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The Search for Fulfillment
The two main protagonists, Dorothea and Lydgate are shown having a great deal of potential in terms of talent and idealism, and the energy to bring about changes in the world. However, their lack of self-awareness, and the wrong choices they make ultimately dwelt their energies into futile actuaries, so that the final impression is one of sad compromise. At the same time, these two compromise only up to a point, as does Will Ladislaw. Bulstrode is the character whose piety and moral arrogance represent a total distortion of his early potential. Hence, he is punished with exposure and ruin. Fred and Mary have modest talents and aims, and are hence granted fulfillment in these.
The background of Middlemarch in 1832 itself constitutes a theme. The sub-title of the book, "A study of provincial Life" has already suggested this. The writer has selected a particular time in history i.e. 1832, the year when the first Reform Bill was floated in Parliament. It is a time of struggle for power between the old landed classes and the rising businessmen. The first Bill is defeated and both sides regroup for another confrontation. It was a time of agrarian reform, and change in science, medicine class relations, religion and attitudes of women. All these are referred to in the novel, but are woven into the action of the story naturally.
Love and Marriage
Three of the four constituent stories are love stories, and there is an element of love in Bulstrode’s story as well.
The marriages of both Dorothea and Lydgate are based not on love, but on illusion. Both fail Mary and Fred, on the other hand, have a genuine love for each other, and a shining example of love in Mary’s parents, Caleb, and Susan. Even Bulstrode is allowed some comfort in his humiliation, in the form of his faithful Harriet’s warmth and kindness.
The Power of Property
Money and landed property are both powerful influences in the provincial society of Middlemarch. The reader is shown people like Peter Featherstone, Casaubon, and Bulstrode attempting to control others destinies through their control over money and property. Nearly every important character - Dorothea, Lydgate, Fred, Rosamond, Will, Mary, Bulstrode, Farebrother - is shown to face temptation in the form of money, and either win or give in to it. Juxtaposed against money is work. The work ethic is important to George Eliot. Those who love their work for its own sake gain salvation, except when they allow others to drag them down, as with Lydgate.
The general atmosphere of the novel is one of somber reflection about the weaknesses of human beings. The omniscient author mode gives the writer the opportunity to muse over actions as they are being performed and to symbolically nod her head in pity and sorrow. Yet her attitude is not mechanical, as some critics have alleged. Her characters fall, not merely because of unfavorable social conditions but because of their own weaknesses. Yet they are not evil. Even Featherstone, Casaubon and Bulstrode are allowed their moments of tragedy. The concluding note of the novel is one of humane acceptance of the fact that great potential rarely insults in greatness, but that the little good one can do is of value.