward appearances that he chooses Rosamond. He has turned away from the "Gift of the Gods" (Dorothea), and chosen the "Rose of the World" (Rosamond). This represents the choice between, as John Stuart Mill would have put it, higher and lower pleasures. This is reflected in Lydgate's name - he is given the name of Tertius Lydgate, which points toward John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, whose third book suggests that physicians delight in the possessions of material things.

Another interesting marriage is that of the Bulstrodes. We do not see their marriage in the same detail as others are described in, until Mrs Bulstrode discovers her husbands disgrace. This is very similar to the scene involving the disgrace of Lydgate, mentioned previously. Knowing nothing of his past, or the lies that underpin it, she is as much a victim as anyone else. She is however overcome with pity for him, when she sees him "withered and shrunken". She therefore puts on her old black clothes and removes all her ornaments, as silent sign of her desire to stay with him, even though this involves complete public humiliation. This is the reaction that we would have expected from anyone that felt even the slightest love for their husband. This is the reaction that Dorothea would obviously have had, and the reaction that Rosamond is incapable of having. I think that it is this response from Mrs Bulstrode that stops Mr Bulstrode from breaking down completely, indeed from killing himself.

There is one family that would seem to be the moral standard and centre of the novel - the Garth family. Mrs Garth is introduced to us teaching Latin to the children while cooking dinner. This is portrayed as being a very worthwhile activity, and is contrasted with the somewhat silly parenting attitude of both Celia and the Vincy's. Mary Garth's insistence that Fred find a worthy profession before she will marry him is also held in high esteem - she is putting the good of others above her own desires. The only trouble that the Garth family goes through is a result of their virtue rather than their vice; Caleb, out of kindness and of love, backs Fred, and so when the creditors want their money, the future of one of the Garth children is put in jeopardy.

We can see that Mary's attitude to Fred, though apparently harsh, is eminently sensible; it gives Fred a chance to prove his love to Mary (If he was unwilling to change his lifestyle to appeal to Mary, it would have shown that he's feelings towards Mary were not completely serious), and it gives Mary a chance to reform Fred (She feels the same way that Dorothea does, and wants to do some good, so she chooses to help Fred). Fred has been sent to college by his father to become a clergyman, but finds he has no interest in the calling. Fred sees himself as being "at sea" (399), and his only hope, he imagines, is to inherit Featherstone's estate. He is, however, not without intelligence - Mary recognises him as having "sense and knowledge" enough (509) to make himself "useful" to the world (253). What he lacks therefore is direction and purpose. Their relationship is the most amusing, as Mary continually makes fun of Fred. She agrees to be his reason to find work, but refuses to be his calling - "You have a conscience of your own, I suppose" she remarks contemptuously to him (138). Of all the marriages in the novel, I think that Mary's and Fred's is / will be the most successful; they both know that they love each other, and have known this from a very early age.

I believe the reason why marriage is put under such scrutiny throughout the novel is that it functions as a link between individuals and society. The two are seldom distinct in Elliot's work and the issue of their relationship is always critical to the development of different themes. Marriage also represents a method of comparison between her characters; throughout the novel are examples of very different characters undergoing remarkably similar circumstances (An example of this is the comparison between the reactions of Rosamond and of Mrs Bulstrode when they learn of their husbands' disgrace). This desire to analyse and compare probably came from her studies of both natural sciences and psychology. I don't believe that Elliot's position is either for or against marriage - she is, in my view, equally for or against certain characters. The marriages that are portrayed in Middlemarch are of such different and varied composition that no general rule can be drawn from them.

2,246 words.
Copyright © Marcus Wischik 1997