78 pages 2 hours read

George Eliot


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1871

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Summary and Study Guide


Middlemarch or Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is a Victorian realist novel by George Eliot (the penname of Mary Ann Evans). Published over the course of 1871-72, the novel depicts the trials and tribulations of life in the small English town of Middlemarch. The novel has been hailed as one of the greatest works of English literature and has been adapted for radio, television, theater, and opera.

This guide uses an eBook version of the 2003 Penguin Classics edition.

Plot Summary

Dorothea Brooke is a strong-willed, religious woman who hopes to change her society for the better. After the deaths of her parents, Dorothea and her sister Celia are raised by their uncle, Mr. Brooke, in the English town of Middlemarch. At a dinner party, Dorothea meets the much-older Reverend Edward Casaubon. They talk about Casaubon's ambitions, including his desire to write a definitive work of religious history titled The Key to All Mythologies. Dorothea falls in love with Casaubon and hopes that they will marry, whereupon he can finish his book and they can dedicate their time to helping society. Dorothea marries Casaubon and meets Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's younger cousin.

Dorothea soon realizes that Casaubon is not the man she thought he was. His work is outdated and unlikely to be published. Casaubon believes that Dorothea is critical of him because of negative information given to her by Will Ladislaw. Casaubon becomes increasingly jealous of the burgeoning friendship between Dorothea and Will. After a series of medical issues, Casaubon amends his will so that Dorothea will be disinherited should she marry Ladislaw after his death. Casaubon dies of a heart attack shortly after an intense emotional interaction with his wife. Dorothea, learning about the provision in her husband's will, resolves to live her life apart from Will, the man she increasingly loves.

The novel also tells the story of Rosamond Vincy, a beautiful young woman who woos the town’s new doctor, Tertius Lydgate. Rosamond hopes that marrying a successful young doctor will improve her social standing. However, Lydgate shares an attitude that is similar to that of Dorothea: Rather than make himself rich, he plans to offer his services to help the poor people of Middlemarch. Rosamond does not share his altruistic views and her spending plunges the couple into unmanageable debt. Similarly, Lydgate's progressive and innovative ideas make him a professional pariah among the other doctors in Middlemarch. Lydgate is forced to borrow money from Nicholas Bulstrode, a wealthy banker. The situation surrounding the loan makes it appear as if the loan were a bribe in the eyes of other people in the town. Dorothea, having had the personal experience of a difficult marriage, is able to help Rosamond and Lydgate understand each other better.

Bulstrode is hiding a secret of his own: He became rich by marrying an elderly widow and cheating her estranged daughter out of her inheritance. A man named John Raffles knows this secret and he tries to blackmail Bulstrode. Unwilling to actually kill Raffles, Bulstrode allows Raffles to drink himself to death without intervening. The secret emerges nonetheless and Bulstrode flees Middlemarch, leaving behind chaos.

Other characters in the novel include Mary Garth and Fred Vincy. Fred and Mary have been attracted to each other since childhood. Mary is certain that Fred is the only man she could love, but at the same time, is in no rush to marry him. She hopes that time will help him grow into the type of man she wants him to be. Fred has a debt that he is unable to repay; he had hoped that his rich uncle would leave him a large inheritance but the money was left instead to his uncle's illegitimate son. Fred struggles to cope with the reality of his life, unable to commit to a career that he feels comfortable with. Mary’s father is able to help Fred by offering to train him as an apprentice. His job will involve watching over the Tipton Grange and Freshitt estates. Caleb Garth is able to arrange for Fred to live at Stone Court, the land that Fred once thought he stood to inherit. Fred tends to the estate and marries Mary with her father's blessing. After managing the estate for many years, he is eventually able to purchase it.

Throughout the novel, a romance grows between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw. Will’s interest in, and admiration for, Dorothea grows with time despite his initial misgivings. Dorothea values her friendship with Will, but when she finds out that Casaubon has taken action to block her from ever marrying Will, her attraction to him gets stronger. Publicly, they do everything they can to keep their feelings for each other private. Eventually, however, they announce their plans to get married. The announcement surprises the people of Middlemarch, with Dorothea sacrificing her inheritance for true love.