Middlemarch is a novel set in a provincial town of England in the era of reform that began in the 1830s.¹ Its two young protagonists, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, aspire to play their part in ‘changing the world a little’. Unlike many characters in nineteenth-century novels, impelled by a drive to possess and consume (money, success, status), they are moved by the opposite impulse: to give themselves to a cause or to fulfil a duty. But in their case, these are not traditional responsibilities, but solitary modern vocations. Kierkegaard wrote in 1843 that it was a mistake to consider duty as a collection of external rules. Were it so, the ethical life would be ugly and dull: ‘If the ethical did not have some much deeper connection with personal being, it would always be very difficult to defend it against the aesthetic.’footnote2 The fascination of the nineteenth century with duty was not ‘a love of the law for its own sake, but rather a concern with the hygiene of the self’.footnote3 Duty, no longer abstract, could become the legitimate subject matter of a novel.

In George Eliot’s work, duty—even traditional duty—is never mere conformity to a dogma. It is rather a basic facet of a balanced personality. Already, for the humble characters of her early novels, where duty might seem no more than compliance with tradition, what matters is not the small task fulfilled, but the way it becomes a constitutive part of their being. ‘To keep one’s kitchen spotlessly clean’—as Proust puts it in his essay on Adam Bede—‘is an essential, almost a religious duty, and an attractive one too.’footnote4 Duty becomes a value in itself. In her short story ‘Brother Jacob’, written ten years before Middlemarch, Eliot had shown that—like any other form of social change—women’s emancipation from menial labour did not necessarily lead to a higher, nobler existence, but could engender sloth and moral corruption, dissolving personality in the passive consumption of pleasure and luxury.footnote5 Dorothea and Lydgate do not run this very modern risk: their dignity lies in resisting the pleasure principle in the name of a higher vocation. But because they are modern, they have to forge, alone, a new sense of duty for themselves. Their duties are subjective, not enjoined by any law. Dominated by this ethical imperative, their lives are stories of mistakes and existential failures.

Dorothea is not yet twenty years old. In possession of a substantial dowry and as out of place in Middlemarch as ‘a fine quotation from the Bible,—or from one of our elder poets,—in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper’, she adopts a singular approach in her search for a husband. Dorothea disdains the traditional duties of a wife and mother. Her mind is ‘theoretic’, and ‘yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there’. So she decides to marry Casaubon, a man of learning old enough to be her father. She sees him as a latter-day Locke or Pascal, a great man with whom to share her great project. It is a fatal mistake. Poor Casaubon cannot live up to Dorothea’s expectations. He comes to realize that his pursuit of knowledge is doomed to failure, and this bitter awareness unfits him to be either teacher or husband for Dorothea. The marriage proves a painful fiasco.

Lydgate is as little conventional as Dorothea. He despises the privileges of his aristocratic birth and venerates the great physicians of the past. After studying medicine in the great capital cities of Europe, he has rejected the allure of the metropolis to withdraw to Middlemarch, where he plans to reform medical practice (establishing a hospital for the cure of fevers) and pursue daring anatomical research (hoping to discover the original human tissue). His vocation is to ‘do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world’. But a disastrous marriage with a profligate, frivolous wife saddles him with conspicuous debts, and he ends up a rich and fashionable doctor in London, author of a minor treatise on gout. Universally considered a success, ‘he always regarded himself a failure’.

Leslie Stephen thought all of Eliot’s characters were illustrations of a common theme, of which Dorothea and Lydgate could be seen as variants. We are asked, he thought, to sympathize with the noble aspirations of generous and passionate souls, knowing that they ‘cannot receive any full satisfaction within the commonplace conditions of this prosaic world’.footnote6 But this is not so. This nineteenth-century version of the relationship between the self and the world was for George Eliot only a half-truth, because it was a truth that was too consoling:

Some gentlemen have made an amazing figure in literature by general discontent with the universe as a trap of dulness into which their great souls have fallen by mistake; but the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world may have its consolations. Lydgate’s discontent was much harder to bear; it was the sense that there was a grand existence in thought and effective action lying around him, while his self was being narrowed into the miserable isolation of egoistic fears, and vulgar anxieties for events that might allay such fears.footnote7

It is true that the fresco of society in Middlemarch is no less powerful than that of Balzac’s novels in its depiction of the ‘hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions, and their frustrating complexity’, and that Eliot believed there was no creature ‘whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it’. Yet the failures of Dorothea and Lydgate have more to do with the character of their vocations and the problematic nature of their modern ideas of duty. Dorothea pictures duty as something out of a novel: