In June, Farebrother and his relatives celebrate the news that he will be taking over Casaubon’s post. Miss Winifred tells him through happy tears that he should finally get married; he agrees but laments that he is “a seedy old fellow” and no one could love him. Farebrother intends to keep his old parish as well, even though this will be a lot of work. However, at just that point Fred Vincy returns from college having finally gained his degree. He tells Farebrother that though he doesn’t want to, he might go into the church so the money spent on his education doesn’t go to waste.
This passage explores the way that both Farebrother and Fred struggle with the demand to live up to societal expectations. Now that he has secured a prosperous income it is expected that Farebrother should get married, but he doesn’t know if he will be able to find someone. Meanwhile, Fred knows that having obtained his degree, he should enter the clergy even though this is not what he really wants.
Fred thinks that life as a clergyman will be too “serious” for him, but he feels that there is nothing else he can do. He also confesses that he has been in love with Mary Garth since childhood, who in the past has been opposed to his entering the church. He feels that he will only know what to do once he knows Mary’s current opinion. The next day Farebrother goes to see Mary and asks her what she thinks Fred should do. However, before she can answer he adds that Mr. Garth told him about her refusal to burn Featherstone’s will and her guilt over it.
Fred’s deference to Mary’s opinion is moving, and sets him apart from most other men in Middlemarch. Unlike these others, he has not accepted that men are naturally superior to women—or at least doesn’t act like he thinks this. He genuinely trusts Mary’s judgment and believes that she knows what’s best for him better than he does.
Farebrother says he thinks he will be able to relieve Mary’s guilt, and then explains to her that burning one will would have made the other one legally void. Her actions therefore did not ruin Fred’s future in the way she feared. Mary is happy to hear this. Farebrother then mentions Fred’s dilemma about the church again, saying that he personally feels Fred would do well as a clergyman and could work for him as his curate. However, Fred’s decision is completely dependent on Mary’s opinion.
Recall here that Farebrother has a remarkably secular attitude for a clergyman, and it is perhaps for this reason that he believes that Fred could have a perfectly good career in the church. A more deeply religious clergyman would likely see that Fred would not be the best candidate to devote his life to Christianity.
Mary confesses that she isn’t sure if she will marry Fred at all, but that she certainly couldn’t marry him if he entered the church. She explains that people like Fred do not have the right “to represent Christianity,” as their hearts are not really in it. Finally, Mary repeats that until Fred has done something “serious,” she will not consider him as a suitor. However, after Farebrother asks about Mary considering someone else (with the possible implication that he means himself), Mary clarifies that she is very attached to Fred. She just wants him to prove himself.
Mary’s pragmatic nature is so strong that she subsumes her evident adoration of Fred underneath her knowledge that she will need to marry a responsible person. She displays a remarkable balance between loyalty and pragmatism: while it would be easy for her to accept Farebrother or another man as her husband, she instead patiently waits for Fred even though he may never change.