Even a cursory reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch reveals education to be a central topic of concern. Of the many (and lengthy) Victorian novels, Eliot’s classic seems to be among the most widely read and loved—even outside nineteenth century enthusiasts. I believe a large part of this is due to her complex and quite likeable characters, but right up there as well is her exploration of concerns at the forefront of nineteenth century society that persist into the present as well. The sticky issue of education is one of these. Case in point from my own experience is the selection of the novel as a primary text for a multidisciplinary learning/teaching fellowship summer conference. Middlemarch served as a middle ground for exploring what it means to be a student and a teacher for graduate students across the humanities. Thus, a pressing question that we are left with after reading the novel is just what is Eliot saying about education?
On the negative extreme, Eliot offers up Casaubon as the clearest illustration of “what not to do.” The man is so obsessed with finding “the key to all methodologies” and thus making a lasting mark on the world, that he neglects any other endeavor. Indeed when he marries Dorothea, it is because he sees her as an admirer of his work and as a helpmate to completing it. He even spends the near entirety of their honeymoon in Rome researching in the libraries. We see much of Eliot’s criticism of these life choices through their unhappiness in their marriages, but the cherry on top is Casaubon’s eventual death clearly linked to his dismal scholarship. In chapter five Eliot includes an epigraph from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy that links a sedentary, scholarly life with ill health, which in Casaubon’s case inhibits him from continuing his work, turning him into an even crotchetier old man. In the end, despite his gallant academic efforts, it is futile and he barely leaves a nick in the surface of academia. Education as viewed through the character of Casaubon, has its clear pitfalls. Even scholastic prestige is not a safeguard against harm. Without perspective, without a balance of other character strengths and interests, education does Casaubon little good and plays a significant part in his downfall. While I find the character quite unlikeable, the growing academic in me cannot help but sympathize in part with his plight.
We also see a criticism of education with several of the other characters, such as Fred Vincy. In his case, the traditional gentleman’s education is not fitting for his life goals. His father is furious with his “wasting” his education (a concept those of us in the humanities may be all to familiar with), but as the novel leads us to believe, Fred doesn’t truly need it for the work he does with Mr. Garth. Indeed, the vestiges of this education—his poor penmanship—are even a hindrance to his ultimate path.
Though I’m running short of space in this post, I cannot neglect the women as well. George Eliot clearly valued some level of education (which complicates these negative depictions that dominate the novel), as her writing and translation evidence a clear aptitude as well a broad knowledge of classic texts. However, we see no female characters achieving this ideal (if an ideal it is). Rosamond is clearly none the better for her finishing school education (the narrator seeming to criticize both the woman and the form of education), and naïve Dorothea at the beginning of the novel tragically mistakes marrying Casaubon as a means to furthering her education. The latter we can admire for the attempt, though the strategy is pitiable. It would seem the most positive depiction of a woman’s education is that of Mary Garth, whose common sense reigns supreme, rather than any capability afforded to her by that education. We admire Mrs. Garth’s education of Mary, as well as the other children, but the dwindling pupils and economic hardship make a difficult argument for the superiority of an education.
So what are we left with? Certainly Middlemarch is a novel concerned with education—but what type does it value? Is it primarily a cautionary tale against the pitfalls? Perhaps we may locate the primary difficulty in answering this question with the absence of a Marian Evans figure in the text.