The Material Problems as the Cause of Conflict in Middlemarch

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George Eliot, a 19th century Victorian novelist, did not end her stories at marriage like other novelists of the time, but added development and depth between individuals and their relationships through the use of thematic symbols such as money. Money appears in Middlemarch in several controversial and complicated situations which include greed, debt, wills, inheritances, stealing and characters on the opposite end who reject money as a paramount necessity. It is through personal ideals and beliefs regarding money and the way money interconnects relationships that help build character development and set characters onto their prospective journeys. In this book and in many novels of the time, society is built upon the prop of a hierarchical ladder in which money could buy you steps up the ladder. This ladder plays into the value different people and opportunities hold, which furthers the plot and development of the story.

To begin, the female protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, and her sister Celia reside with their uncle Mr. Brooke and are considered to be of upper class standing. While Dorothea abides by her own ideas and wants to focus more on doing good in concern for others, Celia simply wants to find a wealthy husband. Their two separate convictions and passions which gear their lives towards their respective journeys show a vast difference in character type found within this novel--Dorothea sets herself apart from those that are money-hungry. She finds herself becoming interested in a man named Edward Casaubon who is loyal to his practice and doctrines. She marries Casaubon, much to Middlemarch’s disapproval, and in doing so prioritizes her idealism and romanticism over society's expectations. Gradually, this relationship leads to marital problems as well as financial complications. Casaubon, being an older character in the novel, dies and leaves in his will a message to Dorothea stating that if she marries Will Ladislaw, she will not receive any of his inheritance. Dorothea ultimately decides to marry Will, and forfeits the money.

Dorothea’s actions to not follow a life guided by a lust for money, and to ultimately choose love over an inheritance, sets her up as an example of a character who rejects greed. Throughout the novel, Dorothea repeatedly mentions that she is opposed to her wealth, and makes the ultimate decision to wed Ladislaw even though the stipulation in Casaubon’s will means she will lose everything she inherited. In choosing to marry Ladislaw, she echoes the decision of Ladislaw’s own grandmother Julia, who was cut off by her family after she chose to marry a poor Polish musician whom she loved. Dorothea’s fascination with Ladislaw’s grandmother’s story suggests that Dorothea has a rather romantic idea of choosing love over money. She explains that she would love to know how Julia “bore the change from wealth to poverty,” unaware that this foreshadows her own trajectory later in the novel (although, importantly, Dorothea does not end up impoverished, only significantly less wealthy than she was before). The novel strongly indicates that it is important to stick to one’s principles (be they love or honor) and in doing so choose fulfilment over money.

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In a separate scenario, another couple experiences trials and tribulations regarding money within their own relationship. Doctor Tertius Lydgate, a man of middleclass, marries Rosamond Vincy. Lydgate realizes she is shallow and annoying as he’s in love with his work and not her. Lydgate buys a practice in Middlemarch which is funded by his income from treating patients. Hes noted and coveted by Rosamond. Lydgate shunned by other practioners, but Bulstrode appoints him but with no salary at his hospital hes financed. Tertius drawn into bankers problems. Rosamond tries keeping Lidgate in their expensive house instead of a more economical one, pushing them closer to finanical ruin. They fight over money. Yet, before they marry, Rosamond spends most of her time convincing her mother and father that she can handle it and that her betrothed will not end up being poor. Her mother says, “[Y]ou are not fit to marry a poor man” (283). Her mother is right, although Rosamond will not admit it and does not show her true colors until things go bad. “Of course, he had a profession and was clever, as well as sufficiently handsome; but the piquant fact about Lydgate was his good birth, which distinguished him from all Middlemarch admirers, and presented marriage as a Prospect of rising in rank and getting a little nearer to that celestial condition on earth in which she would have nothing to do with vulgar people, and perhaps at last associate with relatives quite equal to the county people who looked down on the Middlemarchers. It was part of Rosamond's cleverness to discern very subtly the faintest aroma of rank.” Rosamond Vincy (156).

Yet another significant way in which money ruins people’s lives is the concept of “dirty money,” which becomes especially prominent toward the end of the novel. When a desperate Lydgate is forced to the brink of declaring bankruptcy, he accepts a loan offered to him by Bulstrode. It turns out that this money was acquired through deception and theft, and when this fact emerges Lydgate is implicated in the scandal that ensues, making him a pariah in Middlemarch society. Lydgate’s foolishness in accepting Bulstrode’s money is further emphasized by the fact that earlier in the novel, Will Ladislaw had refused money Bulstrode offered him precisely because he knew Bulstrode had acquired it by nefarious means. Rather than being seduced by the prospect of Bulstrode’s offer, Ladislaw declares: “You shall keep your ill-gotten money.” This incident confirms Ladislaw’s status as one of the most admirable, morally upstanding characters in the novel. Of course, it would be possible to argue that Lydgate’s desperate financial situation makes it impossible for him to refuse Bulstrode’s money. At the same time, the comparison between Lydgate’s decision and Ladislaw’s suggests that it is never worth it to accept “ill-gotten money,” even if the alternative is bankruptcy. This reinforces the point that acquiring money often ultimately causes more problems than it solves. Lydgate's debt is also a yoke, but it's not a productive one. It oppresses and hampers him. And when that debt, like Fred's, is transferred from the hands of anonymous bankers to Mr. Bulstrode, someone he knows, the yoke becomes still worse. Being indebted to Mr. Bulstrode turns out to be the worst thing that could have happened to Lydgate, so Dorothea generously offers to take on the debt herself.

The novel presents a variety of ways in which money issues can have a damaging, even ruinous impact on a person’s life. One way is through gambling and debt. Garth family. Caleb garth, agricultural manager and engineer but cannot always manage his finances well. He supports his family and is well liked in MM. Mary (daughter). Rosamond’s brother Fred is youngman who never had to earn a living. He wants to marry Mary. Garth’s are fond of him. Caleb signs a bill for Fred, but that puts Caleb and his family in debt. Fred Vincy gambles and becomes indebted to the local horse-dealer Mr. Bambridge, a situation he at first does not take seriously because he has always been able to rely on his father’s money: “Fred had always (at that time) his father's pocket as a last resource, so that his assets of hopefulness had a sort of gorgeous superfluity about them. Of what might be the capacity of his father's pocket, Fred had only a vague notion.” This quotation highlights that growing up wealthy can make people foolish and reckless with money, leading them to make bad decisions that end up losing them their wealth. His father’s money has always given Fred a sense of security, but that security is in fact counterproductive, firstly because he doesn’t actually know how much money his father has, and secondly because it leads him into reckless behaviors like borrowing and gambling. Fred’s debt and inability to pay it ends up causing him misery. Whatever brief elation is sparked by gambling is counteracted by the difficulties that follow. The example of Caleb Garth further demonstrates that eschewing money is important in principle but can cause problems in reality. The narrator notes that in contrast to their more lavish neighbors, “the Garths were poor, and ‘lived in a small way.’” Considering the novel’s condemnation of greed, this is an admirable quality. At the same time, the Garths’ relative poverty means that when Caleb lends Fred Vincy money, Fred’s inability to pay him back becomes disastrous for the Garths. Caleb’s generosity is admirable but also dangerous, due to the fact that money is necessary to survival. Comparing Caleb Garth’s and Fred Vincy’s behaviour suggests that both greed and indifference to money can lead to foolish decisions. While the novel indicates that it is important not to be greedy, a total lack of greed is not advisable either, because money is (perhaps unfortunately) such an important part of life.

There's an awful lot of debt, both literal and figurative, in Middlemarch: Fred Vincy gets himself into trouble by persuading Caleb Garth to co-sign a loan that he isn't able to repay, Lydgate falls into serious debt after his marriage to Rosamond, Will Ladislaw hates feeling indebted to Mr. Casaubon, and Mr. Farebrother enjoys feeling indebted to Lydgate for recommending him for the new post at Lowick. Fred's debt to Caleb Garth is both literal (he owes the man money) and figurative (he's later obliged to him for his trust in giving him Stone Court to manage and his daughter to marry). Fred's debt actually helps him mature as a character – it's a yoke, but it's one that he needed to make him settle down and work for a living. Owing money to a stranger (Mr. Bambridge) didn't provide him with any incentive to work hard and pay it off, but owing money to Caleb, the father of the girl he loves, certainly does. Debts in Middlemarch are always getting transferred from person to person, so that characters are always indebted (either literally or figuratively) to someone new. So one way of looking at debt in Middlemarch, both literal and figurative, is that it ties characters together – indebtedness reinforces the intricate 'threads of connection' that form the social (and economic) 'web' of the novel.

Another way in which money has a problematic impact on people’s lives is through the greed stimulated by the possibility of inheritance. This is best demonstrated by the scene of Mr. Featherstone’s funeral, when all his many relatives (some very distant) assemble to hear the reading of his will. This scene brings out the very worst in the assembled characters; rather than focusing on mourning Featherstone or even just maintaining dignity during the reading of the will, they greedily obsess over how much they will inherit from him. This is illustrated by the description of Fred Vincy biting his cheeks to stop himself from smiling when he learns of his inheritance. When the second version of Featherstone’s will is read, stipulating that the beneficiaries will not actually receive what they were promised in the first will, the anger that ensues further shows how greed brings out the ugliest sides of people.


Both money and the lack of it cause many problems for the characters in Middlemarch. Some characters are obsessed with money, whereas others spurn it. The novel strongly indicates that it is better not to obsess over money and to focus on other forms of fulfilment. At the same time, it also becomes clear that it is impossible not to care about money at all. Not only is having some amount of money necessary to survive, but money is also a major factor in the social hierarchy of the Middlemarch community. For this reason, it cannot be ignored.

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