The narrator points out that, contrary to popular opinion, it is often “low people” who inadvertently end up having the greatest impact on the world. For example, no one would have expected that Joshua Rigg would play any significant role in shaping life in Middlemarch. As a person, Rigg is even-tempered and takes care over his appearance. He intends to marry a woman with good connections, “in a solid middle-class way.” He grew up in a port town and didn’t receive much education. At Stone Court he is standing with an unkempt man nearing 60, a man who is his total opposite.
The narrator’s observation in this passage is progressive, yet also tempered with conservatism. The idea that low-ranking people (rather than high-ranking rulers and landowners) actually shape history is somewhat radical. Crucially, however, the narrator suggests that low-ranking people inadvertently shape history, as is the case of Rigg. He impacts Middlemarch only as a kind of accident; he himself has little agency.
The unkempt man’s name is John Raffles, and he is trying to persuade Rigg to give Rigg’s mother some money so she can have comfort in her old age. Rigg replies that it is Raffles who makes his mother’s life miserable, adding that he has not forgotten Raffles kicking him when he was a child and hogging food so there was none for Rigg or his mother. It becomes clear that Raffles is Rigg’s stepfather, and that Rigg hates him. Raffles begs Rigg for alcohol; Rigg reluctantly brings him brandy and a £1 coin.
Despite Rigg’s new fortune, he struggles to disconnect himself from the “sordid” reality of his past. Both here and in later sections of the book, Raffles serves as a reminder that it is impossible to ever truly leave your past behind you. No matter how much one’s circumstances improve, their past will come back to haunt them.