The social setting in George Elliot’s novel

Religious organizations, cultural practices, economic activities, cultural milieus, and social interactions all shape an individual's life in George Elliot's novel. "A Study of Provincial Life," one of the novel's subtitles, completely extends the issue of relationships by elucidating provincial life in England around the 1830s (Lencse 17). Elliot discusses the economic, political, and social aspects of life in this specific location and time. The author examines social interactions in the 1830s through the lens of how they were changing. The society is closed here, and it gradually opens to outside influence (Lencse 17). This paper will focus on the significant insights the novel provides on dialectical associations between individuals and society and how each impact the other.

The Middlemarch town proves as a somewhat backwards provincial centre which is suspicious of the visitors whom the natives expect to assimilate and swallow into their society. The community in itself is classified into ranks which rarely mix. This situation is illustrated based on the relationship between the Vincys and the Garths. Caleb Garth, the leader of the Garth family, is prosperous in his job as an administrator of many local estate,s but still incapable of raising sufficient income to be ranked as one of the rich fellows (Nazar 293). On the other hand, Mr Vincy, a mayor of Middlemarch and a merchant trading in dyes, ranks himself in the upper social class. As Elliot says, there are clear distinctions of class in Middlemarch, the old businessmen and Dukes are ranked at the same level, taking the top social class defined with great nicety. Further, Elliot proceeds to explain that Garth is accorded respect because of his work. Irrespective of her husband’s status, Mrs Garth who worked as a teacher before marriage was despised as of low social ranking by women like Mrs Vincy who classified themselves as of superior social status (Nazar 293).

While Elliot expertly draws boundaries between social classes, she creates an amazing contrast when relating the work ethics of Mr Garth and Mr Vincy. Elliot Portrays Caleb Garth as a well-organized person intending to work for the good of the society, taking an extra mile to work without pay when he feels that his efforts are worth the cause (Lencse 18). When Mayor Vincy’s son, Fred Vincy gets into a financial crisis, it is Garth who lends him funds, even though the funds are not repaid in the long run, he still trusts Fred and offers him a job in his office. In contrast, Mr Vincy is portrayed as making money through corrupt deals, however, it is not mentioned openly in the novel (Lencse 18). The audience learns this through Mrs Cadwallader, who is described as a local gossip vendor, when she postulates that Mr Vincy is one of those folks who exploit handloom weavers in Freshitt and Tipton. It is through such practices that his family looks affluent. As portrayed earlier, Mr Vincy trades in dyes and benefits from poor labourers in towns around Middlemarc particularly Freshitt and Tipton (Lencse 18).

Through, Mr Vincy and Mr Garth, Elliot compares the social classes of the two groups and for the first time in Middlemarch, the author openly condemns a character of the top social stratification while concentrating on an industrious man of a lower social rank (Lencse 18). Nevertheless, it should be known that the reference to the workers in Freshitt and Tipton is on the few occasions when Elliot talks of the labourers in factories, workshops, and people of the lowest social ranks. Irrespective of the fact that Middlemarch is inhabited by people of upper-middle class, the people of the lower class are also mentioned (Lencse 18). In her essay What is Not I Middlemarch Gillian Beer says that for the scholars of 1870s, the presence of low-class individuals was recognised; furthermore, the works in the mines and dying houses had a significant contribution to the growth of Middlemarch, its mental health, and its economy. The input of these factory workers for the well-being of the community is comprehensively captured in the plot and is the discourse of the plot (Lencse 18).

Elliot pays keen attention to social mobility, i.e., the movement of people from the upper class to the lower class and vice versa. Besides, she pays particular attention to the opinions or rather the pretentious ignorance of the affluent class to the poor group. Some characters in the book help in advancing this theme. The most compelling examples in this stance are the three marriages that are between Casaubon and Dorothea, Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, and lastly Mary Garth and Fred Vincy (Lencse 19). Each of these characters had expectations regarding their future status, yet these expectations never came to reality. In other words, the characters go up and down with their social status, however, slightly and without going to extremity, as no one of the characters dropped from the top-middle class. Also, Elliot acknowledges this limited movement and does not depict her characters as ultimately constrained in their social classes even though any progress to another social rank appears impossible (Lencse 19). Dorothea marries Ladislaw meaning she loses the wealth acquired from Casaubon through inheritance while Fred Vincy weds Mary Garth even though the parents had reservations about the marriage and wanted him to marry a woman from a well-off family. Besides, Rosamond’s expectations of benefitting from Lydgate’s aristocratic links fail. The forthcoming section handles each marriage singly, analysing their social standards, their expectations or their environment and the contribution they had in common setups in the novel (Lencse 19).

As depicted above, Mary and Fred come from different social ranks, and the Vincys are not open to the idea of their son marrying a woman from the Garth family, particularly Mrs Vincy held that Mary’s job only provided for her needs something unhealthy for Fred Vincy’s wife to be. Besides, Fred fails to complete his higher education because he is convinced that he does not need higher educational qualifications since he is someone expecting to inherit vast sums of finances from his ageing uncle, Mr Featherstone (Nazar 295). Contrary to Fred’s expectations, Mr Featherstone dies without leaving any single penny to Fred, thanks to Mary who is reluctant in destroying one of his wills in front of Mr Featherstone; Mary fears to burn the wills for fear of accusations of acting without Mr Fred after his death. Mary’s mother holds that her daughter’s action is morally right, but Fred loses the chance of earning 10,000 pounds and thus leads a comfortable life as a local gentleman with no necessity for any particular qualification (Nazar 295).

In the beginning, Fred is reluctant to the idea of completing his education; the situation compels him to go ahead finish due to his love of Mary who states that if Fred does not intend to secure a steady financial flow, she may not even consider him for marriage (Nazar 296). This stand helps to shape Fred’s future and which could have taken a different direction. After that Fred drops the idea of becoming a priest because of his lack of conviction of being a devoted priest, he completes his B.A. studies and begins working for Mr Garth. Nevertheless, the job he takes is considered to be below his social class; the inferiority of the job is first shown when Mr Garth requests Fred to write something so that he can serve as Garth’s clerk. The first challenge arises when it is proven that Fred’s writing is somewhat ineligible (Nazar 296). As Elliot puts it, “that time, it was unacceptable or below a gentleman’s stature to write legibly or a man’s handwriting should not fit the qualifications of a clerk”. Fred trained to have good writing, and in the end, Mr Garth grants him employment with the vision of becoming a farmer one day. Eventually, Fred and Mary got married and moved to the Stone Court, Mr Featherstone’s old residence. However, Fred does not become a bishop or a viscount as some people expected initially, especially his parents. From this assessment, it may be inferred that Mary or Fred do not improve their social status in the course of the book, but only Fred gets close to the level of Mary’s parents; however, as the novel ends, Fred is portrayed as a delighted and contented person (Nazar 299).

Also, it is important to note that Fred Vincy is one character who went through so many changes throughout the book. At the first instance, Elliot brings out Fred Vincy as an idler, who has just dropped out of college without a degree and lacks clear goals in life. All he desired from life was to ride his horse regularly and lead a stress-free life. The prospect of acquiring the enormous sum of money through inheritance from Mr Featherstone perhaps adds to his optimism. Reality struck him when he realised that he has fallen into debt which is hard to get out (Lencse 20). Coming to terms that he will not get money from Mr Featherstone or his father, Fred borrows finances from Caleb Garth, but the money gets lost shortly afterwards (Lencse 20). According to Fred, this situation appears like a breaking point for him and feels disappointing the people who trusted and always liked him. Mr Garth had to recoup the money from his daughter Mary, who posits that she will have nothing to do with Fred until he becomes a responsible person. On the contrary, Fred’s mother points out that his son does not misbehave intentionally, but in some cases, he is treated with partiality. When Fred discovers that Mary may not consider her proposal for marriage, he starts to work hard for his future (Lencse 20).

As Elliot shows, it is Fred’s parents who had the precise idea concerning his future that he was poised for progression in social status, while Fred himself is keener on wedding Mary Garth and securing the easiest job to do. On the contrary, his sister, Rosamond was very sure from the very beginning that she deserved only the best in life (Fraser 400). As opposed to Dorothea Brooke who aspires to build cottages for her uncle’s renters and spend lots of time planning and working, Rosamond appears not keen on anything in particular, but only interested in marrying a respectable husband who cares and handles all her needs. As Eliot puts it, Rosamond never thought of money seriously except as something fundamental which other people will often provide (Fraser 400). Nevertheless, she is looking forward to marrying the most influential suitor to show off. Besides, Rosamond is not keen to neither marry Mr Caius Larcher nor Mr Palmdale members of his social class (Fraser 400). Nevertheless, this should not be taken to mean that she is out rightly disinterested in social ranking and wealth since she goes ahead and marries Tertius Lydgate who she considers talented, full of connections and possessing qualities she admires. Nevertheless, it appears that Rosamond is not in love with Lydgate but seems to be very conscious on what ought to be done if Rosamond ever keeps her social ranks or moves to another. She has neither evil thoughts nor wicked plots. The writer depicts her as someone who never devises falsehoods (Fraser 400).

All factors held constant, it is clear that Rosamond has particular expectations about her future. Her husband, Tertius Lydgate, on the contrary, is more interested in medicine over money. Lydgate was raised by his uncle, Sir Godwin Lydgate, because his parents passed away when he was a very young lad (Lencse 21). For Rosamond, the existence of being associated with Sir Godwin Lydgate puts her close to nobility. In many instances, Rosamond pressures Lydgate to profit from his family connections. He is not keen on that, but rather thankful to his uncle, Sir Godwin Lydgate for education. Lydgate is not interested in other trappings of the family connections (Lencse 21). There seems a point of conflict on issues which Lydgate and Rosamond hold dear. For Rosamond, a good marriage is a paramount thing while Tertius Lydgate has matters that appear to be of greater significance than the family. His profession in medicine particularly the Middlemarch hospital built throughout the plot seems of great importance than anything else (Lencse 21).

While things progress well for Rosamond and Lydgate, their social anticipations do not conflict. Nevertheless, the conflict does appear much later when Lydgate seems unable to provide a standard of living for her, and that drives him to financial difficulties; Lydgate chooses the lower the quality of living until the economic situation becomes favourable (Lencse 22). This further means not only changing their level of life but also the neighbourhood they reside after marriage. While this is the best way of cutting the cost of living for Lydgate, it is unpalatable and unacceptable for Rosamond. Rosamond fervently fights the efforts of decreasing debts by going against the attempts of auctioning their home and privately writing to Sir Godwin, requesting for financial aid of a thousand pounds under Lydgate’s name (Lencse 22). Amazingly, Eliot built the same episode earlier on in the matrimony of Mr and Mrs Garth when they face financial challenges after lending Fred Vincy money. The Garths manage to go through it smoothly after losing a substantial sum of money, but still hold together as a family without serious problems. Opposed to this, Lydgate’s marriage almost collapses when Rosamond encounters a real possibility of descending to a lower social status. The contrast between the two families lies on whether or not their social standing is necessary for them or not (Lencse 23).

After the demise of Lydgate, Rosamond remarries, but this time to a wealthy physician, inheriting Lydgate’s life insurance. In general, Rosamond looks happy even though she ended up not climbing the social ladder.

The union of Edward Casaubon and Dorothea Brooke is the third marriage which is unique from the first two because none were interested in the improvement of the social status. Dorothea marries Casaubon due to his intellect and the chance of growing into a great person in the community, and on the contrary, Casaubon married her for assistance in his job (Lencse 23). There is a lot in common with Edward Casaubon and Tertius Lydgate, for instance, passion for sciences and their views on social standing. For both, their occupations are more significant than their marriages. During their courtship, Casaubon was already prepared for a ‘happy termination’ of their relationship because it looked like a stumbling block on his book (Lencse 24). On her side, Dorothea lives in a fantasy world of perceiving herself as an assistant of an intellectual genius. Throughout the novel, Casaubon shows no signs of striving to improve his social standing; he is only concentrating on completing the Key. Dorothea on her side is much keener on improving the social status of those below her. This is evident through her commitment in projecting cottages for Mr Chettam and her uncle’s tenants (Lencse 24). The only challenge arose when Mr Casaubon dies and to the surprise of many people leaves a will for Dorothea, stating that she may remarry if she likes any man except Will Ladislaw. Going forth and marrying him will mean losing everything left behind by Mr Casaubon. According to Casaubon, Will is just a poor man who does not have any resources of his own and unable to decide and find a job, thus lacks any chances of making money shortly (Lencse 25). This implies that even if Dorothea acts against the wishes of Casaubon, she will have to descend to a lower social status. But finally, Will and Dorothea wed and in effect give up Casaubon’s estate. Their son takes up their uncle’s estate, Mr Brooke and the infiltrating opinion in Middlemarch in later days will be Dorothea married a man the age of her father, and in slightly more than one year after his death she married a young man the age of his son with not property or job (Lencse 26).

The three marriages in the book provide important insight into the relationships of people in the community and their impacts on the society and vice versa. They reveal how person dealings affect the community and how the community impact what people do and the decisions they make.

Works cited

Fraser, Hilary. "St. Theresa, St. Dorothea, and Miss Brooke in Middlemarch." Nineteenth Century Fiction, vol. 40. no.4, 1986, pp. 400-411.

Lencse, Ivan. Character, Modernity and Social Environment in George Eliot’s Later Fiction. Diss. Masarykova univerzita, Filozofická fakulta, 2014.

Nazar, Hina. "Philosophy in the Bedroom: Middlemarch and the Scandal of Sympathy." The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 15. no. 2, 2002, pp. 293-314.

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