Study Guide

Middlemarch Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By George Eliot

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Portrait of Will's Grandmother

The portrait of Will's grandmother comes up again and again. Dorothea associates it with Will, because it looks like him, but it could also be seen as a symbol for unhappiness in marriage. It seems to work both ways. Early on in the novel, the narrator says outright that Dorothea

felt a new companionship with it, as if it had an ear for her and could see how she was looking at it. Here was a woman who had known some difficulty about marriage. Nay, the colours deepened, the lips and chin seemed to get larger, the hair and eyes seemed to be sending out light, the face was masculine and beamed on her with that full gaze. (3.28.5)

Dorothea feels "companionship" with the painting itself, and imagines that the woman in it can listen sympathetically to her trouble because she had had problems, too. But then she starts to imagine that it's actually an image of Will Ladislaw, who is the only person who has ever listened to and understood her. The association of the painting with Will Ladislaw, and with harsh judgments more generally, continues throughout the novel. Towards the end of the novel, Dorothea openly caresses the miniature painting: "she took the little oval picture in her palm and made a bed for it there, and leaned her cheek upon it, as if that would soothe the creature who had suffered unjust condemnation" (6.55.2). It's not clear whether the "creature" she's trying to soothe is Will Ladislaw or his grandmother, or maybe it just stands in for all people who are judged unfairly.

Dorothea doesn't just associate the portrait with Will Ladislaw because of the family resemblance. Will's grandmother gave up the Casaubon family fortune to be with the man she loved (also named Ladislaw, of course). Dorothea's interest in Aunt Julia and her portrait could also be seen as foreshadowing her eventual decision to give up the Casaubon family fortune to marry her Ladislaw. So the portrait could be doing something more complicated than the simple association with Will Ladislaw, or with injustice – it could be seen as a symbol of the ways that history repeats itself.

The Haunting of Raffles

The portrait of Will's grandmother isn't the only symbol of history coming back to haunt the present. Bulstrode's dodgy history comes back to haunt him in the form of Raffles. Raffles is the only other person who knows about the source of Bulstrode's money, and Bulstrode just can't seem to get rid of him. He only feels guilty for his past actions when Raffles comes around, so it could be that Raffles is meant to be seen as a symbol of Bulstrode's conscience.

Horseback Riding

So many characters discuss horseback riding that it just has to be important. Dorothea gives it up at the beginning of the novel, even though she enjoys it, because she wants to concentrate on more spiritual things. Sir James tries to persuade her to take it up again because she is "such a perfect horsewoman" and because every woman ought to be in good practice so that "she may accompany her husband" (1.2.50). Sir James probably represents the conventional view: horseback riding is a "genteel" pastime for upper-class women and will make them better companions for their husbands. But Dorothea considers it to be a distraction from the real business of her life. Horseback riding, then, isn't wrong in itself – it depends on the purpose for which you use it.

Take Rosamond, for instance – she uses her love of horseback riding as an excuse to get what she wants. She wants to pump Mary Garth for information about Mr. Lydgate, so she manages to convince her brother Fred to ride with her to Stone Court to visit Mary, while pretending that it "is indifferent to [her] where [they] go" (1.11.76). Later, after her marriage to Mr. Lydgate, she lies to her husband and goes horseback riding with his cousin just to impress the townspeople by "riding on a fine horse, with Captain Lydgate, Sir Godwin's son, on another fine horse by her side" (6.58.25).

Horseback riding is good for exercise, but not for showing off or for trying to fit yourself into the perfect "pattern of a lady" like Sir James wants Dorothea to do (1.2.51). So, in Middlemarch, maybe horseback riding can stand in for all the things, like money or fine clothes, that aren't bad in themselves, but only if they're used for superficial reasons.

Lending, Spending, and Debt

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.

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.

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.