English, Department of



Omar Sabbagh

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 36 (2005)


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


In this article I will be teasing out the significance of the various uses and senses of 'indefiniteness' in Middlemarch. Whether it is in relationships between other characters, or between Dorothea and other characters, or between Dorothea and herself, or indeed between Dorothea and the novel or the reader, it will be seen that indefiniteness often stands in for unfavourable conceptions of abstraction and externality, and that all contribute to disharmony in Eliot's rendering. This disharmony is resolved by the end of the novel, and it seems to me that this particular resolution is one of the novel's main themes.

Let us start with the Prelude. In his review of Middlemarch Henry James laments the fact that there a 'definite subject' is established, the centrality of Dorothea and her story, but that then the novel fails structurally in diffusing the centrality of this main character.' He is complaining of a resulting diffuseness in the novel, a lack of sufficient symmetry and neatness; he thinks it rambles. Barbara Hardy has argued against such a criticism in her formal analysis of contrast and correspondence in Middlemarch. She claims that these contrasts and correspondences are such a glaring feature of the novel that they are in effect 'a reading direction', that they are just as much a part of the reader's enjoyment and experience of the novel, if, as I would suggest, at a second order level. And, this being so, these formal or structural attributes 'concentrate' the novel.2 So even if Dorothea fades out as the central concern of the novel, the structural properties of its resulting multiplicity prevent it from becoming diffuse or indefinite (to use the opposite term to James's choice of word).

If we look at the Prelude and the parallel drawn between St Theresa and Dorothea, and consider it in relation to the ensuing novel, we realize that Dorothea cannot become another St Theresa because of the limits to individuality in Middlemarch society; her indefinite spiritual ardour (the equivalent of St Theresa's 'illimitable satisfaction') must be realistically checked by her concrete situation, her 'domestic reality'. This is why the novel veers away from Dorothea after Book One.