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The Search for Fulfillment
That fulfillment means a different thing to a different person, which is made clear in the course of the novel. But George Eliot begins with one kind of search - that of the idealist reformer who can reform society when there is a strong faith. She is concerned to find what happens to people with similar aims in the modern faithless world. Thus, she plots the life of Dorothea Brooke; another would be St. Theresa floundering in a cozy, passive provincial home, where nothing particular is expected of her. She tries to improve conditions for those around her, sets up an infant school, draws up plans for improved houses for farm laborers and tries to suppress in herself the sensuous enjoyment of dress, jewels, riding. She marries the elderly clergyman Casaubon, believing fulfillment lies in acting as his handmaiden in his theological studies. This proves a mirage. He dies, and before this, she suppresses all her feelings and wishes to give him comfort. But the jealous cruelty of his will seems to negate all her efforts. She recovers and takes on the responsibilities of her wealth to do something good in the region. Administering the property fairly, becoming an active patron of the new hospital become new outlets for her. But she never really finds an inspiring cause to support, and ends up marrying Will Ladislaw. In this marriage she is shown to achieve personal happiness, but is "a foundress of nothing." In short her life is "the mixed result of a young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state." Her ardent nature is compared with a river which "spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth." Yet she is seen to achieve good through "unhistorical acts."
Bulstrode, the banker, is another case of misapplied energy. He tries to reconcile a hunger for property and influence with conservative religion and fails. But in his case, greed and hypocrisy take him beyond the pale and he ends up a wreck.
In contrast to these with larger-than-life goals, it is the ordinary people - Caleb Garth, Mary and Fred Vincy, even Farebrother, the human preacher, who are shown to succeed in their modest aims. With all these characters, the novelist makes it clear, it is not just an unsympathetic environment, but her own character flaws, which are responsible for their failures. Those who can compromise while maintaining their values succeed, the rest fail.