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The study of Provincial Life
The background of a provincial town, changing in the course of the industrial revolution itself constitutes a theme in the novel. The first Reform Bill of 1832, which is repeatedly referred to, symbolizes great changes in the economy and power structure of nineteenth century England.
Throughout the novel, the difference between the old land- owning classes - represented by Chettam, Casaubon, Brooke, and the newer manufacturers and traders - Vincy, Bulstrode, Plymdale - is emphasized. The more progressive of the gentry, symbolized by Chettam, attempt new methods of farming and better working conditions for their workers. Brooke, though he fancies himself a progressive politician, neglects his land and his tenants abominably. The humorous scene in which his tenant, Dagley, threatens Brooke with the "Rinform" which will "send you an ‘your likes a - scutt lin’ " is symbolic of a resentful and awakening peasantry.
George Eliot’s own interest in theology causes her to dwell on the varieties of religious sects - from the conservative Toryism of Cadwallader to the Evangelical Mr. Tyke, and the Dissenting Mr. Bulstrode. Yet the ideal clergyman she portrays is Farebrother with his small "sins" and deep humanity.
She also goes into the breakdown of the old hierarchy in the medical profession; the old physicians, surgeons and apothecaries; and how the entry of the new types of general practitioner with Lydgate, aroused the hostility of the old guard. In fact, it is this hostility to the new and controversial methods, which results in the final scandal around Lydgate.
Will Ladislaw also represents a new type of intellectual - one who is not insular but open to new currents of thought from Europe, and is critical of those like Casaubon who are not. Like Lydgate, he bridges the gap from gentry to bourgeois and takes to journalism as a profession.
Thus, George Eliot makes provincial life very concrete with her portrayal of these contemporary issues, weaving them into her characters’ lives and actions.
George Eliot had struggled throughout her position as journalist and writes, and for her right to love the man of choice. In all this, she had to suffer opposition from her family and society at large, but she survived with her prestige intact. In fact, she was associated with other prominent women in founding Girton College for women.
Although Middlemarch is not primarily a "feminist book" it reflects strongly her concern for the emancipation of women and the restrictions society places on them. This is voiced in the Prelude itself when she states ironically, "Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the supreme power has fashioned the natures of women. If there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude."
In Chapter three, she lashes out at "girlish instruction comparable to the nibbling and judgements of a discursive mouse." Dorothea is shown rejecting the conventional impression of a young "lady" as one who plays graceful tunes on the piano, just as she is not "a woman who lays herself out to please us" (men)
Yet she needs a Chettam to execute her plans for houses, and she sees marriage as the only way to a fuller and more purposeful life. Though Lydgate and she are parallel protagonists, she is morally stronger and her fall is more because of lack of opportunity while his is through "commonness."
Rosamond’s portrayal is consistently unsympathetic, but she too is shown to depend for fulfillment of her ambitions on marriage. Being beautiful, her appearance is a valuable resource by which she can rise through marriage. Both in her and Dorothea’s cases, their prospective husbands view them complacently as passive objects, which is an illusion soon dispelled. But Rosamond is a type of conventional woman George Eliot despises. Mary Garth - plain, intelligent and humorous - is an aspiring woman she sympathizes with. Mary dislikes teaching, but is compelled to do it, being one of the few "respectable" options open to her. She is subjected to bullying, manipulation, and the insults of guests as Featherstone’s housekeeper, but she does it all with dignity. In her, Eliot depicts with sympathy the plight if the middle-class woman without beauty or fortune in those times. Yet both Mary and Dorothea are shown as inspiring influences on the men they love. Both Will and Fred struggle to rise above their own weaknesses to be worthy of them. It is these women and others like Susan Garth and Harriet Bulstrode, who are shown to combine great strength of character with warmth and sympathy.