Book I: Miss Brooke


1. Here and throughout, don’t skip over the epigraphs: they provide clues (if sometimes oblique or obscure ones) to each chapter’s major themes. A particularly good one is the quotation from Don Quixote at the top of Chapter 2: how does the epigraph illuminate the events of that chapter? Who in the chapter turns out to be “Quixotic,” and who’s the realist? Is either one of them right?

2. “Book I: Miss Brooke” comes immediately after the Prelude, and the juxtaposition inevitably suggests parallels. Is Dorothea a “later-born Theresa”? What are her ideals and aspirations? How do her circumstances support or hinder their realization? How does the Prelude prepare us to read her character and her story?

3. One of the ways we get to know Dorothea is by comparison — to her sister Celia, for instance. What are some of the similarities between Dorothea and Celia? How are they different — and how are those differences reflected in their dress, their speech, and their actions? What do we learn about them from the scene in Chapter I in which they divide up their mother’s jewels?

4. “Signs are small measurable things,” remarks the narrator, “but interpretations are illimitable.” This principle applies to many aspects of Book I (and, indeed, to the whole novel), but the varying interpretations of Mr. Casaubon provide an especially good case study. He is seen very differently by different characters, including not just Dorothea and Celia but also Mr. Brooke, Sir James Chettam, and (memorably) Mrs. Cadwallader. What do these characters’ views of Mr. Casaubon reveal about them? What do we actually know about Mr. Casaubon’s own point of view? What are other scenes that highlight problems of (mis)interpretation?

5. Mr. Casaubon’s proposal is both hilarious and ominous. What accounts for Dorothea’s response, especially when it seems so obvious to us (and to nearly everyone else in the novel) that she’s making a terrible mistake? What does her choice say about the big issues of idealism, aspiration, and vocation raised by the Prelude and explored in our introduction to Dorothea in Chapter 1?

6. We meet a lot of characters in Book I and  can’t always tell who will turn out to be important: as the narrator says, “Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” What are your first impressions of Will Ladislaw? Dr. Lydgate? Fred and Rosamond Vincy? Mary Garth? How do these characters and their stories seem, so far, to fit into larger patterns the novel has been setting up? Are any of them ardent or petty, for instance? Who has a vocation and who doesn’t?

7. You may have noticed that I’m having trouble not quoting the narrator: you may want to keep a notebook just for jotting down examples of what one 19th-century enthusiast called “the wit and wisdom of George Eliot”! How does the narrator’s commentary affect your reading of the novel? (I don’t mean whether you like the narration or not, but how it steers you, what it makes you notice, what tone it takes, etc.)

Middlemarch Discussion Questions: Book I (PDF)

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