The narrator discusses a late historian named Fielding, and also refers to themselves as a historian. The narrator explains that they will now deliver a lot of information about Lydgate, who—despite becoming more entrenched in the Middlemarch community by the day—is still something of a stranger to the townspeople. While Middlemarchers may not know Lydgate well, they feel that he is unusual and expect “great things” of him. In general, their perception of doctors’ abilities is highly subjective: everyone thinks that their own family doctor is exceptionally skilled and intelligent, while thinking that the other local doctors are terrible.
This passage confirms that Middlemarchers have a rather backwards perspective on medicine. They are not equipped (or perhaps not willing) to make judgments based on doctors’ skill, so they simply choose to regard the doctor that they have already chosen as the “best” in Middlemarch. While this may give people peace of mind, it doesn’t do much to advance the state of medicine in the area.
Lydgate is 27, an age at which many men begin to give up on their dreams and ambitions. He is an orphan whose father was in the military. Lydgate figured out early on in life that he wanted to pursue a medical career; this was made possible by the fact that there was no pressure to follow his father’s career path, as his father wasn’t around. He was always an enthusiastic reader and excelled at school. However, it was not until he happened to find a book about anatomy that he discovered his true passion.
Through Lydgate, the book shows that ambition is highly important and a way in which life gains purpose and meaning. High achievement such as Lydgate’s early success in school don’t mean much unless it is directed toward a particular goal. Once people have a sense of purpose, their lives become more fulfilled.
The narrator observes that it is odd how fixated we are on stories of interpersonal romance, and not the passion of falling in love with a particular intellectual pursuit or vocation, which is surely just as important. Meanwhile, when men gradually lose their interest or success in their career, it is surely just as sad as falling out of love. Lydgate is determined not to become “one of those failures,” and so far he is on the right path. He studied in London, Edinburgh, and Paris. He loves that medicine is both intellectually stimulating and a way of doing good.
The comparison between romantic love and falling in love with one’s own career is important. As a book concerned with themes of ambition and disappointment, Middlemarch compares romantic failure with professional failure to show that both forms of disappointment can have a devastating impact on a person.
Lydgate also loves medicine because it is in need of reform. After finishing his studies, Lydgate was determined to work in a provincial town, avoiding the intense, elitist social world of London medicine. He is convinced that there are a great many incompetent doctors practicing in the country, and he thus feels duty-bound to try and make a difference, even if only a small one. Though it might sound strange, Lydgate considers himself a “discoverer.” He aims to begin with modest reforms that he knows he is capable of enacting. The first of these is to prescribe medication without actually giving it to patients himself or taking a cut from pharmacists.
The word “discover” contextualizes Lydgate’s passion for medicine within both the dramatic scientific progress that was taking place in the nineteenth century and the birth of science as a discipline. It also links Lydgate’s medical research with the endeavors of colonial “discoverers.” Lydgate’s medical ambitions are thus framed as having a potentially transformative impact on the world.
Lydgate hopes to further stimulate the explosion of medical knowledge that took place at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Human knowledge is slow to change, and despite glimpses of advancement, medicine is still “shambling along the old paths.” There are many questions about human anatomy that remain unresolved, and Lydgate is determined answer them. Lydgate’s personality is still in the process of development, and he is not without flaws. He can be overconfident, too single-minded, and prone to applying his efforts to the wrong cause. However, the narrator emphasizes that all people have flaws like these, so we shouldn’t judge him too harshly.
The narrator’s mention of Lydgate’s flaws draws attention to the fact that no character in Middlemarch is presented as wholly good or wholly bad (with perhaps one exception, as we will see much later in the novel). Instead, Eliot portrays individual humans as complex, contradictory, and fallible, and encourages us to sympathize with her characters in spite of all their flaws.
Lydgate’s singular ambition means that he has difficulty enjoying things in life outside of medicine. While he was in Paris he fell in love with a married actress from Provence named Laure. He loved to go watch her at the theatre. One night while Lydgate was watching her perform the part of the play where she stabs her lover (played by her real-life husband), she actually stabbed him, murdering him. There was much speculation about whether the killing was intentional; even some of the actress’s fans believed she was guilty, but Lydgate didn’t.
Here as well as later in the novel, actresses represent passion, freedom, and rebellion. Choosing to be an actress was certainly not considered a respectable pursuit for a woman, and thus women who go down this path either don’t care about the expectations of others or have no choice. Laure’s killing of her husband is the ultimate exercise of this rebellion, even if it is accidental.
While Laure was in custody Lydgate had many conversations with her. When she was found innocent and released, she fled to Avignon. Lydgate found her there and approached her after a performance, asking her to marry him. He knew it was crazy but he persevered, telling her he loved her and that he couldn’t live without her. Laure told him that when she stabbed her husband her foot really did slip, but that she intended to kill him. Panicked, Lydgate asked if the husband was abusive, but Laure replied that she was simply irritated with him. She concluded: “I do not like husbands. I will never have another.”
Although he initially believes she didn’t mean to do it, Lydgate’s decision to propose to a woman who killed her husband suggests that he may be prone to risky behavior and self-sabotage. His reckless pursuit of Laure conveys the idea that love can make people lose their common sense. Meanwhile, Laure’s admission of guilt is scandalous, and would have been even more so to nineteenth-century readers.
Following this encounter Lydgate resolved to have “a strictly scientific view of women.” No one in Middlemarch would believe this episode from Lydgate’s past. Now, the town expects him to assimilate totally into the community.
Lydgate’s resolution to have a “scientific view of women” suggests he is going to force himself to be rational when it comes to love and marriage. However, one could argue that this is not actually possible.