Middlemarch was serialized in eight parts for Blackwood's magazine from December 1871-December 1872. Following the completion of this serialization, Middlemarch was published as a four-volume novel. This format of serialization was one suggested by George Henry Lewes, Eliot's live-in partner and also agent, who thought that the length of the work would necessitate eight two-monthly parts at five shilling each, a method which Hugo used for Les Miserables. Middlemarch, subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life" was indeed a gargantuan undertaking for Eliot, who spent nearly 5 years completing the novel and researching extensively into the 1830s (when the novel was set) on important topics of the day, especially in relation to reform politics from the history of newspapers and elections to medical concerns. The writing of Middlemarch "crept on," in Eliot's own words to her John Blackwood. In November of 1870, she even abandoned the project and begun another, which she entitled "Miss Brooke"--later the pages of "Miss Brooke" would become the first ten chapters of Middlemarch. Eventually, however, Eliot found a way to tie together the different strands telling the lives of those connected to Middlemarch. Not surprisingly, as Eliot was already a successful novelist and public figure, Middlemarch was met with critical acclaim. (SOURCE: Ashton Introduction, Penguin).
The novel fulfills its purposes as "A Study of Provincial life" in closely following the intersecting lives of characters from different class hierarchies in Middlemarch, a rising manufacturing town whose fortunes are inevitably connected to the political and economic turmoil of the 1830s centered in London. The volume edition divides the work into eight books corresponding to the serial parts; my summary will follow this scheme.
The novel begins with a scene between the two Brooke sisters, Dorothea and Celia, who live with their uncle at Tipton Grange estate. The two sisters are immediately distinguished by their relative interest in their mother's jewels, Dorothea deeming such things beneath her concern and Celia greatly drawn to them. Dorothea has a suitor, one Sir James Chettam, but she snubs him, only enjoying his company when he engages her on some plans that she has for cottages on her uncle's land. Meanwhile, Dorothea is fascinated by the scholarly Edward Casaubon, a man decades her senior who is working on his magnum opus, a so-called "key" to all mythologies. Dorothea, idealistically imagining Casaubon to be working on something of a deeper and higher truth than she could presently understand, accepts an offer of marriage from him, despite people in the town like the outspoken Mrs. Cadwallader (wife of the Rector at Tipton Grange) and Celia's misgivings. After Dorothea's marriage, she is accompanied by Celia and her uncle Brooke to Lowick Manor, where for the first time they all meet the young Will Ladislaw (a second cousin of Casaubon's) as he is sketching in the garden. Not much of an impression is made upon Dorothea, and Will in his turn misinterprets Casaubon's new wife to be cold and caustic. Before the close of this section, Tertius Lydgate, the new young doctor educated in London and on the Continent arrives to town, and Rosamond and Fred Vincy, the daughter and son of a manufacturing family are introduced. Fred, a rather dissipated young man, gets into a scrape with the old, ailing Peter Featherstone because he has ostensibly made some comments about paying off a debt with the old man's money. Rosamond has designs on Lydgate, attracted to him because he is not just a "Middlemarch man." Finally, the Garth family, headed by Caleb, an industrious but nevertheless not so well off businessman, are introduced, and an childhood attachment between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, Caleb's daughter, is revealed.
"Old and Young":
Bulstrode, a wealthy banker who has built up a reputation through philanthropy and display of his pious Methodist beliefs, decides to collaborate with Lydgate on a new hospital. Lydgate, who has great ambitions to discover "the primitive tissue" (the material basis for all the different functional parts of an organism) by working in a provincial town (after all, it is much harder to retain one's independence in London), is pulled into politics when Bulstrode compels him to vote for one Mr. Tyke as the chaplain for the hospital instead of for Lydgate's friend, Mr. Farebrother. For the first time, Lydgate realizes that to be independent and to care only for one's scientific work wasn't such an easy thing to do. Meanwhile, Walter Vincy, Fred's father and brother to the wife of Bulstrode asks Bulstrode to clear his name to Featherstone. When Fred carries a letter to Featherstone from Bulstrode, he gets a small monetary gift from Featherstone. In Rome, Dorothea begins to feel isolated as Casaubon becomes absorbed in his scholarly pursuits; Will, who is also in Rome, speaks with Dorothea passionately on art, life, and poetry and a warm friendship is struck up between the two.
"Waiting for Death":
Fred Vincy gets into more trouble when he tries to sell an old horse to get out of debt: the new horse lames itself in an accident. Since he has borrowed money from Caleb Garth, he must tell the Garths what has happened and he is especially ashamed because the Garths are in a tight spot--Mary must give up her savings and they are also unable to send her brother Alfred to school. Fred soon falls ill, but Lydgate helps cure him proving more useful than the local doctor, hence stirring up jealousies. Meanwhile, Celia becomes engaged to Sir James Chettam, and Casaubon falls ill. Lydgate is the doctor again, and from him, Dorothea finds out that Casaubon is potentially near death if he overstrains himself. Brooke invites the young Ladislaw to Tipton, furthering the connection between the Brookes and Ladislaw, despite Casaubon's distaste towards Will. Lydgate and Rosamond are engaged, even though Lydgate has not planned to become engaged until he had become established, he feels the social pressures placed upon him. As Peter Featherstone waist for his death, groups of his relatives swarm his home, each expecting a piece of his wealth. Before he dies, he tells Mary to destroy his second will, but she doesn't do it because there is no witness.
"Three Love Problems":
Unfortunately, it turns out that the first will left Stone Court to Fred Vincy. Meanwhile, Lydgate and Rosamond get married, Will takes a position as editor of the Pioneer via Brooke, who has recently bought up the paper. The people of Middlemarch regard Brooke's connection to Ladislaw, seen as a subversive and potentially radical foreigner for his polish roots, as deeply misguided. An incident with a hired laborer Dagley does not help Brooke's image--Dagley's son kills a hare and Dagley refuses to punish his son telling Brooke that he's a tightfisted landlord. Things are not going well for someone who might enter into the race for MP on the platform of Reform. Luckily for Caleb Garth, Brooke and Chettam respectively hire him to manage Tipton and Freshitt in order to address problems on their estates and the Garths become better off. In a strange, seemingly unrelated scene (but which the narrator explicitly remarks as crucially, though oddly, important), Joshua Rigg Featherstone, Peter's illegitimate son and heir to Stone Court, has a tense moment with his stepfather, the seedy and disagreeable John Raffles, who finds out that Nicholas Bulstrode has bought Stone Court.
"The Dead Hand":
Dorothea agrees to give money to Lydgate for the hospital, eager to be "doing good" with her money. The town's medical men are against Lydgate, however. As Casaboun gets sicker, he tries to get Dorothea to promise she will do as he wishes after his death, but she hesitates and he dies before she promises. It turns out that Casaubon has included a codicil to his will which forbids Dorothea from marrying Will Ladislaw, stipulating that she will lose the Lowick property should she do so. Chettam tries to conceal this codicil from Dorothea, wishing to send Ladislaw away, but Brooke refuses. Soon Dorothea finds out about the codicil. Meanwhile, Brooke's first public appearance results in humiliation--opposition mounts an effigy of Brooke who repeats Brooke's inarticulate speech back to him. Things look up for Fred and Mary though--Fred sends the good vicar Mr. Farebrother to ask Mary if she loves him, and she says she does. Raffles visits Bulstrode and exacts money from him threatening something about Bulstrode's past; as he leaves, Raffles recalls that Bulstrode's stepdaughter married a "Ladislaw."
"The Widow and the Wife":
Will and Dorothea come close to confessing their love for each other, but Will decides to leave town because he is too proud to be thought of as marrying Dorothea for her money (he does not know about the codicil). Garth meanwhile decides to take on Fred in the management of estates and farms; Fred proves a willing apprentice since he knows that Mary would disapprove of his trying to become clergy. Lydgate has fallen into debt because of the expenses he has felt compelled towards by his marriage to the pampered Rosamond and so he tells Rosamond that they must sell their furniture. Rosamond, estranged from Lydgate, whiles away some time flirting with Will Ladislaw and tells him about the codicil. At an auction where Will is charged to buy a painting for Bulstrode, Will actually meets Raffles, who hints about his past. The narrator reveals Bulstrode's past: as a young clerk, he took over a pawnbroker's business, married a man Dunkirk's wife upon Dunkirk's death, thereby coming by his wealth. He concealed the knowledge of a stepdaughter Sarah's whereabouts so that he might get all the wealth after Dunkirk's widow's death--Raffles was paid to keep silent on this concealment. When Bulstrode offers money to Will, Will refuses to take money from him because of his pride and wish to remain unconnected to money come by unethically. Will takes leave of Dorothea once again.
Lydgate tries to sell their house to the recently married Plymdales (Ned Plymdale had once courted Rosamond) but resentful, Rosamond secretly contradicts his action. Additionally, she secretly writes to Lydgate's uncle Sir Godwin, who snubs them. As a result, their marriage continues under strain, Lydgate becoming angry with Rosamond for meddling, and Rosamond feeling entitled to her meddling. Lydgate asks Bulstrode for money, and Bulstrode at first refuses as he plans to make an exit from Middlemarch due to his own impending fall from grace. Bulstrode tells Caleb Garth he might let Fred live at and manage Stone Court, but Garth finds Raffles sick at Stone Court who tells Garth of Bulstrode's past. Garth thus feels he must refuse Bulstrode's offer. Lydgate tells Bulstrode what to do with the ailing Raffles, and Raffles dies. Bulstrode, feeling the pressures of his moral failings, decides to lend Lydgate the money for his debts. Though Lydgate has no knowledge of Bulstrode's past, the people of Middlemarch assume that Bulstrode intentionally killed Raffles and that Lydgate took a bribe to keep silent.
"Sunset and Sunrise":
Dorothea, however, retains her faith in Lydgate. When Dorothea goes to try to help the Lydgates out by offering them the money to pay off their debts so that Lydgate might return Bulstrode's money, she sees Will and Rosamond together and runs out. Dorothea nevertheless overcomes her jealousy and resolves to go to Rosamond again, the two reach an understanding in which Rosamond is shamed into telling Dorothea that Will loves her best. Will comes back and Rosamond tells him that she settled things with Dorothea. Dorothea and Will decide to be together despite the loss of property. Bulstrode finally suggests Mrs. Bulstrode (formerly Harriet Vincy) to appeal to Garth to allow Fred to manage Stone Court. Garth agrees, and all ends well with Fred and Mary, as well as Dorothea and Will.
**Note on Prelude, and Finale: Both the brief "prelude" and "finale" focus primarily on the figure of Dorothea. In both, the narrator adopts a similar position, comparing Dorothea as a St. Theresa of Avila born during a time in which would not allow her "passionate, ideal nature" to flourish into a (historically) "recognizable deed." In a word, Dorothea Brooke is too great for Middlemarch in the 1830s; but perhaps too Middlemarch was too great for her: the finale gives that "there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it." Put this way, historical greats seem largely accidental. Nevertheless, the narrator ends with the praise of "unhistoric acts" (like Dorothea's, thought he same might be said of the Garths', or Mr. Farebrother's acts) which have perpetuated "the growing good of the world."
To contend with the criticism which has been produced on Middlemarch is probably much like trying to synthesize a key to mythologies and never having it coming to anything. Nevertheless, here are some (arbitrarily) selective thoughts:
First-Person Narration: Despite the expectations of a third-person narration based on the omniscient distance which seems to control Middlemarch, the narration is in first-person. Because this first-person narrator does not often make the first-person point-of-view apparent, the few inclusions of the first person singular or plural feel jarring and interruptive. Often, the effect seems a bit didactic, as with the most obvious example from the ending: "...and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." At other times, the narrator asks readers for understanding when it comes to sympathizing with characters that the narrator anticipates as being not particularly sympathetic--Casaubon, in particular. The narrator seems to caution against the harsh judgment of readers as much as to critique the harsh judgments of Middlemarch residents against fellow neighbors. Sympathy for Eliot, as Rae Greiner points out in her essay "Sympathy Time: Adam Smith, George Eliot, and the Realist Novel,"is not so simply conveyed: in constructing characters like Rosamond who might "know" that others have different points of view but who nevertheless cannot perform the requisite act of imagination that will cause her identification with these other points of view, Eliot shows the limitations of "knowing" if the purpose is to sympathize. Thus, though the narratorial voice occupies every character's thoughts via free-indirect discourse, allowing readerly "knowledge" of all of these points of view, it seems that the narrator feels that further explication and emphasis is necessary, for characters which readers are not likely to readily sympathize with just because they "know" them.
Liberal Critique: Many of the characters in Middlemarch (inadvertently) express the liberal doctrine of "doing as one likes." Most comically, Brooke repeats this phrase in reference to things and people he can't hope to understand or control (e.g., Dorothea "does as she likes"). In Brooke's words, the phrase feels empty and funny because he turns his own lack of influence into a statement that suggests he wants to think that he is merely a trendy, indulgent, liberal guardian. Rosamond, too, wants to "do as she likes," to have everything turn out exactly in the way that she imagines, having been pampered all of her life. Lydgate, in his own way, wishes to "do as he likes" in his science without becoming mired in what he deems to be petty politics of social life. None of these characters, however, can really "do as they like," and Middlemarch seems a critique of an unchecked, doctrinally "liberal" position which believes so blindly in the individual's will and freedom. Yet, it isn't that free "will" isn't desirable (in fact, and probably not coincidentally, Will is the most desirable object for Dorothea, her foremost protagonist)--rather, Eliot suggests that it is naive to overestimate its functionality in the mired social networks of modern life.
History, Historical Evolution: The many references to Walter Scott (in the epigraphs which precede Eliot's chapters, and also Scott is popularly read by the residents of Middlemarch) serve to underscore the sense of social determinism and historical inevitability that largely controls the fate of individuals. As in Scott's historical novels, in Eliot's Middlemarch there is a sense that contingencies (historical and social) beyond an individual's control or purview generally dwarf an individual's will to power over his or her own life. It isn't however, that will doesn't count for anything--it's just that those who overestimate its effect in controlling our outcomes become greatly disappointed (Lydgate being the most obvious example, but Dorothea learns this lesson too). Those who do well in the novel (Mr. Farebrother, Caleb Garth, Mary Garth, and Dorothea at the end) are willing to scale their visions for their own lives according to new circumstances as they come up. (Dorothea makes an interesting accommodation with respect to marriage: in the beginning, she tells Celia that she would never say that she was merely "fond" of a man she would marry; at the end of the novel, she tells Celia that she is "fond" of Ladislaw).