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The portrait of Edward Casaubon, the "dried bookworm towards fifty" seems obviously satirical at first. He is a parson and landowner at Lowick, a parish near Middlemarch. It is clear he has little interest in the social and spiritual side of his duties in the parish. His passion is the study of theology and he has contributed many learned papers on the subject, without achieving any eminence in the field. He is reserved and cold, but has a sense of obligation. Thus, he supports financially Will Ladislaw his cousin, whose grandmother had been disinherited due to an "unsuitable" marriage. He also ensures that his tenants are not needy and his estate is well administered.
Casaubon has always lived a solitary life and never considered any other option. Dorothea with her beauty, her keen interest in his obscure research, and her obvious idealism presents him with a great temptation. On the verge of old age, he snatches at her "ardent self-sacrificing affection," never asking himself whether he can satisfy her needs. As with Lydgate, George Eliot exposes the complacency of men who consider their wives passive objects.
After the marriage, he finds himself unable to respond to her feelings, her enthusiasm. While Dorothea finds "what was fresh to her mind was worn out to his; and such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmnent of knowledge."
Will is the least convincing and lifelike of the major characters in the novel. From his first appearance, he has the stereotyped aura of a romantic hero. His "bushy light-brown curls...pair of gray eyes...a delicate irregular nose with a little ripple in it," all makes him a very obvious contrast to the aging Casaubon. After his initial mistrust of a young womanís motives in marrying his aged cousin, Willís attraction towards Dorothea takes him over, especially in Rome. She is wholly innocent of any sexual interest in him and befriends him as one who deserves sympathy and a reforming influence. Ladislaw too, is eager to earn her approval by refusing further financial support from Casaubon. He has "dreamy visions of possibilities," but is content to worship her from afar.
Will does seem more human in his irritation with Casaubon, his urge to live in Middlemarch near Dorothea even if it meant working with the eccentric Brooke. His ultra-sensitivity to having been a dependent makes him harsh with Bulstrode, when the banker offers to compensate him for the earlier injustice. He is even harsher to Rosamond in his anger when Dorothea sees them together; "I had one certainty...that she believed in me. Whatever, people had said or done about me, she believed in me. Thatís gone! Sheíll never again think me anything but a paltry pretence."
It is this intensity of feeling, the eager interest in art, music, and literature, politics, which makes him so attractive to the others and so much a contrast to Casaubon. It is his impoverished position and lack of family, which makes him especially attractive to Dorothea. But he is also made, like Lydgate, the outsider who brings in the new knowledge about European thought and culture, if the revolutionary changes to come in society. His becoming a journalist and politician in later life is an extension of this.
The critics have been harsh about him, calling him "a sugarstick" and "a womanís man"! Among the reasons are his depictions earlier as a dilettante, flitting from one field to another. And at the conclusion of the novel, his union with Dorothea is the conventional happy ending, with no complexity.