When Mr. Bulstrode gets home that night, Mrs. Bulstrode tells him that a strange man has been at the house claiming to be an old friend of Bulstrode’s. The man (Raffles) flirted with her and wouldn’t leave until she practically forced him to do so. The next day, Bulstrode confesses that Raffles’s presence has worried him. Mrs. Bulstrode reflects that she doesn’t actually know that much about her husband’s past, other than that he worked at a bank and that his first marriage was to a much older widow.
In this passage, it becomes more obvious that Bulstrode has secrets from his past that he wants to keep hidden, and that Raffles either reminds him of those secrets or perhaps intends to divulge them to others. The idea that Bulstrode has a sordid past justifies the suspicions Middlemarchers have of him based on his lack of traceable family reputation.
When Bulstrode saw Raffles at the bank earlier that day, Raffles said he might leave Middlemarch the following day, but only if he wanted to. Raffles cannot get Bulstrode in any legal trouble, but he can expose secrets about his past that Bulstrode desperately wants to keep hidden. Bulstrode is struck by memories of his past as a young man and member of a Calvinist church in London. He was an orphan who had gone to a charity school. As a young adult, Bulstrode became friends with the wealthiest man at his church, Mr. Dunkirk.
Bulstrode is an archetypical self-made man: an orphan educated at a charity school, he worked his way to the position of wealth and power he now occupies. In the early nineteenth century, working one’s way up from the bottom is still a rare occurrence, especially in England where the class system has such a strong hold. As a result, people are suspicious of those who do it.
Eventually Dunkirk gave Bulstrode the job being of his “confidential accountant.” Dunkirk was a pawnbroker and sold goods without properly inquiring where they came from. Not long after this, Dunkirk died, and Bulstrode and the widowed Mrs. Dunkirk planned to marry. Before the marriage, however, Mrs. Dunkirk was desperate to reconnect with her daughter (Sarah), who had run away years before to be an actress. She knew that Sarah had a son and wished to bequeath her fortune to her grandson. However, eventually she gave up hope and married Bulstrode.
Because most legitimate avenues of wealth and power are reserved for those who come from “good” families, people like Bustrode often find themselves mixed up in shady business. The Dunkirks made their money through pawning stolen goods, and—while the young Bulstrode may have found this morally objectionable—his association with them was the only chance for him to move up in society and gain wealth of his own.
Bulstrode had hired Raffles to find Sarah and in truth Sarah had been found; however, Bulstrode paid Raffles to keep this a secret. Bulstrode has always justified these actions by thinking that God had clearly created a path for him to move up in the world, and that Sarah and her family were unfit as inheritors of Mrs. Dunkirk’s wealth because “they were given up to the lightest pursuits.” Bulstrode has occasionally felt tormented by his actions. Five years after he bribed Raffles, Mrs. Dunkirk died. Over that time, Bulstrode had worked hard to enlarge his wealth and secure his reputation as a respectable gentleman.
Bulstrode justifies his decision to keep Mrs. Dunkirk’s wealth rather than giving it to Sarah on the grounds of his strict religious beliefs. He tells himself that Sarah is unfit to receive the money because she is engaged in “the lightest pursuits,” e.g. the bohemian life of the theater. However, given that Bulstrode himself has lied and cheated his way into inheriting money that itself comes from theft, is he really in a position to judge?
Aware that he had sinned, Bulstrode told himself that he was using his money in service of God. He is relieved to see Raffles leaving Middlemarch after all, and he asks Will to a private meeting at 9 pm. He tells Will that he has secret information about how their pasts are connected. Bulstrode asks if Sarah ever mentioned her own mother, before revealing that Mrs. Dunkirk was his wife and that he gained wealth from the marriage that otherwise would have gone to Sarah. Will goes to leave, but Bulstrode implores him that he now wants to right this past wrong.
Through Bulstrode, Eliot explores how fervent religiosity often disguises hypocrisy and corrupt behavior. Bulstrode tries to justify all the wrongs he has done not only by telling himself that he is serving God, but also through his righteous belief that his rejection of the Anglican church means that he serves God better than others do.
Bulstrode says he wants to give Will the inheritance he would have received from his grandmother, Mrs. Dunkirk. Will realizes that Bulstrode knew how to find Sarah and that he deliberately concealed this information. Bulstrode confirms that this is true, repeating that he now wants to make amends. He offers Will £500 while he, Bulstrode, is living and even more after he dies. Will asks if Bulstrode was involved in the Dunkirks’ pawn-broking business, saying he knows that it involved theft and deception.
Bulstrode believes (or rather, hopes) that he will be able to atone for his past sins by giving Will the money that was originally owed to Sarah. Yet does this really count as atonement considering he has only been prompted to make amends after Raffles has arrived and threatened to reveal his secrets? In reality, Bulstrode is just trying to protect himself.
Bulstrode knows he should be honest, but his pride makes him defensive; he tells Will it is none of his business to be asking such questions. Will, however, replies that it is both acceptable and necessary for him to ask, saying: “My honour is important to me.” He adds: “You shall keep your ill-gotten money.” Will leaves before Bulstrode can say anything else. Part of what inspired Will to refuse the money so quickly was the knowledge that he could never face admitting to Dorothea that he acquired money in this way. Bulstrode, meanwhile, bursts into tears.
Will behaves admirably here. However, like Fred and Mary, this sense of honor doesn’t come from his own instincts as much as it is inspired by his love for Dorothea, who is an exceptionally principled person. This suggests that at its best love can be a positive and transformative force, compelling people to behave in more moral ways than they might otherwise.