George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was a great believer in the power of empathy to move her readers. Back when she was writing in the 19th century, empathy was generally known as ‘sympathy’. She once wrote that ‘The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.’ What the novelist does, she believed, is to immerse us in unexpected and unknown lives, whether it is poor farming folk or chimney sweeps struggling to survive in the industrial towns. ‘Art is the nearest thing to life,’ she wrote, ‘it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.’
And that’s what Middlemarch is all about. The thing to remember when reading it, is that it is not just a novel about the idealistic and well-to-do Dorothea Brooke but an attempt to show how the novel can become a vehicle for empathic understanding.
There’s a good summary of the plot available here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middlemarch