Will Ladislaw might not be as complicated as Dorothea as a character, but he's still a tough nut to crack. His mixed heritage makes him feel like an outsider everywhere he goes (his family tree is complicated, so we'll take a look at that here). His ability to see the big picture sometimes makes him neglect to pay attention to the everyday details (like social etiquette). He's deeply in love with Dorothea, but can't imagine marrying her. He feels somewhat contemptuous of Rosamond, but spends his evenings with her anyway. He's moody and proud, but still intensely likeable. Yep, there's a lot going on with Will Ladislaw.
Will's Family Tree
Will tells Dorothea that he "come[s] of rebellious blood on both sides" (4.37.51). But which side is which? How is he related to Casaubon? It's confusing, but never fear! Shmoop is here. Here's the family tree…
Will's grandmother, Julia Casaubon, was Mr. Casaubon's aunt. She ran away from her family to marry Mr. Ladislaw, a Polish musician (we never find out his first name, so we'll just call him Mr. Ladislaw I). He was a respectable man, but Julia's family didn't like him because 1) he wasn't wealthy and 2) he wasn't English. Either one of those would have been a deal-breaker from the point of view of Julia's family, but both together made them disinherit her. So Julia's own kids got cut out of the family fortune entirely, and all of the riches went to her nephew, Mr. Casaubon – that's how Mr. Casaubon ended up so rich.
Aunt Julia's son (we never find out his first name, so we'll just call him Mr. Ladislaw II) was artsy like his father. He fell in love with an actress named Sarah Dunkirk. Their son is Will Ladislaw.
That's it for Will's father's side of the family. Now for his mother's: Will never knew anything about his mother's side of the family when he was growing up. He knew that she had run away from them when she was a teenager and had later met and married Mr. Ladislaw II, but that's it. He finds out from Raffles (6.60) that his mother, Sarah Dunkirk, had run away from her family because she found out that the family business was shady. We learn a little bit later that, after her father died, she would have inherited some of the money from that shady business, but Sarah's mother (who didn't realize that the family business involved criminals) didn't know where to find her. Mr. Bulstrode married Mrs. Dunkirk to get the family fortune for himself.
That's quite a family legacy: he's got a grandmother who ran away from her family and lost her fortune to marry the man she loved, and his mother ran away from the family fortune because she found out it was dirty money.
"An Italian with White Mice"
For Will's character, everything comes back to that family history. Here's why: in the world of Middlemarch, it's very important to know where you came from. The Vincys are a respectable family in Middlemarch because they've been there so long – everyone knows all their family secrets. But it doesn't work that way for Will. Because his mother ran away from home, he's not sure where "home" really is. He's not fully English (he's one quarter Polish). The only grandparent he's sure about is Aunt Julia, and her family (the Casaubons) disinherited her. Mr. Casaubon follows the family tradition of disinheriting the Ladislaw branch of the family, and forbids him from visiting Lowick. So Will really doesn't belong anywhere. No wonder he feels like an outsider everywhere he goes!
But Will actually revels in his status as an outsider: "he was a sort of gypsy, rather enjoying the sense of belonging to no class" (5.46.16). Will finds his position to be liberating. He doesn't have to follow the same social rules as everyone else. If he wants to lie on the rug instead of sitting bolt upright in a chair, he lies on the rug.
"Belonging to no class" might sound liberating, but it was considered dangerous by many of the more conservative townspeople in Middlemarch. The novel takes place just thirty years after the end of the French Revolution, and revolutionary fever was rapidly spreading across Europe. Many English people were afraid that radical, revolutionary ideas would be imported to England and that a bloody revolution would tear the country apart. This is why it was so important to know where your neighbors came from – if you knew someone from birth, you could assume that they weren't importing any dangerous ideas about revolution. Acting differently from other people made folks nervous. But Will Ladislaw isn't just a kind of "gypsy" who "belong[s] to no class"; he's actually part Polish. Certain townspeople thought that Will had "dangerously mixed blood." What if Will's Polish grandfather were a revolutionary? What if those ideas were somehow transmitted along with his curly hair?
If you actually look at Will's family tree, of course, you realize that this is ridiculous. Even if foreigners were dangerous, Will is only a quarter Polish, but three-quarters English! But that doesn't matter to conservative Middlemarchers. One drop of foreign blood is enough to put them on their guard. And they don't even acknowledge a difference between different foreign countries. Will's non-English side is Polish, but he gets called "an Italian with white mice" and a "gypsy." People don't know how to classify him, simply because he's too many things at once. He's upper and lower class, English and non-English, all at the same time.
At one point, even Mr. Farebrother says, "So our mercurial Ladislaw has a queer genealogy! A high-spirited young lady and a musical Polish patriot made a likely enough stock for him to spring from, but I should never have suspected a grafting of the Jew pawnbroker" (7.71.19). Even Mr. Farebrother, who is generally a liberal, likeable character, doesn't know how to class Will Ladislaw. He, like many other characters, assume that Will's grandfather, Mr. Dunkirk, must have been Jewish because he ran a shady pawnshop. This kind of racist assumption was common at the time (check out Shmoop's guide to Oliver Twist for more about anti-Semitism in Victorian novels). Of course, Mr. Dunkirk didn't happen to be Jewish, but the fear is still there – what if Will is even less English than they thought?
Mr. Hawley (a prominent townsperson) responds to Mr. Farebrother's comment in a way typical of most conservative English people at the time: "Any cursed alien blood, Jew, Corsican, or Gypsy" (7.71.20). This statement encapsulates all the mistrust of non-English people, and even identifies the source: Corsica. Where's Corsica, you ask? And what does it have to do with Will Ladislaw? Corsica is a small island off the southern coast of France in the Mediterranean, and it happens to have been the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. At the time the novel takes place (1830-32), England has finally managed to oust Emperor Napoleon for good. The English still viewed continental Europe in general, but France and Corsica in particular, as the source of all bad and radical politics. So, Mr. Hawley is lumping Will Ladislaw together with Napoleon Bonaparte, along with other groups of "non-English" people ("Jew" and "Gypsy") that don't have an immediately identifiable homeland.
Will's Mood Swings
Will's moodiness and pride, like his permanent status as an outsider, come from his family history. He's proud of the fact that his mother kept clear of the shady dealings of her father's business, and he's proud that his grandmother, Julia, was willing to sacrifice her family fortune to marry the man she loved. He's too proud to accept handouts from Mr. Casaubon when they don't like each other, and he's too proud to accept money from Mr. Bulstrode when he knows that it's the same shady money that his mother wouldn't accept. But he's frequently moody because his pride and his family history make him isolated. And he's moody because he knows that people (like Mr. Hawley, or even like Mr. Farebrother) judge him unfairly by his heritage instead of by his true character.
But Will's moodiness isn't just angst about his social solitude. It also has a symbolic factor to it. Will is hard to pin down in terms of his nationality and social class, but he's also hard to pin down in terms of his mood and personality – it's constantly changing. The narrator frequently uses the word "metamorphosis" when describing Will, and he's often associated with brightness and reflected light:
The first feeling on seeing Will was one of sunny brightness, which added to the uncertainty of his changing expression. Surely, his very features changed their form; his jaw looked sometimes large and sometimes small; and the little ripple in his nose was a preparation for metamorphosis. When he turned his head quickly his hair seemed to shake out light. (2.21.33)
So it's not just that Will's mood is prone to change quickly, the features on his face actually seem to shift. And the sparkling light that "shake[s] out" of his hair adds to the impression that he's some kind of leprechaun or fairy creature that isn't easily identifiable.
So if Will seems like a hard nut to crack, it's because he's like a round hazelnut that just won't stay put as you try to crack it. He's constantly changing, and the dazzling brightness of his shifting personality can be blinding. And that changefulness all comes back to the fact that Will is hard to pin down socially. Is he English? Is he upper class? Is he about to shape-shift? Many characters find it disturbing that they even have to ask themselves these questions, but Dorothea finds it refreshing.