A Study of Provincial Life
Eliot's novel is set in the fictional town of Middlemarch, North Loamshire, which is probably based on Coventry, in the county of Warwickshire, where she had lived prior to moving to London. Like Coventry, Middlemarch is described as being a silk-ribbon manufacturing town.
The subtitle of the novel—"A Study of Provincial Life"—has been viewed as significant, with one critic viewing the unity of Middlemarch as being achieved through "the fusion of the two senses of 'provincial'": that is on the one hand the geographical, meaning "all parts of the country except the capital"; and on the other hand, a person who is "unsophisticated" or "narrow-minded". Carolyn Steedman considers Eliot's emphasis on provincialism in Middlemarch in relation to Matthew Arnold's discussion of social class in England in his series of essays Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869, around the time Eliot began working on the stories which would become Middlemarch. In that series, Arnold classifies British society in terms of the Barbarians (aristocrats and landed gentry), Philistines (urban middle class) and Populace (the working class), and Steedman suggests that Middlemarch "is a portrait of Philistine Provincialism". It is worth noting that Eliot went to London, unlike her heroine Dorothea, where she achieved fame way beyond most women of her time, and certainly more than Dorothea who remained in the provinces. Eliot was rejected by her family once she had established her common-law relationship with Lewes, and "their profound disapproval prevented her ever going home again" and she did not visit Coventry during her last visit to the Midlands in 1855.
The "Woman Question"
Central to Middlemarch is the idea that Dorothea Brooke cannot hope to achieve the heroic stature of a figure like Saint Theresa, because Eliot's heroine lives at the wrong time: "amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion". Antigone, a figure from Greek mythology best know from Sophocles' play Antigone, is given in the "Finale" as a further example of a heroic woman. Literary critic Kathleen Blake notes that George Eliot emphasises Saint Theresa's "very concrete accomplishment, the reform of a religious order", rather than the fact that she was a Christian mystic. A frequent criticism by feminist critics has been that Dorothea is not only less heroic than Saint Theresa and Antigone, but also George Eliot herself; in response, both Ruth Yeazell and Kathleen Blake chide these critics for "expecting literary pictures of a strong woman succeeding in a period [around 1830] that did not make them likely in life".
Eliot has also been criticized more widely for ending the novel with Dorothea marrying a man, Will Ladislaw, so clearly her inferior. The author Henry James describes Ladislaw as a dilettante and feels that he "has not the concentrated fervour essential in the man chosen by so nobly strenuous a heroine".
Marriage is one of the major themes in Middlemarch as, according to critic Francis George Steiner, "both principle plots [those of Dorothea and Lydgate] are case studies of unsuccessful marriage". Within this account is the suggestion that the lives of Dorothea and Lydgate are unfilled because of these "disastrous marriages". This is arguably more the case for Lydgate than for Dorothea, who obtains a second chance through her eventual marriage to Will Ladislaw; however, a favourable interpretation of this marriage is dependent upon the character of Ladislaw himself, whom numerous critics have viewed as Dorothea's inferior. In addition to these marriages there is the "meaningless and blissful" marriage of Dorothea's sister Celia Brooke to Sir James Chettam and, more significantly, Fred Vincy's courting of Mary Garth; in this latter story, Mary Garth will not accept Fred until he abandons the Church and settles on a more suitable career. In this regard, Fred resembles Henry Fielding's character Tom Jones, both characters being moulded into a good husband by the love they give to and receive from a woman.
Dorothea is a Saint Theresa, born in the wrong century, in provincial Middlemarch, who mistakes in her idealistic ardor, "a poor dry mummified pedant […] as a sort of angel of vocation". Middlemarch is, in part, a Bildungsroman—a literary genre focusing on the psychological or moral growth of the protagonist—in which Dorothea "blindly gropes forward, making mistakes in her sometimes foolish, often egotistical, but also admirably idealistic attempt to find a role" or vocation, with which to fulfil her nature. Lydgate is equally mistaken in his choice of marriage partner, because his idea for a perfect wife is someone "who can sing and play the piano and provide a soft cushion for her husband to rest after work". He therefore marries Rosamond Vincy, "the woman in the novel who most contrasts with Dorothea", with the result that he "deteriorates from ardent researcher to fashionable doctor in London".