The Symbiosis of Tertius Lydgate and Middlemarch

Chapter 15 of George Eliot’s Middlemarch introduces us to Tertius Lydgate, his methodical rationality, and the dynamic relationship he has with the town of Middlemarch. His relationship with Middlemarch is a mutually symbiotic one, where Lydgate functions as an instrument that will bring change to Middlemarch. Lydgate’s interests fall in line with the town’s even though he embodies the opposite of what Middlemarch stands for. A closer look at Lydgate’s outlooks and experiences mark him to be the best candidate that the town can hope for. He is subjugated to the will of the town upon arrival yet still strives to do good by its inhabitants. Middlemarch seems like it is its own conscious entity that swallows its citizens up to later make use of them.

Middlemarch has an agenda to pursue and Lydgate is simply another tool that the town can utilize. Further analysis of the symbolism behind even the name of the town is striking. This is a community where conscious and unconscious norms dictate behavior. Every member of the town gravitates towards the center on any sort of political issue. Painstaking effort is taken in order to not step on any toes. Rather, members of the town gossip amongst and about one another. Life in Middlemarch goes on with or without any conscientious objector. In this way, we see the members of the town all come towards the middle, as the fringe (conceptually) is a dangerous place to exist. Whether it be on the fringes of wealth, as is the case of the Garths, of reputation, like Fred Vincy, or of mental soundness in Mr. Brooke, it will only give the people something to question the validity of those in the margin. The agenda of the town marches on with the aid of the likes of Bulstrode and Cadwallader. So the way things preside in the town of Middlemarch will stay the way they are, foregoing change for tradition and marginalizing those on the fringe. The town will continue to consume and use those that enter its realm.

Luckily, Lydgate’s interests coincide with those of Middlemarch. “He meant to be a unit who would make a certain amount of difference towards that spreading change which would one day tell appreciably upon the averages, and in the mean time have the pleasure of making an advantageous difference to the viscera of his own patients … He was ambitious of a wider effect: he was fired with the possibility that he might work out the proof of an anatomical conception and make a link in the chain of discovery” (p. 146). Lydgate intends to reform the medical field with his ambition while bringing aid to his patients. He intends to be a reformer who brings up the averages around him and elevate the field of medicine. Fundamentally, he stands for something completely opposite to the idea of Middlemarch. He will be the unit by which change is spread , the unit that is readily absorbed by Middlemarch, a community that will do everything to uphold the status quo. Before attempting to reform all of England, however, he takes Middlemarch as his first microcosm and practice ground: “Such was Lydgate’s plan of his future: to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world” (p. 149). Lydgate and Middlemarch become symbiotically joined, where Lydgate can begin his sweeping medicinal work and the town may begin to use him as a cog in their affairs. Just as Lydgate is one small unit, so will his part be in Middlemarch in the grand scheme of his field. Lydgate’s view of his profession is also a good mirror for his relationship to Middlemarch. “…and he carried to his studies in London, Edinburgh, and Paris, the conviction that the medical profession as it might be was the finest in the world … offering the most direct alliance between intellectual conquest and the social good” (p. 145). Lydgate figures that doing good for the community of Middlemarch goes hand in hand with his pursuit of knowledge. He and his profession find themselves in a direct alliance with the town of Middlemarch. Middlemarch is the forge in which Lydgate may temper his skills and in return, Middlemarch will use him to further their ends.

Lydgate’s outlook on life is mostly a scientific one that is reinforced in him after encountering difficult situations that involve deep emotions. Being an honorable physician isn’t enough for Lydgate, he seeks to add to the existing human knowledge in the field of medicine. “Lydgate was ambitious above all to contribute towards enlarging the scientific, rational basis of his profession” (p. 147). The “rational” aspect of his profession is of particular importance. Lydgate operates primarily as a rational and scientific human being, seeing the world as a series of predictable phenomenon that obey certain rules. This outlook upon life is only further reinforced when Lydgate happens upon his first “impetuous folly” (p. 150). Upon falling in love with Madame Laure, “He knew that this was like the sudden impulse of a madman—incongruous even with his habitual foibles” (p. 152). When Lydgate experiences love for the first time, his emotions are incongruous with his rational mindset and he finds himself in a state of cognitive dissonance. He offers himself no other explanation other than that he must be mad. Emotions have never factored themselves so heavily into Lydgate’s world. He is exposed for the first time to passionate feelings and doesn’t know how to play it, so he ends up going on instinct and acting impulsively. When he is rebuffed by Madame Laure, he defaults back to his rational and scientific self. “But he had more reason than ever for trusting his judgment, now that it was so experienced; and henceforth he would take a strictly scientific view of woman, entertaining no expectations but such as were justified beforehand” (p. 153). When taking upon as large a task as Lydgate wants to achieve, there is no time to be wasted playing folly with the opposite sex. He doubles down and resolves to rely further on his observations and judgements of women. He plays it safe by both not expecting anything of women and by assuring himself that his previous way of thinking was right all along. In this way, Lydgate also demonstrates some arrogance. On the inside, he considers his approach to life to be the best approach. “Our vanities differ as our noses do: all conceit is not the same conceit, but varies in correspondence with the minutiae of mental make in which one of us differs from another. Lydgate’s conceit was of the arrogant sort, never simpering, never impertinent, but massive in its claims and benevolently contemptuous” (p. 149). This passage humanizes Lydgate; he may appear pretentious or patronizing, but is human like everyone else and is prone to displaying his brand of conceit. Vanity in any form, like noses, are possessed by every human being. The small details are what differentiate our physiognomies as well as our vices. Lydgate is arrogant and contemptuous, but no less vain than any other resident of Middlemarch.

Upon arrival to Middlemarch, the towns inhabitants wonder what role Lydgate will play in their town. Its made clear from both Lydgate’s and Middlemarch’s point of view that Lydgate is to become the tool or instrument of Middlemarch. Lydgate is not a common sort of practitioner nor does he stand for the same ideals that the town does, and this presents a problem for the mechanical community of Middlemarch. “There was a general impression, however, that Lydgate was not altogether a common country doctor, and in Middlemarch at that time such an impression was significant of great things being expected from him” (p. 142). General impressions are the bread and butter of Middlemarch – the basis by which every inhabitant begins their gossip. The town, perhaps, didn’t even know yet that Lydgate was to change how things were done, yet both seemed to know that Lydgate was to be fashioned into an instrument of change. “Not only young virgins of that town, but gray-bearded men also, were often in haste to conjecture how a new acquaintance might be wrought into their purposes, contented with very vague knowledge as to the way in which life had been shaping him for that instrumentality” (p. 153-154). What a perfect and appropriate role for Lydgate to take – one of the instrument. What tool more precise, rational, and scientific as the instrument itself? Once again, the town seems to know that he is here to change something about their nature of living, but they could only draw vague conjectures. This passage is befitting of the relationship between Lydgate and Middlemarch and encapsulates how each views the other. Lydgate is to be the instrument of change for the inhabitants, while the town is left hastily wondering how it may bend its instrument to its purposes.

We are constantly seeing the binaries of Middlemarch interact, but if we peer closer, we notice that Lydgate himself operates in two different ways. Lydgate forewent his emotional self after a traumatic experience with his first love and became the calculating and methodical surgeon. This shouldn’t be viewed as a weakness of his, but instead a redeeming aspect that makes him the instrument that Middlemarch needs. “He had two selves within him apparently, and they must learn to accommodate each other and bear reciprocal impediments. Strange, that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us.”

Works Cited

Eliot, George, and Rosemary Ashton. Middlemarch. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.


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