George Eliot

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Middlemarch: Metaphors 9 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Mrs. Cadwallader’s Lens:

Before describing Mrs. Cadwallader’s matchmaking tendencies, the narrator uses a metaphor to explain how they are turning their attention to Mrs. Cadwallader the way a scientist turns attention to a specimen under a microscopic lens:

Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom. In this way, metaphorically speaking, a strong lens applied to Mrs. Cadwallader's match-making will show a play of minute causes producing what may be called thought and speech vortices to bring her the sort of food she needed.

This is an example of Eliot choosing to make the Middlemarch narrator self-aware, reflecting as they are on the fact that they are using a metaphor. In this metaphor, Eliot is comparing the minutiae of Mrs. Cadwallader’s matchmaking skills to the “tiniest hairlets” of a specimen under a microscope. This is Eliot’s way of showing readers how intentionally manipulative Mrs. Cadwallader can be—her maneuvers are so subtle yet so multitudinous that they can only be seen under a strong lens. Here Eliot hints at all of the secret strategies hidden in small-town communities like Middlemarch. There is a secondary metaphor in this passage as well—the “food” Mrs. Cadwallader seeks is not food at all, but effectual romantic matches.

Explanation and Analysis—Casaubon the Mummy:

In an early conversation between Sir James and Mrs. Cadwallader, both parties bemoan the fact that Dorothea has agreed to marry Casaubon, using metaphors to mock him for his age:

"Good God! It is horrible! He is no better than a mummy!" (The point of view has to be allowed for, as that of a blooming and disappointed rival.)

"She says, he is a great soul.—A great bladder for dried peas to rattle in!" said Mrs. Cadwallader.

"What business has an old bachelor like that to marry?" said Sir James. "He has one foot in the grave."

Comparing Casaubon to a mummy and “a great bladder for dried peas to rattle in,” as well as metaphorically describing him as having “one foot in the grave,” Sir James and Mrs. Cadwallader communicate their belief that Dorothea should have been more strategic, or ambitious, in her choice of partner. She is young (only 16 years old) and beautiful while Casaubon is older (45 years old), sickly, and overall undesirable. In their eyes, Sir James was a much better match for her as a young, wealthy, and highly-esteemed man with a future ahead of him.

The type of gossip seen in this passage shows up throughout the novel—one of the many examples of the downsides of living in a small, close-minded community like Middlemarch.

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Book 2, Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—The Chain of Discovery:

When introducing Lydgate, Eliot describes his medical ambitions via a metaphor:

He meant to be a unit who would make a certain amount of difference towards that spreading change which would one day tell appreciably upon the averages, and in the mean time have the pleasure of making an advantageous difference to the viscera of his own patients. But he did not simply aim at a more genuine kind of practice than was common. He was ambitious of a wider effect: he was fired with the possibility that he might work out the proof of an anatomical conception and make a link in the chain of discovery.

In explaining how Lydgate wanted to “make a link in the chain of discovery,” Eliot communicates the immensity of Lydgate’s visions for his career—he doesn’t simply want to be a doctor who makes “an advantageous difference to the viscera of his own patients,” he wants to be part of a legacy of scientific advancement.

At the end of the novel, Lydgate accepts that, despite being a well-respected and financially stable physician, he never achieved his goal of having an impact on the field of medicine. This is one of the many examples in Middlemarch of characters who end up disappointed in themselves.

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Book 2, Chapter 20
Explanation and Analysis—An Enclosed Basin:

The narrator comments on the confines of the institution of marriage at several points throughout the novel, including using a metaphor to compare marriage to a marine “voyage” that, in actuality, is a mere exploration of “an enclosed basin”:

But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.

This analysis comes in the context of the tensions in Dorothea’s relationship with Casaubon—in accepting his proposal, Dorothea thought she would be assisting in the scholarly work of a genius and, instead, ends up caring for a bitter, dying man who never finishes his so-called brilliant manuscript (The Key to All Mythologies). Rather than being part of this sort of grandiose scholarly exploration (akin to a marine voyage), Dorothea is trapped alone at home (and alone on her honeymoon), her version of an “enclosed basin.” In addition to their ambitions in life, Dorothea and Casaubon also have high hopes for their marriage to each other, but end up disappointed with their relationship as well.

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Book 3, Chapter 29
Explanation and Analysis—Casaubon's Soul:

When describing Casaubon’s soul, the narrator uses a metaphor to compare it to a bird who is unable to fly:

Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.

The image of Casaubon’s soul as a baby bird unsuccessfully trying to free itself from “the swampy ground” where it is stuck captures something important about Casaubon’s character—he is ambitious and has lofty goals that he has never been able to reach. Not only has he not been able to reach them, but he never reaches them, as proves to be true later in the novel when he passes away before completing The Key to All Mythologies.

Here Eliot is showing how, despite the fact that ambition is often seen as an entirely positive quality, it can also become a trap. It’s notable that the bird in the metaphor is not unable to fly, it is just stuck “thinking of its wings and never flying.” Like the bird, Casaubon is focused on thinking about his project and never completing it.

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Book 4, Chapter 40
Explanation and Analysis—The Story as a Battery:

In one of the moments when the narrator comments on the way in which they are telling the story of Middlemarch, they use a metaphor to compare the story to an electric battery in a scientific experiment:

In watching effects, if only of an electric battery, it is often necessary to change our place and examine a particular mixture or group at some distance from the point where the movement we are interested in was set up. The group I am moving towards is at Caleb Garth’s breakfast-table in the large parlour where the maps and desk were: father, mother, and five of the children.

Just as scientists examine a battery or experiment from many angles in order to draw informed conclusions, the narrator of Middlemarch is examining the town from many different characters’ perspectives, moving from one scene to this next one focused on the Garth family. This meta-narrational moment highlights how knowledgeable Eliot is about science, hinting at her own interest in scientific progress and allying herself with characters like Lydgate in the process.

This metaphor also communicates Eliot’s desire for readers to truly understand all of the social dynamics in Middlemarch so that they can have a deep understanding of the town. This is important in that readers can only draw conclusions about provincial life by witnessing different facets of it.

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Book 5, Chapter 48
Explanation and Analysis—Dorothea's Tomb:

When Dorothea and Casaubon’s marriage is in a particularly stuck state—as Casaubon becomes increasingly focused on The Key to All Mythologies while Dorothea is aware that it will never be the great work he wants it to be—Eliot uses a metaphor to capture Dorothea’s experience of the marriage:

[Dorothea] longed for work which would be directly beneficent like the sunshine and the rain, and now it appeared that she was to live more and more in a virtual tomb, where there was the apparatus of a ghastly labor producing what would never see the light. Today she had stood at the door of the tomb and seen Will Ladislaw receding into the distant world of warm activity and fellowship—turning his face towards her as he went.

In feeling that she exists in a “virtual tomb,” Dorothea has clearly lost all former illusions about her husband and exists more in a state of disappointment. This passage also foreshadows Casaubon’s early death (as he will be the one entombed) as well as foreshadowing Dorothea’s more joyful future marriage to Will (as seen in the end of the passage with Will “turning his face towards her” as he heads toward a “world of warm activity”).

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Explanation and Analysis—The Sword of Death:

As Casaubon becomes sicker, the narrator uses a metaphor to capture his imminent death:

And here Dorothea's pity turned from her own future to her husband's past - nay, to his present hard struggle with a lot which had grown out of that past the lonely labour, the ambition breathing hardly under the pressure of self-distrust; the goal receding, and the heavier limbs; and now at last the sword visibly trembling above him!

The image of “the sword visibly trembling above [Casaubon]” is palpable—Dorothea is aware that he has little time left so visualizes a sword hanging above him representing death.

The imagery here is also important—it’s not Casaubon who is barely breathing but his ambition that is “breathing hardly under the pressure of self-distrust.” This passage highlights how frustrated and resentful Dorothea is about the fact that she married Casaubon in the hopes of supporting a brilliant scholar with an ambitious final work (The Key to All Mythologies), only to find that he will not be able to complete his work before his death. In a way, Casaubon’s foiled ambition becomes Dorothea’s foiled ambition—as a woman in a sexist society, she is not allowed to have scholarly ambitions of her own.

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Book 6, Chapter 54
Explanation and Analysis—Poverty as Leprosy:

Chapters before declaring their love for each other, Will and Dorothea have a tense conversation full of subtext, during which Will uses a metaphor when discussing poverty:

"I never felt it a misfortune to have nothing till now," he said. "But poverty may be as bad as leprosy, if it divides us from what we most care for."

This metaphor—comparing poverty to leprosy—is, strangely enough, Will’s way of communicating that he regrets being poor because it prevents him from being able to be with Dorothea (since she would have to give up her money and property to be with him). Leprosy is a bacterial skin infection that, at the time Eliot was writing, was considered to be highly contagious and thus required sufferers to be isolated from others. Here Will is expressing that, like leprosy, his lack of wealth is keeping him from people, specifically Dorothea, who he wants to marry.

It’s important to note that Will—unlike characters like Fred and Rosamond—is not bemoaning his class position because he wants to rise in social rank, but for a less greedy reason: he wants to be with the woman he loves. This is what makes him a good partner for Dorothea—both of them value real relationships over social status.

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