Both money and the lack of it cause many problems for the characters in Middlemarch. Some characters are obsessed with money, whereas others spurn it. The novel strongly indicates that it is better not to obsess over money and to focus on other forms of fulfilment. At the same time, it also becomes clear that it is impossible not to care about money at all. Not only is having some amount of money necessary to survive, but money is also a major factor in the social hierarchy of the Middlemarch community. For this reason, it cannot be ignored.
The novel presents a variety of ways in which money issues can have a damaging, even ruinous impact on a person’s life. One way is through gambling and debt. Fred Vincy gambles and becomes indebted to the local horse-dealer Mr. Bambridge, a situation he at first does not take seriously because he has always been able to rely on his father’s money: “Fred had always (at that time) his father's pocket as a last resource, so that his assets of hopefulness had a sort of gorgeous superfluity about them. Of what might be the capacity of his father's pocket, Fred had only a vague notion.” This quotation highlights that growing up wealthy can make people foolish and reckless with money, leading them to make bad decisions that end up losing them their wealth. His father’s money has always given Fred a sense of security, but that security is in fact counterproductive, firstly because he doesn’t actually know how much money his father has, and secondly because it leads him into reckless behaviors like borrowing and gambling. Fred’s debt and inability to pay it ends up causing him misery. Whatever brief elation is sparked by gambling is counteracted by the difficulties that follow.
Another way in which money has a problematic impact on people’s lives is through the greed stimulated by the possibility of inheritance. This is best demonstrated by the scene of Mr. Featherstone’s funeral, when all his many relatives (some very distant) assemble to hear the reading of his will. This scene brings out the very worst in the assembled characters; rather than focusing on mourning Featherstone or even just maintaining dignity during the reading of the will, they greedily obsess over how much they will inherit from him. This is illustrated by the description of Fred Vincy biting his cheeks to stop himself from smiling when he learns of his inheritance. When the second version of Featherstone’s will is read, stipulating that the beneficiaries will not actually receive what they were promised in the first will, the anger that ensues further shows how greed brings out the ugliest sides of people.
Yet another significant way in which money ruins people’s lives is the concept of “dirty money,” which becomes especially prominent toward the end of the novel. When a desperate Lydgate is forced to the brink of declaring bankruptcy, he accepts a loan offered to him by Bulstrode. It turns out that this money was acquired through deception and theft, and when this fact emerges Lydgate is implicated in the scandal that ensues, making him a pariah in Middlemarch society.
Lydgate’s foolishness in accepting Bulstrode’s money is further emphasized by the fact that earlier in the novel, Will Ladislaw had refused money Bulstrode offered him precisely because he knew Bulstrode had acquired it by nefarious means. Rather than being seduced by the prospect of Bulstrode’s offer, Ladislaw declares: “You shall keep your ill-gotten money.” This incident confirms Ladislaw’s status as one of the most admirable, morally upstanding characters in the novel. Of course, it would be possible to argue that Lydgate’s desperate financial situation makes it impossible for him to refuse Bulstrode’s money. At the same time, the comparison between Lydgate’s decision and Ladislaw’s suggests that it is never worth it to accept “ill-gotten money,” even if the alternative is bankruptcy. This reinforces the point that acquiring money often ultimately causes more problems than it solves.
Along with Ladislaw, Dorothea and Caleb Garth are other examples of characters who reject greed. Dorothea repeatedly says she hates her wealth, and she eventually chooses to marry Ladislaw even though the stipulation in Casaubon’s will means that doing so will make her lose everything she inherited from her deceased husband. In choosing Ladislaw, she echoes the decision of Ladislaw’s own grandmother Julia, who was cut off by her family after she chose to marry a poor Polish musician whom she loved.
Dorothea’s fascination with Ladislaw’s grandmother’s story suggests that Dorothea has a rather romantic idea of choosing love over money. She explains that she would love to know how Julia “bore the change from wealth to poverty,” unaware that this foreshadows her own trajectory later in the novel (although, importantly, Dorothea does not end up impoverished, only significantly less wealthy than she was before). The novel strongly indicates that it is important to stick to one’s principles (be they love or honor) and in doing so choose fulfilment over money.
At the same time, there is an extent to which Dorothea’s romanticization of Julia’s life story is naïve. Dorothea has never had to face the reality of poverty, and thus is ignorant of how serious a sacrifice it can be to choose fulfilment over money.
The example of Caleb Garth further demonstrates that eschewing money is important in principle but can cause problems in reality. The narrator notes that in contrast to their more lavish neighbors, “the Garths were poor, and ‘lived in a small way.’” Considering the novel’s condemnation of greed, this is an admirable quality. At the same time, the Garths’ relative poverty means that when Caleb lends Fred Vincy money, Fred’s inability to pay him back becomes disastrous for the Garths. Caleb’s generosity is admirable but also dangerous, due to the fact that money is necessary to survival.
Comparing Caleb Garth’s and Fred Vincy’s behaviour suggests that both greed and indifference to money can lead to foolish decisions. While the novel indicates that it is important not to be greedy, a total lack of greed is not advisable either, because money is (perhaps unfortunately) such an important part of life.
Money and Greed ThemeTracker
Money and Greed Quotes in Middlemarch
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.
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.
“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.”
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.