There exists within criticism a genre of rereading, of essays about books revisited years after first encounter and the richer appreciation that time and experience lend to their reconsideration. In this vein, George Eliot’s Middlemarch is perhaps one of the most written about, in part because it is a book that itself looks closely at change — how its characters deal with it and how they themselves are altered — and thus invites readers to do the same. Virginia Woolf famously called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” who seem to relate to it more, not less, as they get older.
But if rereading can prompt new insights, more often it reveals one’s fixations. Indeed, when I read Middlemarch this spring, I was at least nominally more adult than when I first picked it up three years earlier: I had a boyfriend, dental insurance, and enough professional frustration to make the young doctor Tertius Lydgates’s wasted ambitions feel a bit more poignant. Still, I found myself preoccupied with the same couple, Dorothea Brookes and Will Ladislaw, that had drawn my attention before — or, rather, I became preoccupied with defending them. We are told in the book’s final chapter that they live out their lives “bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulses which could have marred it.” Yet critics and scholars have long voiced dissatisfaction with this ending.
I first became aware of this in college, when Rebecca Mead published the New Yorker essay that would land her a book deal for My Life in Middlemarch. In an accompanying Q&A with readers on the magazine’s website, a certain AJ remarked that Dorothea’s marriage to Ladislaw was “bizarre.” I came to learn this was not a new complaint. “It strikes us as an oddity in the author’s scheme that she should have chosen just this figure of Ladislaw as the creature in whom Dorothea was to find her spiritual compensations,” wrote Henry James upon the book’s publication in 1873. That same year, an unnamed reviewer asserted that Ladislaw “seems to be a favorite with the writer to an extent which hardly justifies itself to the mind of the reader.”
If I don’t share such frustration, I do understand it. It arises from readers’ assessment that Dorothea’s perfect mate is not Ladislaw but Lydgate, and Eliot clearly encourages this view. Lydgate, a progressive young doctor who seeks the greater good in medical discovery, is the clear counterpart to Dorothea’s Saint Theresa. When each marries another early in the novel — Dorothea the stodgy Casaubon and Lydgate the shallow and intractable Rosamond Vincy — the very symmetry of what James called their “matrimonial infelicity” suggests they are on similar paths that will eventually cross at the altar. After all, if David Copperfield could marry twice in a book of the same length, then surely Dorothea can, too — marry Lydgate, that is. When she doesn’t, it is the narrator, channeling Rosamond, who voices our disappointment, reflecting of her husband in the book’s final chapter, “It was a pity he had not had Mrs. Ladislaw, whom he was always praising and placing above her.”
However, it is precisely Eliot’s transparency in promoting such expectations that suggests her intention to disappoint them. By highlighting Dorothea and Lydgate’s similarities, Eliot invites readers to apply the same delusive logic that Rosamond employs in courting Lydgate, occasioning Eliot’s famous extended metaphor of a candle shone upon a scratched surface that stands at the heart of the book:
Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent — of Miss Vincy, for example.
If the narrator’s parable applies itself most immediately to events — Rosamond believes that her brother Fred’s typhoid fever is the work of Providence, as it requires Lydgate to frequent their home during his treatment — the egoism it describes also causes characters to misestimate prospective partners more generally, projecting some qualities on them while ignoring others. Wishing to escape her humdrum life, Rosamond sees Lydgate’s pedigree and station — a physically attractive outsider with elevated relatives — and is blinded to the finer points of both their characters. A similar desperation leads Dorothea into her tragically loveless marriage with Casaubon, mistaking his pedantry for intelligence. That both marriages are unhappy comes as no surprise. Each woman has pinned her hopes on a man because he appears her perfect match on paper.
Anyone who has spent time in the trenches of online dating knows that this is a bad idea. It’s an approach to human affairs that neglects the individual and ineffable and applies intellect where one should use intuition, and which Eliot everywhere attempts to correct. Yet it is this same impulse that leads us to make similar calculations on Dorothea’s behalf, arranging the most articulated qualities she shares with Lydgate into romantic compatibility. It’s also what readers find so frustrating about Ladislaw: If Lydgate is great on the page, Ladislaw, an orphan of mysterious provenance with “rebellious blood on both sides,” is hardly there at all. He lacks, according to James, “sharpness of outline and depth of color,” making him the novel’s “only eminent failure.” The scholar Rosemary Ashton has called him “the least successfully imagined character in the novel.” But what they and others identify as a shortcoming seems likely to be by design. By repelling our efforts to analyze Ladislaw, Eliot wrests control of Dorothea’s romantic narrative from readers who have unwittingly become Rosamonds in their own right.
This theory differs from the more popular explanation for Dorothea and Ladislaw’s marriage, which draws on the theme of chance and circumstance, and the extent to which they make folly of our lives. Eliot is careful not to exempt even her heroes, particularly Lydgate, from this unfortunate reality. Thus, we often read Dorothea and Lydgate’s never-was relationship as star-crossed, the result of poor timing: By the time a widowed Dorothea begins patronizing Lydgate’s hospital, he has already married Rosamond, who refuses to conveniently fade away in the manner of Charles Dickens’s Dora Spenlow (sturdily surviving a miscarriage and bucking the Victorian trend that allowed so many female characters to die of nothing more, apparently, than their own vacuity). In contrast, time favors Dorothea’s courtship with Will, whom she meets a second time during her honeymoon in Rome, just as her expectations of marriage to Casaubon are being leached of their fantasy. The very proximity of Lydgate combined with the unlikelihood of Dorothea’s run-in with Will while abroad would seem to underscore the determining role that happenstance plays in thwarting one love match and making another.
But in light of all the evidence that enables a reading that takes the happy ending at its word, why does the consensus so strongly incline to this sadder one? The answer, I think, lies in our own fears. The pro-Lydgate camp emphasizes that we are victims of the world, our best interests defeated by outside forces. It may be tragic, but it affirms our own capacity for understanding. If we take Ladislaw and Dorothea’s storyline on good faith, we must confront an even more terrifying truth — that it is often the heart that defies our best plotting. No doubt for people who elect to read (and reread) an 800-page novel about early-19th-century provincial life seeded with moral admonitions, the allowance this makes for unaccounted pleasure may be the hardest to accept, even when it’s imperative: Stop thinking. Enjoy the romance.