The experience that unites all the characters in Middlemarch is disappointment. In the novel, disappointment is something that happens on both a broad scale (when one’s lifelong dreams and ambitions do not come to pass) and on a more minor, everyday level. Indeed, at one point the narrator observes: “We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time.” This quotation indicates that disappointment is both a universal experience (it applies to all mortal beings, men and women) and that it is a notably frequent occurrence. Because disappointment is often inevitable, the novel suggests that it must be accepted as part of life. Doing so can even have positive side effects, such as forcing people to compromise and reconcile conflicting views.
The novel also presents ambition as an integral part of the human condition. In some ways, the book presents a positive view of ambition as something that helps society advance and that makes life meaningful.
In the case of the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, being orphaned young meant that he did not end up automatically following the vocation of his father, but instead picked a career based on “intellectual passion.” When he discovered such a passion for medicine, his guardians allowed him to pursue it, and the result was that he became an enthusiastic and talented doctor. Lydgate’s passionate ambitions make him a good doctor, which has a positive impact on the community: not only does he save Fred Vincy’s life, but he helps open the New Hospital, which brings medical advancements to Middlemarch.
Ambition is important both as a means of personal fulfilment and as a way of stimulating societal progress. Without ambition, life can seem empty and pointless, and professional roles are filled by people who are unenthusiastic and likely inept (as is the case of the doctors in Middlemarch before Lydgate’s arrival).
Yet despite these positive sides of ambition, ambition can also be dangerous—not least because it virtually guarantees disappointment in some form. Lydgate’s fervent ambitions mean that he sets expectations for himself (and others) that are too high. His pursuit of a medical career is arguably too single-minded, leading him to neglect other aspects of his life such as marriage. At first Lydgate refuses to even consider getting married until he has fulfilled his professional ambitions, which is shown to be an unrealistic and impractical way of approaching life. His obsessive focus on his career then leads him to make a mistake by marrying Rosamond, with whom he is fundamentally incompatible.
Lydgate’s trajectory suggests that single-minded ambition will lead to disappointment because it disrupts the balance in one’s life. Despite having a life that—like pretty much all lives—contains a mix of both successes and disappointments, when Lydgate dies he considers himself a failure. This suggests that if people are too ambitious in the first place, then they are setting themselves up for disappointment.
As Lydgate’s story shows, one of the main ways that ambition and disappointment are explored in the novel is through marriage. Where other nineteenth-century novels often end with marriage, Middlemarch depicts a series of marriages across the course of the narrative that are often filled with disappointment, boredom, conflict, and misery. In doing so, the novel challenges the idea that marriage is the ultimate ambition, a “happy ever after.” Instead, marriage is usually shown to be a highly disappointing experience.
In choosing to marry the much older Edward Casaubon, Dorothea attempts to reconcile her own ideals and ambitions with the role of a married woman that she is expected to play. Casaubon is a scholar who has been working on an ambitious work of theological writing, The Key to All Mythologies, for many years. Dorothea dreams both of submitting to Casaubon’s will (as a good wife should) and of putting her intellect to use by helping him with his scholarship. Yet this dream is doomed, both by the fact that Casaubon himself is something of a fraud whose scholarly work is not actually very good, and by the fact that he doesn’t respect Dorothea as his intellectual equal and thus does not want her assistance.
Dorothea’s miserable union with Casaubon becomes the primary example of disappointing and disastrous marriage. At one point the marriage is described as “an enclosed basin;” several other times it is referred to as a “prison,” and Casaubon’s cousin Will Ladislaw even tells Dorothea that she will be “buried alive” at Casaubon’s house, Lowick Manor. These descriptions highlight the extreme extent to which women lose their freedom and agency within marriage. Even worse, this imprisonment is basically permanent: the only hope of escape is if one’s husband dies, as happens to both Dorothea and, later, Rosamond.
The trope of disappointment in marriage both proves the novel’s point that disappointment must be accepted as part of life and shows that this acceptance can be impossibly difficult. Disappointment might be an inevitable (or at least highly likely) component of marriage, but a bad marriage can have the effect of permanently ruining a person’s life. While Dorothea and Rosamond are lucky enough to get second chances, this is only possible because their first husbands die before they do.
Over the course of the novel it becomes clear that one can avoid being broken by disappointment by setting more realistic goals and ambitions. At the same time, it is impossible to avoid disappointment altogether. No one can predict the trajectory of their career or marriage, and in this sense disappointment is inevitable. Furthermore, disappointment is the necessary flip side of having ambitions in the first place, and both ambitions and disappointment are thus shown to be essential aspects of human existence.
Ambition and Disappointment ThemeTracker
Ambition and Disappointment Quotes in Middlemarch
Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
“It is very hard: it is your favourite fad to draw plans.”
“Fad to draw plans! Do you think I only care about my fellow creatures’ houses in that childish way? I may well make mistakes. How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?”
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, 'Oh, nothing!' Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts - not to hurt others.
Of course, he had a profession and was clever, as well as sufficiently handsome; but the piquant fact about Lydgate was his good birth, which distinguished him from all Middlemarch admirers, and presented marriage as a Prospect of rising in rank and getting a little nearer to that celestial condition on earth in which she would have nothing to do with vulgar people, and perhaps at last associate with relatives quite equal to the county people who looked down on the Middlemarchers. It was part of Rosamond's cleverness to discern very subtly the faintest aroma of rank.
The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose name you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same.
Thus his intellectual ambition which seemed to others to have absorbed and dried him, was really no security against wounds, least of all against those which came from Dorothea. And he had begun now to frame possibilities for the future which were somehow more embittering to him than anything his mind had dwelt on before.
The immediate motive to the opposition, however, is the fact that Bulstrode has put the medical direction into my hands. Of course I am glad of that. It gives me an opportunity of doing some good work - and I am aware that I have to justify his choice of me. But the consequence is, that the whole profession in Middlemarch have set themselves tooth and nail against the Hospital, and not only refuse to co-operate themselves, but try to blacken the whole affair and hinder subscriptions.
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! And had she not wished to marry him that she might help him in his life's labour? - But she had thought the work was to be something greater, which she could serve in devoutly for its own sake. Was it right, even to soothe his grief - would it be possible, even if she promised - to work as in a treadmill fruitlessly?
He had a very distinct and intense vision of his chief good, the vigorous greed which he had inherited having taken a special form by dint of circumstance: and his chief good was to be a money-changer… The one joy after which his soul thirsted was to have a money-changer's shop on a much-frequented quay, to have locks all round him of which he held the keys, and to look sublimely cool as he handled the breeding coins of all nations, while helpless Cupidity looked at him enviously from the other side of an iron lattice. The strength of that passion had been a power enabling him to master all the knowledge necessary to gratify it.
His troubles will perhaps appear miserably sordid, and beneath the attention of lofty persons who can know nothing of debt except on a magnificent scale. Doubtless they were sordid; and for the majority, who are not lofty, there is no escape from sordidness but by being free from money-craving, with all its base hopes and temptations, its watching for death, its hinted requests, its horsedealer's desire to make bad work pass for good, its seeking for function which ought to be another's, its compulsion often to long for Luck in the shape of a wide calamity.
Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done - not even Sir James Chettam, who went no further than the negative prescription that she ought not to have married Will Ladislaw.