If I could give a simple answer to the question “how do you feel now that you have read what is considered to be one of the greatest Victorian novels ever written?”, my response would be – a little disappointed. The history of how the novel came into being is the struggle between the Romantic and the Real. In Middlemarch, Eliot sets herself up firmly on the side of Realism – yet, the novel’s ending still feels, in some ways, contrived. In Eliot’s desire to move as far as possible away from ‘Happily Ever After’, has she sacrificed good narrative practices? Perhaps even worse, has she, in her desire to so write against the traditional Romantic narrative, placed her characters in situations which forces them to take a step down (which they all do in some sense)?
Of course, it is more important for Fred, Dorothea, and Lydgate that they are with the ones they love, not that they are wealthy. But again, the step down is so decisive, in addition to the fact that it impacts the primary characters all in nearly the same way, I cannot help but feel that it is a little contrived. Then there is this – in the third to the last chapter, after an epigraph that contains a lengthy passage from Pilgrim’s Progress, where a group of worldly-wise judges condemns Christian’s friend Faithful, Eliot states that it “is a rare and blessed lot which some greatest men have not attained, to know ourselves guiltless before a condemning crowd – to be sure that what we are denounced for is solely the good in us” (823). I cannot help but feel that the introduction to this chapter bears a heavy reference to Eliot’s own life, and that the putting on of a non-traditional Romantic ending for not just one, but all of her primary characters serves in some way to vindicate her own non-traditional relationship.
If the story did have a hero, it may actually be Fred Vincy – who breaks from tradition for the woman he loves. Lydgate is forced to give up his traditional ‘Happily Ever After’, and Dorothea, though not wealthy, only gives up what is hateful to her. Fred, on the other hand, must work to win his new station, though it is a step below what his family initially provided for. It is Fred’s future that Eliot gives the most detailed account of at the novel’s end, and we see Fred, in his new station, having a solid upward trajectory. Lydgate goes down, and Dorothea stays constant. What then is heroism in Middlemarch? Does it exist in Eliot’s world view? If so, it is not revolutionary or salvific. Some of the greatest turns in the novel result from Bulstrode’s scandalous past – hardly a knight in shining armor. Yet, at the end, each of these main characters sacrifice something for the person they love. If there is heroism in Middlemarch, it may not be salvific, but sacrificial.