Caleb Garth is impressed by Dorothea’s grasp of “business.” Caleb has been very busy, and is now occupied with plans for a railway line that will run through Lowick. The people of Middlemarch are in general adamantly opposed to the railway. Landowners are horrified by the idea of a railway running through their land, even if they are offered money by the railway company in exchange. There is a small hamlet in Lowick called Frick, where residents don’t really even understand what railways are, but are opposed to them anyway.
From a contemporary perspective, it might seem ridiculous that the Middlemarchers are so opposed to a technological development that will obviously bring a lot of benefit to the community. On the other hand, suspicion about new technologies is not always a bad thing. There are legitimate fears about railways, such as pollution and the destruction of the natural landscape.
Solomon Featherstone, who is overseer of roads in the area, one day hears from a wagon driver named Hiram that “railroad people” have been hanging around Lowick discussing cutting up the land with railway lines. Hiram notes suspiciously that the men come from London. Solomon encourages Hiram’s suspicion, saying the men should take their railways elsewhere. Soon after, Caleb comes to survey an area of land in Lowick with his assistant, Tom.
This passage shows how wealthier people (Solomon Featherstone) stoke the fears of working-class people (Hiram) about technological development.
Fred Vincy rides past on his horse. He is stressed: Mr. Vincy is adamant that he become a clergyman, whereas Mary is adamant that they will never marry if he does so. He has decided not to enter the church, but has not yet told his father this, and he still doesn’t know what he is going to do instead. Suddenly, he encounters a group of workers chasing the railroad men, waving their hay-forks. Tom is knocked to the ground. Fred gallops toward them, cursing them for having injured the boy. Hiram yells at Fred.
This passage shows that, somewhat surprisingly, local people in Middlemarch are so opposed to the railway that they will actually resort to violent intimidation to stop it. This might seem shocking, but it is also one of the only ways working-class people can express their opinions (even after the Reform Bill, they would still have been ineligible to vote).
Fred puts the injured Tom on his horse and tells him to ride it to the nearby stable. Fred offers to help Caleb, who laments that the group of men who chased him has been told lies about the railway. He explains: “The poor fools don’t know any better.” Caleb approaches the men, telling Fred to stay behind. He tells them that they can’t stop the railway, which will be built regardless of their feelings. He adds that the railway is largely harmless. One of the workers complains that the railway will only benefit rich people, and that Caleb appears to be taking their side.
Caleb’s sympathy with the working men shows that it is important not to be judgmental of those who oppose technological progress. They may have been lied to and, more importantly, they may have legitimate concerns about technology, such as the way that this technology might only benefit the rich.
Eventually the workers declare that they were only having fun, and that they won’t interfere again. Fred helps Caleb with his work, feeling joyful. He admits that he wishes he had started working with Caleb before going back to his degree, and asks if it’s too late to learn Caleb’s “business.” Caleb says Fred would be able to learn, and then Fred brings up Mary, saying he would “do anything for her.” He explains that he got Farebrother to speak with her, which is how he knows her feelings about his entering the church. Caleb tells him to come to his office tomorrow at 9 am.
Fred’s regret about doing his degree before he started working with Caleb shows that the pressure to do the “respectable” thing can sometimes lead people down the wrong path. Trying to live up to people’s expectations has created an impossible dilemma wherein Fred must choose between the approval of his father and the woman he wants to marry.
Later, Caleb tells Mrs. Garth that Mary and Fred like each other and that he intends to take Fred on and “make a man of him.” Mrs. Garth replies that it would be a shame for Mary to marry Fred when she could have gotten someone better, such as Mr. Farebrother, who she believes was ready to propose. Caleb points out that when Mrs. Garth married him, there were probably lots of people who thought she could have had a better match. Furthermore, Fred adores Mary. Mrs. Garth tells Caleb that he is a wonderful father, although afterward she weeps in private.
Note that the women in the novel who “married down” (Mrs. Garth, Mrs. Cadwallader) express regret about it after, even though their marriages seem very happy. This suggests that those who marry for love—and in doing so forsake wealth and social status—may be reasonably happy with their own decisions, but still wonder about what life would be like if they had chosen differently.
The next day Caleb assigns Fred office work. He is disappointed with Fred’s penmanship, saying he is shocked that Fred’s expensive education has amounted to this. Fred is humiliated and apologizes, but Caleb assures him that he can learn to write better with practice. He says that Fred should tell Mr. Vincy that Caleb will employ him on a starting salary of £80 a year. When Fred does so, Mr. Vincy declares that Fred has “thrown away your education, and gone down a step in life.” He will not try to interfere with Fred’s decision, but he declares: “I wash my hands of you.”
Mr. Vincy’s horror at Fred’s decision to work for Caleb reveals his snootiness. While it is not what Mr. Vincy hoped Fred would do, by working for Caleb Fred is at least taking initiative and responsibility, rather than shying away from hard work as he has done for most of his life. Meanwhile, Caleb’s advice for Fred to practice his terrible handwriting suggests that expensive educations are not necessarily worth the money.
Fred asks if he can stay at home, saying he will contribute to the costs of the household. Mr. Vincy agrees only because he knows Mrs. Vincy will want it this way. Father and son shake hands. Meanwhile, when Fred tells his mother that he intends to marry Mary, she is equally miserable. She still thinks that Fred is the best young man in Middlemarch and that it is a horrible step down for him to marry Mary. Mrs. Vincy remains miserable, and eventually Mr. Vincy tells her to cheer up. Fred, however, is not their only problem: Lydgate has been getting into debt, and the Vincys expect that Rosamond will soon ask them for money.
Fred has disappointed both his parents by failing to live up to the ambitions they had for his life. Yet their reactions suggest that these ambitions were always more fantasy than reality. Mr. Vincy wanted Fred to enter the church even though he is not very religious, whereas Mrs. Vincy is convinced that he is best young man in Middlemarch despite much evidence to the contrary. These illusions have paved the way to disappointment.