Rather than focusing on the lives of a small group of characters, Middlemarch is about an entire community: the fictional town of the novel’s title. Significantly, the book is also set thirty years before it was written, and is full of detail about this important, tumultuous period in English history. The novel’s subtitle, “A Study of Provincial Life,” indicates that the book intends to give readers a sense of what “provincial life” is like during this period, during which the class system remained both highly rigid and extremely prominent as a way of structuring pretty much every part of society. This “provincial life” is further defined by the fact that the characters are all connected to one another in a complex familial, marital, political, and professional web. While this close-knit aspect of the community has a positive dimension, overall the novel condemns the way that small communities like Middlemarch can foster small-mindedness, pettiness, and intense social hierarchies.
In Middlemarch, class anxiety emerges primarily through an obsession with family reputation. The obsession leads Middlemarch residents to be overly involved with and critical of other people’s choices, especially women’s choices of whom to marry. There is little privacy in Middlemarch, and certain characters (such as Mrs. Cadwallader) exacerbate this by being prone to gossip and judgment about marriages in the community. For example, Mrs. Cadwallader is highly judgmental of both Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon and her relationship with Will.
Coming from a “good” family is highly valued, yet considering that no one can actually change the social status of their own family, the only way to rise in rank is through marriage. At the same time, the novel suggests that fixating on social status and improving it through marriage can have profoundly negative effects on people’s lives. Rosamond eagerly marries Lydgate because he comes from a noble family: “[Lydgate] 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.” Rosamond is fixated on improving her own social standing, so much so that she ignores the reality that Lydgate is poor. In the end, his lack of wealth makes their marriage disastrous and miserable. Family name may be important, but it cannot compensate for the material reality of not having enough money.
To make matters worse, those whose families can’t be traced (either because they come from elsewhere or, as in the case of Joshua Rigg, they are “illegitimate” children born outside of marriage) are treated with suspicion. For example, the narrator notes that Middlemarch townspeople are suspicious of Bulstrode not just because he is a Methodist, but also because “five-and-twenty years ago no one had ever heard of a Bulstrode in Middlemarch.” This detail shows how difficult it is for a person to gain acceptance within Middlemarch. Anyone who is different or who does not have a good (or known) family reputation is immediately subject to skeptical scrutiny.
This fixation on class and family reputation over other, more meaningful merits also makes life in the town backwards and dysfunctional. On the subject of doctors, the narrator notes that “this was one of the difficulties of moving in good Middlemarch society: it was dangerous to insist on knowledge as a qualification for any salaried office.” People tend to favor certain doctors because they are popular or have simply been around for a long time, rather than because they have the best medical knowledge and skill. This reveals that people in this world care far more about a person’s class and reputation than their actual ability to perform in a professional role.
This obsession with status distinguishes Middlemarch from more metropolitan parts of England (and from the rest of the world) during this era. While hardly confined to provincial areas, fixation on class and family reputation is far more pronounced in places like Middlemarch than it is in cities like London. Because there are both fewer people and fewer kinds of people living there than somewhere like London, everyone is keenly aware of where they exist on the same, deeply hierarchical social map.
In this sense, the obsession with hierarchy and status within the Middlemarch community keeps the community back while other parts of the country advance. There are some benefits to the intense interconnection that exists between residents of Middlemarch; there are many instances when the townspeople help one another out, such as when Caleb takes on the wayward Fred as an apprentice or when Dorothea writes Lydgate a £1000 check so he is no longer in debt to Bulstrode. However, overall the small-town aspect of life in the town forces the community and its members to remain stuck in an old-fashioned, unjust, and self-defeating way of living.
Community and Class ThemeTracker
Community and Class 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?”
She would never have disowned any one on the ground of poverty… But her feeling towards the vulgar rich was a sort of religious hatred: they had probably made all their money out of high retail prices, and Mrs Cadwallader detested high prices for everything that was not paid in kind at the Rectory: such people were no part of God's design in making the world; and their accent was an affliction to the ears. A town where such monsters abounded was hardly more than a sort of low comedy, which could not be taken account of in a well-bred scheme of the universe.
‘The standard of that profession is low in Middlemarch, my dear sir,’ said the banker. ‘I mean in knowledge and skill; not in social status, for our medical men are most of them connected with respectable townspeople here. My own imperfect health has induced me to give some attention to those palliative resources which the divine mercy has placed within our reach. I have consulted eminent men in the metropolis, and I am painfully aware of the backwardness under which medical treatment labours in our provincial districts.’
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.
When I was young, Mr Lydgate, there never was any question about right and wrong. We knew our catechism, and that was enough; we learned our creed and our duty. Every respectable Church person had the same opinions. But, now if you speak out of the Prayer-book itself, you are liable to be contradicted.'
The doubt hinted by Mr. Vincy whether it were only the general election or the end of the world that was coming on, now that George the Fourth was dead, Parliament dissolved, Wellington and Peel generally depreciated and the new King apologetic, was a feeble type of the uncertainties in provincial opinion at that time.
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.
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.
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.
In the hundred to which Middlemarch belonged railways were as exciting a topic as the Reform Bill or the imminent horrors of Cholera, and those who held the most decided views on the subject were women and landholders. Women both old and young regarded travelling by steam as presumptuous and dangerous, and argued against it by saying that nothing should induce them to get into a railway carriage.
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.
The business was felt to be so public and important that it required dinners to feed it, and many invitations were just then issued and accepted on the strength of this scandal concerning Bulstrode and Lydgate; wives, widows, and single ladies took their work and went out to tea oftener than usual; and all public conviviality, from the Green Dragon to Dollop's, gathered a zest which could not be won from the question whether the Lords would throw out the Reform Bill.
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.