Middlemarch was first published in 1871 and 1872, as a serial novel in eight parts, which came out every two months. This was Eliot's most comprehensive and sweeping novel to date, and was intended as a study of provincial British life. Eliot worked on several different stories, starting with Lydgate and his trials as a young doctor; then she worked on Dorothea's story, writing the first ten chapters as they appear in the finished book with only this character and her world in mind. Eliot then decided to build a world around these two characters, and create a more sweeping portrait of an entire town and its various inhabitants; Lydgate and Dorothea acted essentially as the core of the novel, as two somewhat similar figures who were the soul of the novel. Both are alike in their unhappy marriages, their social aspirations, and the way in which they react to societal pressure.
The novel, when it first appeared, was a huge success, both with critics and readers; it made Eliot's name as one of the greatest novelists in Britain, and her fame spread. Her intention with the novel was to analyze recent political, social, and economic threads through a series of personal accounts. The characters and stories told within the novel are meant to show how people are affected by historical change while it happens, and how progress happens in people's lives. Eliot manages to weave in the Catholic emancipation, the death of George IV, the dissolution of Parliament in 1831, the outbreak of cholera in 1832, and the passage of the Reform Bill later that year. Eliot manages to weave these things into the concerns of the characters and the narrative; they are not the focus of the novel, but are balanced with the novel's literary concerns.
One of the most widespread concerns in the novel is change, and how people react to it. All the historical concerns in the novel are involved in this, as are people's reactions under stress, and to progress in their society. Eliot is able to show people acting naturally in close detail, and present criticism on them, while still allowing the readers to form their own opinion of them. Overall, every character in this novel are human; each of them can be liked or disliked according to their personal foibles and flaws. But Eliot's point is that we, like they, are human; we can only judge them as we judge ourselves. She is not totally impartial in the narrative, which would be impossible in making criticisms; but there is still plenty of room for people to make up their own minds, and interpret the characters in their own way.
Eliot's stated goal with writing this novel, along with her others, was to give her readers "a clearer conception and a more active admiration of those vital elements which bind men together and give a higher worthiness to their existence," according to a letter of 1868 that she wrote. The novel, especially the characters of Dorothea and Farebrother, are very much influenced by Eliot's personal belief in the religion of humanity. Her views of marriage are also interjected into the novel; Eliot was not favorable about society's ideas of gender roles and marriage, hence her depictions of Rosamond and Lydgate's marital troubles.
The novel is very much concerned with women's roles, women's lives, and how they should be changed. However, it also exposes Eliot's ambivalence on the subject. Although she had no children and lived with her lover, George Lewes, without being married, at the same time she believed that women should be married, and had obligations to their husbands and children. The novel advocates change in women's roles, and in their spheres of influence; but, at the same time, no woman is happy who isn't married, and in a solid partnership with her husband. This tension in Eliot's personal views forms the struggles that Rosamond, Dorothea, and Celia face, and determines the outcome of their unions according to their character and effectiveness.
If there is one metaphor that serves to sum up the way people and society work in Middlemarch, it is a web. Just as Rosamond and Lydgate spin their own web and get caught in it, every character is bound in a huge web, and if one pulls one way or another, the web shifts, and someone is affected. Things and people are inextricable connected and an event, like Featherstone's funeral, can have a very palpable meaning to someone who has no involvement, like Dorothea. Middlemarch is a very carefully woven work of social commentary and human analysis, with many living, breathing characters who are as real as the historical time period they inhabit.