George Eliot published her epic novel “Middlemarch” in 1872. It is ostensibly a tale of a provincial town resisting progress and scientific and artistic innovation. However there is an inner narrative which focusses upon the complex lives of the characters, and there are implicit moral lessons to be drawn from them.
The ill fated marriage between Dorothea Brooke and the Reverend Casaubon is a particularly poignant interlude, but it becomes clear later on in the book that their doomed relationship is an allegory, or a symbol of the continual conflict between academic learning and artistic insight. Dorothea is drawn to Casaubon`s apparent wisdom and dedication to his studies. His scholarly ambition is thwarted by his inability or reluctance to learn German. It is revealed that the German language and culture is central to many academic texts.
While the Casaubons are on their honeymoon, Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw. Ladislaw is a young protege of her husband as well as a distant cousin of his, and this meeting occurs at a significant moment. Casaubon is struggling to complete his studies and is withdrawing from Dorothea emotionally. Ladislaw is a young man possessed with artistic ideals who falls instantly in love with Dorothea who is yet to fall for his charms. She is still in love with her husband in spite of the indifference that he shows towards her. Her affection even extends towards her supporting his endeavour to write his magnum opus, the “Key to All Mythologies” which he is convinced will unlock all of the mysteries of life.
In spite of Dorothea`s unwavering support, Casaubon dies before completing it. The strain of attempting to solve all of the problems in the world proved to be too onerous and too much for his heart. The implication within the novel is that such a vast subject can never be understood as it is impossible. There really is no such “key” that can unlock the mysteries of the universe.
It is true, however that people continue to search for this elusive key and spend their entire lives convinced that they have all the answers. This is simply wishful thinking as even relatively modern innovations like Google cannot unlock all of the secrets that lie behind our existence. If we really want to find meaning in our lives we should simply find something that we enjoy doing like listening to our favourite music or relaxing with a good book. These are truly universal pleasures no matter who or wherever we are.