Read this article to know about the plot structure and theme of Middlemarch by George Eliot.
Also read: Middlemarch as a Provincial Novel
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Plot Structure of Middlemarch by George Eliot
“Without conflict there is no plot, without hope, there is no story”
Middlemarch: An unusual novel by George Eliot. A novel having beauty in its complexity as it brings to us untangled multiple stories with just one “Hero” or “Shero” as the Victorian novelist like Jane Austen calls their protagonist, that is the town “Middlemarch” itself and none of the characters.
The plot is unique in its diversity as multiple stories like that of Dorothea- Casaubon-Ladislaw’s love triangle along with the tale of romance and subsequent marriage Lydgate and Rosamond, lying in it are linked together with the usage of various devices and the representation of themes like Murky and discreditable past catching up with the present along with wealth and avarice’s direct association with a person’s (Peter Featherstone’s) life and death adds to the versatility of the novelist as a creator.
The novelist has introduced a large number of characters both major and minor and therefore the canvas of Middlemarch is very crowded both due to the presence of diverse characters and pace of incidents so, it is called ‘a treasure-house of details.”
One very effective technical device which the novelist has used in all of the eight books is the presentation of social gatherings through which protagonist of various stories within the novel, come together.
Just like the social gathering in Book 1. “Mr. Brooke gives a dinner at which representatives of both, the town and the country mingle, to celebrate the betrothal of Dorothea and Casaubon.
Social barriers are thus, for once, broken down. Moreover, at the party conventionally but naturally, talk about women, thus introducing the name of Rosamond and the contrast between her and Dorothea.
The women equally conventionally talk about ailments and remedies, thus introducing the name of Lydgate, who is presently at the party, though directly unintroduced to the reader.
Other such gatherings presented to us in the novel are Peter Featherstone’s funeral and Vincy’s New Year Party. Further, the action takes place within the narrow confines of the provincial society. It is a small, limited world and hence in it the various characters frequently mingle and cross each other’s path.
As W.J. Harvey comments “Their professional activities often provide connecting links: it is not unusual that Lydgate as a doctor is in contact with many other characters. The same goes with Bulstrode as a banker, Farebrother as a clerk and Caleb Garth as an estate-manager. The political theme of the novel also serves to break down barriers and bring together, if only briefly and tangentially, the destinies of otherwise disparate individuals.”
In this limited world, strangers are looked down upon with distrust and suspicion. Bulstrode is still suspect, Lydgate is looked upon with distrust and there is an open hostility towards Ladislaw.
George Eliot’s plots are all expositions of some particular idea or theme. As in the other Victorian novels, we also get in her work beautiful descriptions of rural life and a number of characters drawn from that life.
But such scenes and characters are subsidiary to the central idea round which the story is built. This is so because she is the first intellectual novelist.
Says David Cecil, “Her mind was always active; experience set it immediately and instinctively analyzing and generalizing, to discovering why and how things happened.
And when she turned her attention to the world around her it was this analysis that started her creative imagination working. It is inspired, not by a wish to convey her impressions of life but her judgments on it.
And it embodied itself not in a picture but in a theme. She did not have a vision of Barchester or Cranford and then invent situations on which to hang her picture of this vision; she had a vision of human society as the expression of certain principles, and she embodied it in a picture of a specific place-Middlemarch.
Her novels are built round an idea or theme, and everything not relevant to that idea is rigidly excluded.
The end is implicit in the beginning, successive events are logically and casually connected with each other and as the action proceeds, it is seen to be the logical and natural outcome of the character or characters concerned and those characters themselves are the result of their social environment.”
Thus the final catastrophe in The Mill on the Floss follows logically from Maggie’s love of her brother, and her emotional, noble and self-effacing nature.
Her death by drowning is hinted at, right from the beginning, when her mother repeatedly calls her a ‘wild thing’ and is afraid that she would be drowned one day.
The central idea or theme is that any deviation from the path of duty and rectitude is bound to bring down nemesis, and the plot is designed to illustrate this theme.
The novel is primarily an entertainment and George Eliot’s novels are not deficient in this respect.
Curiosity is excited from the very beginning, the readers are eager to know the next step, and, are fully involved in the fate of the central figure or figures, and as the action proceeds we get an analysis, a presentation of the inner drama, the moral conflict, which goes on within the mind of the central figures.
In this way, her novels acquire a gripping interest.
The melodramatic is also introduced in deference to prevalent conventions.
Her delicious humour and excellently done scenes of pathos, also contribute to the charm aim fascination of her stories, but it is the inner man, the conflict within the soul which increasingly absorbs the attention, so that the reader does not like to put down the book unfinished.
Also read: Features of Victorian Novel
George Eliot’s plots have a beginning, a middle and an end. In some respects she is a novelist in the Fielding tradition. The main interest is focused on a small group of characters, the development of whole fortunes is laid out.
They move towards a crisis or tangle which is unravelled before the end, so that in the last chapter a denouement is reached. All the fortunes with which the reader has been concerned are tied up. The story ends in a marriage or a death and the future of the survivors is indicated.
The reader is persuaded that the story is complete. Within this framework there is scope for the narrator to comment on the action and the characters and so to expound her ‘philosophy’ or sense of moral values.
‘Wit’, both in the commentary and in the dialogue, contributes to the reader’s delight and communicates the author’s sense of proportion; descriptive powers evoke the surroundings in which the action takes place, while dramatic powers enable the author to recreate the scenes of the story in terms of dialogue and action.
But from another point of view George Eliot is an innovator.
The organic or living form of her novels, within the expected framework, is different from anything that had gone before.
It resembles in some respects, Jane Austen’s form insofar as the central characters are deeply rooted in their social environment—which determines their story as much as does their individual character.
The difference is that the social environment is wider, more complex, made up of a greater variety of minor characters drawn from many more social and economic levels, and also that the display of this outer circle or environment is more conscious.
Jane Austen took her social milieu for granted; its manners and traditions were, for her, as little open to question as the laws of nature. George Eliot was aware of the ethical, religious, and social conventions of the world she paints, as a product of history, evolved in time and changing with times.
She was consciously interested in the pressure all these exert on individual selves and in the existence of a problem concerned with the resisting of, or succumbing to that pressure.
She shares the awareness of modern man that human society is constantly changing and developing. “Consequently, the organic form of her novels—an inner circle (a small group of individuals involved in a moral dilemma) surrounded by an outer circle (the social world within which the dilemma has to be resolved)—is more significant than in any preceding fiction”.
Furthermore, her perception of individual human beings is more complex than that of her predecessors. She never suggests a simple division of characters into good and bad.
The individual, like the environment, has evolved and is evolving; and the action is designed to show this evolution.
This is what George Eliot meant when she said, “My stories grow in me like plants.” It is the growth of the plant, the gradual unfolding of character in its environment, that compels attention, not the mere concatenation of events, as is the case with the novelists in the Fielding tradition.
1). Eliot George, Middlemarch, Wordsworth Classics
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