Middlemarch is set during a highly tumultuous time in English history, when dramatic developments in politics, science, and industrialization were having a major impact on the country. In the novel, “reform” has both a specific meaning and a more general one: specifically, it refers to the push for parliamentary reform that centered around the Reform Act of 1832. “Reform” also refers to more general changes in the novel, such as Lydgate’s passion for medical reform. At one point the narrator refers to the period in which the novel is set as the “ante-reform times.” In Middlemarch, then, this is also an anti-reform era, as most residents remain at least skeptical of—and often staunchly opposed to—the reform and progress taking place. The novel emphatically shows that such closed-mindedness is misguided and dangerous, and that it will ultimately hold Middlemarch back while the rest of the world moves toward a better future.
The period in which the novel is set is so tumultuous that at one point it is described as having an apocalyptic atmosphere, with Mr. Vincy unsure of “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.”
Mr. Vincy’s thoughts show that rather than greeting change and reform with excitement, many Middlemarch residents are horrified. While it is perhaps natural to be fearful in times of great change, the invocation of “the end of the world” suggests that Vincy has an irrationally negative view of the reform sweeping the country. This is particularly true considering that the changes taking place aim to make the country more democratic, fair, affluent, and efficient, rather than having a destructive effect.
The locus of political change around which the novel revolves is the Reform Act of 1832. This parliamentary Act created change in what was previously a deeply unjust and undemocratic system of political representation. It expanded voting rights such that 1 in 5 men became eligible to vote, and it simultaneously abolished aspects of the electoral system that allowed wealthy noblemen to wield arbitrary, unearned power.
Within the novel, Mr. Brooke and Will Ladislaw are the most prominent supporters of the reform platform (although Brooke is initially reluctant to support reform and has to be persuaded by Will to do so). Both commit themselves to this agenda even as they face ostracization and ridicule for doing so. Some of this opposition is based on legitimate concerns, such as the fact that Brooke’s bad reputation as a tenant means it is hypocritical of him to be pushing a socially progressive agenda. At the same time it is also clear that most residents of Middlemarch will use any excuse to oppose reform and paint Brooke and Ladislaw’s platform as dangerous and “radical.”
The intense opposition that Brooke and Ladislaw encounter highlights the rather extreme extent to which Middlemarch residents are against reform. The novel itself is quite firmly on the side of progress, change, and the ideals of “liberty, freedom, [and] emancipation” that are wrapped up in the reform platform. It is critical of Middlemarch residents’ resistance to change, suggesting that this resistance is ethically unfounded and makes them liable to be left behind as the rest of the country moves into the future.
Along with political reform, medical reform, scientific advancements, and industrialization are also drastically transforming the nature of life in England at the time. The question of medical progress is mostly explored through the character of Tertius Lydgate. Lydgate is a young doctor who has thrown his life into medicine, which his great passion. He is especially eager about the cause of medical reform and gets involved with the New Hospital being built in Middlemarch. Indeed, the narrator explains that Lydgate was attracted to medicine precisely because it was a field in need of reform.
The urgency with which medicine in Middlemarch needs reforming is illustrated by a quote from Mr. Bulstrode, who explains: “The standard of the profession [medicine] is low in Middlemarch…I mean in knowledge and skill; not in social status, for our medical men are most of them connected with respectable townspeople here…I am painfully aware of the backwardness under which medical treatment labors in our provincial districts.” This quotation highlights the fact that Middlemarch operates according to an old system wherein “good birth” qualifies men to be doctors, rather than intelligence, knowledge, and skill.
This point links the issue of medical reform to the broader question of political reform. The implication is that in a more democratic, merit-based society, the field of medicine will advance because people will practice medicine based on their ability to do so, not simply because they are born into the right family. The connection between medical reform and political reform is explicitly made by the narrator later in the novel: “While Lydgate, safely married and with the Hospital under his command, felt himself struggling for Medical Reform against Middlemarch, Middlemarch was becoming more and more conscious of the national struggle for another kind of Reform.”
The issue of medical reform is not just one of justice: it actually endangers Middlemarch residents by leading them to be treated by inept doctors. This problem is demonstrated when Fred Vincy suffers typhoid fever and is prescribed the wrong medicine by the Vincys’ family doctor, Mr. Wrench. It is only when Lydgate intervenes and gives the correct diagnosis that Fred’s condition improves. For obvious reasons, the question of medical reform is a life-or-death issue for residents of Middlemarch.
Despite the clear advantages of welcoming medical and scientific progress into Middlemarch, however, much of the community remains just as staunchly opposed to this progress as they are to political reform. This is best illustrated by the incident toward the end of the novel when Caleb Garth attempts to plan the construction of a railway through Lowick. The narrator explains that Middlemarch residents are markedly unenthusiastic about the new technology of railway travel, which women of the community deem “presumptuous and dangerous:” “In the hundred to which Middlemarch belonged railways were as exciting a topic as the Reform Bill or the imminent horrors of Cholera.” Once again, the comparison of railways to the Reform Bill links the issue of political reform to that of scientific and industrial advancement.
Middlemarchers are adamantly opposed to both political and scientific reform, out of both fear of change and attachment to old, dysfunctional ways of life. This opposition intensifies the impression that they are a backwards community suspicious of change and progress—even if it might benefit them.
Progress and Reform ThemeTracker
Progress and Reform Quotes in Middlemarch
“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?”
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.