Middlemarch is a novel by George Eliot. It has multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism, self-interest, religion, hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic (with an authorial voice that occasionally bursts through the narrative), and the canvas is very broad. Although it has some comical elements and comically named characters (Mr. Brooke, the "tiny aunt" Miss Noble, Mrs. Dollop), Middlemarch is a work of realism. Through the voices and opinions of different characters we become aware of various issues of the day: the Great Reform Bill, the beginnings of the railways, the death of King George IV, and the succession of his brother, the Duke of Clarence (who became King William IV). We learn something of the state of contemporary medical science. We also encounter the deeply reactionary mindset within a settled community facing the prospect of what to many is unwelcome change.
Dorothea Brooke is an idealistic and well-to-do young woman who seeks to help those around her by doing things such as helping the lot of the local poor. She is seemingly set for a comfortable and idle life as the wife of neighbouring landowner Sir James Chettam, but to the dismay and bewilderment of her sister Celia (who later marries Chettam) and her loquacious uncle Mr. Brooke, she marries instead Edward Casaubon, a dry, pedantic scholar many decades older than Dorothea who, she believes, is engaged in writing a great work, The Key to All Mythologies. She wishes to find fulfilment by sharing her husband's intellectual life, but during an unhappy honeymoon in Rome she experiences his coldness towards her ambitions. Slowly she realises that his great project is doomed to failure and her feelings for him descend to pity. She forms a warm friendship with a young cousin of Casaubon's, Will Ladislaw, but her husband's antipathy towards him is clear (partly based on his belief that Ladislaw is trying to seduce Dorothea to gain access to Casaubon's fortune), and Ladislaw is forbidden to visit. In poor health, Casaubon attempts to extract from Dorothea a promise that, should he die, she will "avoid doing what I should deprecate and apply yourself to do what I desire"—meaning either that she should shun Ladislaw, or, as Dorothea believes, that she should complete The Key to All Mythologies in his place, forever freezing her youthful intelligence and energy into animating the dead hand of his extinct ideas. Before Dorothea can give her reply, Casaubon dies. She then learns that he has added the extraordinary provision to his will that, if she should marry Ladislaw, Dorothea will lose her inheritance from Casaubon.