English, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 17 (1986)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


“’ His name is Ladislaw. He is said to be of foreign extraction.’

“’ I know the sort,’ said Mr. Hawley; ‘some emissary. He’ll begin with flourish about the Rights of Man and end with murdering a wench. That’s the style.’”

The first shock in Poland for a native Enlgish- speaking reader of Middlemarch is to discover that Will Lnadislaw’s surname should probably be Wladyslaw, and be pronounced /vwa:disqa:v/. Subsequently, a heightened awareness of Polish history suggests that the Polish aspect of the character of Will and his role within Middlemarch may be a fruitful object of study.

The following article is an attempt to reconstruct some of the meaning which the figure of Will had for the contemporary reader of Middlemarch in the early 1870s. Such an undertaking clearly entails major problems. The past is gone, in many ways unknowable and beyond adequate reconstruction. It is further extremely dangerous to isolate one figure from the complex structure of a novel. Nevertheless, if done with caution, the attempt to reconstruct contemporary meaning may be valid and useful.

Critical traditional has usually given Will a bad press, either criticizing some feature of his character, or simply ignoring him. R.H. Hutton in 1973 treats him with tolerant disdain- “a clever, mercurial, without any signal need of the help of such a woman as this (Dorothea).”2 Lord David Cecil’s response is similar.3 Joan Bennett comments that his mannerisms “seem more calculated to irritate rather than to delight,” and she sums up (and partly answers) several hostile views of WII later in her study. F. R. Leavis's denunciation of the character as a product of Eliot's own biographical yearnings is famous - "unacceptable valuations", "day-dream self-indulgence".5 Arnold Kettle sees him in a similar way, as a product of a political impasse in the author's thinking. 6 For E. So Shaffer presumably he is part of what is meant by the "ironies of waste" which structure the text. 7 None comments on Will's Polishness as a significant feature of his function in the novel, although Joan Bennett does note his foreignness.

In order to avoid one of the problems indicated above (that of isolating a character from the structure of a text), it is necessary, before considering Will's Polishness directly, to look at the novel as a whole and see Will in textual context. Critics have noted in some detail the image of the web which dominates Middlemarch. In addition, the persistence of a connected chain of images should be registered _ those of labyrinths, prisons, darkness and exploitation. Dorothea is continually seen as a figure trapped in an ill-lit labyrinth of tombs (Ch. 20, p.220; Ch. 22, p.253; Ch. 80, p.844). There are numerous references to chains and fetters, while Casaubon, Bulstrode, Featherstone, and even Rosamond are associated with creatures or plants which dominate and live off others - vampires, spiders, a basil plant (Ch. 48, p.523; Ch. 50, p.535; Ch.2, p.40; Ch. 15, P. 185; Ch. 34, P. 351; Ch. 42, p.547; Finale, p.893).