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I do not believe that it is sufficient to say that Middlemarch explores the ways in which social and spiritual energy can be frustrated; it would be more appropriate to say that Middlemarch explores the ways in which social and spiritual energies (ideals if you will) are completely destroyed and perverted. One need only look to Lydgate to see an example of idealism being destroyed by the environment in which it is found. At the start of the novel, we are introduced to the "young, poor and ambitious" and most of all idealistic Doctor Lydgate, who has great plans for the fever hospital in Middlemarch. Throughout the novel, however, we see his plans frustrated by the designs of others, though primarily the hypocritical desires of Nicholas Bulstrode. The second example of the idealism of the young being destroyed by the old is that of Dorothea. This can be seen by her continuing desire to "bear a larger part of the world's misery" or to learn Latin and Greek, both of which are continually thwarted by Casaubon, though this ends after his death, with her discovery of his selfish and suspicious nature, by way of the codicil.
The character who has their ambitions and ideals brought most obviously low is Lydgate. The earliest example is when he has to make the choice between Fairbrother and Tyke. Both of these characters are rather poor examples of the clergy (Fairbrother because of his gambling, and Tyke because of his rather lazy attitude). Our sympathies are clearly with Fairbrother for a number of reasons; he doesn't gamble because he wants to, but because the wage he receives from running his parish alone is too small to support him and the various members of his family that rely on him. Lydgate has to make the choice between some one he likes as a person (Fairbrother) and someone who he needs help from (Bulstrode). It is clear that Lydgate is very similar to Fairbrother in a number of ways; both are scientists, and both have great hopes for the future. It would therefore seem to be the case that Lydgate would automatically support Fairbrother. However, Bulstrode uses his money and his influence to ensure Tyke's success.
Bulstrode is another example of a character that has had his idealism and destroyed, though not by Middlemarch.
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There are many coarse hypocrites who consciously affect beliefs … for the sake of guilling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs.
He does not lie to others, but to himself; he continues to try and justify his desires, though puts them in such ways that they appear to be morally sound and justifiable. Indeed, Bulstrode could well represent the devil in this book. It would be unlikely for Eliot to create a devil surrounded by fire and brimstone, so she looks for a more contemporary image; Bulstrode is so obsessed with money, power and influence that he becomes the contemporary incarnation. Playing on his given name, Eliot refers to him as "old Nick" (519), which was a common allusion to the devil. It is therefore the case that Lydgate metaphorically and thematically sells his soul to the devil.
It can be said, therefore, that it is not, in Lydgate's case at least, solely Middlemarch that leads to the decline of ambition and idealism, but money. Indeed, both Lydgate and Dorothea are faced with people who wish to use money as a weapon, or an instrument of terror. In Lydgate's case, he has to support Bulstrode in order to guarantee support for his hospital. In Dorothea's case, Casaubon attempts to keep Dorothea and Ladislaw apart, through the stipulation found in his will that if she were to marry him, she would loose everything. This attempt at control, however, fails. Despite having been married to her for approximately two years, Casaubon does not realise that Dorothea is almost completely selfless in nature, and would like nothing better than to be poor. It is Lydgate's concern for material things that leads him into debt and dishonour. Eliot portrays Lydgate as being a materialist, both through his profession (Lydgate is a doctor and biologist, so cells and tissues are his stock and trade), and through his involvement with Rosamond. Had it not been the case that Dorothea had married Casaubon, I believe that Lydgate and Dorothea would have been well suited for each other. They would both have been young and idealistic, both wanting to help their fellows. However, it is a combination of the fact that Dorothea is already married, and that Lydgate is more concerned with outward appearances that he chooses Rosamond. He has turned away from the "Gift of the Gods" (Dorothea), and chosen the "Rose of the World" (Rosamond). This represents the choice between, as John Stuart Mill would have put it, higher and lower pleasures. The choice of Lydgate can almost be equated with the choice of Paris between Athena, Aphrodite and Hera. He chooses beauty over wisdom, choosing the pleasures of the flesh (Rosamond with her blue eyes, fair complexion and delicate neck) over the pleasures of the mind (Dorothea). Had Lydgate chosen Dorothea then there would have been no question of buying the most expensive clothes, furniture and cutlery, as Dorothea would have been more concerned with helping at the hospital than with material possessions. In this way, we can see that both Dorothea's desire to be useful, and Lydgate's desire to help are frustrated due to Lydgate's choice of wife. This is however impossible, as neither Lydgate nor Dorothea has much choice in who they marry: Dorothea sees Casaubon as the father she never had, and so feels attracted towards him, and it is only after finding out how mean and selfish he was that she seeks a husband rather than a father. Lydgate, because of his intense kindness, and his desire not to hurt anyone has no choice but to marry Rosamond, as he doesn't want to see her sad, and she has manoeuvred both herself and him in such a way that to reject her could only cause this.
Dorothea, the heroine of the novel, is another example of frustrated idealism. Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to her desire to help the poor, though this is more often than not frustrated by her surroundings. The first example is her designs for the cottages; they are dismissed by her sister as being a "fad", and by her uncle as being too expensive. It is only when Sir James Chettam attempts to woo her, and builds the cottages in an attempt to gain favour with her, that her designs are actually carried through. Her idealism is arguably destroyed through her association with Casaubon. She is often likened to the virgin Mary, or to Saint Theresa ("Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters" (Chapter 1), and the prelude). These characters are supposed to represent life and hope, meaning that Dorothea is characterised by these qualities. Indeed, she is so full of hope that she wishes for things that all others can see to be hopeless (The completion of "The Key To All Mythologies"). Her idealism, just as these characteristic qualities, are crushed through the association with Casaubon, who is characterised by death. To Mr Brooke, he is "buried in books" (447), to Sir James he seems a "mummy" who has "not a drop of red blood in him". The very thought that Dorothea has come to be engaged to him causes Celia to start to "grieve" (48). Everything about Casaubon issues from this basic metaphor. His appearance - a pallid complexion, deep eye sockets, iron-grey hair (16) - makes his head look like a skull. Indeed, his proposal to Dorothea - in which his affection is introduced in brackets - shows that he is emotionally dead. Eliot could not have been precise on such matters, but he may be sexually impotent, for Dorothea is found "sobbing bitterly" on her honeymoon in Rome, and it may not simply be his deficiencies as a scholar that account for her disappointment (190). It is not love that attracts Dorothea to the corpse-like Casaubon, rather her sense of duty; her desire to be like one of Milton's daughters. Dorothea, orphaned at a young age, would seem to long for a husband who can fill the role of the father she lost. Casaubon's age is no deterrence, indeed she would rather marry a teacher / father figure than a romantic person at the beginning of the novel. She learns, though, that this is a bad idea, and so finds herself attracted to Ladislaw. She is so possessed with the idea of contributing to the good of humanity through the assistance she can offer Casaubon, she does not even notice how patronising and self centred he is. Celia, however, in the same situation, has no illusions, and can see that Casaubon is entirely unsuitable, even if she expresses her objections to him in terms of his soup-eating technique. If Dorothea fails to see Casaubon for what he is, it is not due to circumstances (Her short-sightedness is a metaphor for her inability to perceive what everyone else can see clearly, in favour of the transcendent. Could the glasses she requires to correct her normal sight represent Celia, who is the lens through which she can see what others perceive as normal reality?), but due to her mind seeking to go beyond their earthly constraints. Celia seeks only to be happy, while Dorothea wishes to contribute something to the common good of humanity, hence her misguided desire to help Casaubon. When Casaubon proposes marriage, she sees herself not as a bride to be married to a groom, more the Saint Theresa of the prelude preparing to take her holy vows as a nun - as a "neophyte" on the verge of a "higher initiation" (43). She presumably sees Casaubon as the "lamp" to light her darkness (84), but fails to notice that he lives at Lowick (Low wick).
The possession of knowledge, and the use of that knowledge is highly praised by Elliot. She makes a distinction between the dead and irrelevant knowledge of Casaubon, and the very much living and useful knowledge that Lydgate, Fairbrother and Mrs Garth posses. The knowledge that these three characters display is a reflection of Elliot herself; she could speak with authority on history, music, art, theology, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, mathematics, physics, geology, chemistry, astronomy, entomology and biology. It was Elliot's desire to better her mind and extend her knowledge that brought her to this knowledge, so she treats characters who seek to do the same in a favourable light.
There is one family that would seem to be the moral standard and centre of the novel - the Garth family. Mrs Garth is introduced to us teaching Latin to the children while cooking dinner. This is portrayed as being a very worthwhile activity, and is contrasted with the somewhat silly parenting attitude of both Celia and the Vincy's. Mary Garth's insistence that Fred find a worthy profession before she will marry him is also held in high esteem - she is putting the good of others above her own desires. The only trouble that the Garth family goes through is a result of their virtue rather than their vice; Caleb, out of kindness and of love, backs Fred, and so when the creditors want their money, the future of one of the Garth children is put in jeopardy.
To conclude; all the major characters, in some form or another have their ambitions and ideals crushed and perverted due to a number of reasons, ranging from the situation in which they find themselves, to the people with which they associate. In all her characters, Eliot, it would seem, shows that this destruction will lead to something better, though unfortunately not Lydgate - he cannot overcome his problems, and is in the end destroyed by them. It is almost as if she is writing a tragedy, in which the heroes and heroines undergo some horrendous cataclysm, and emerge from it, though scarred. It is as if the novel starts in moral twilight, and goes through the deepest night, and emerges into the sunlight of a new, though worse day.