George Eliot’s Middlemarch is set in a fictional Midlands town in the early nineteenth century, an environment in which typical gender roles are very are strictly enforced. While men are also expected to live up to gendered ideals, Middlemarch mostly focuses on the way that such expectations are particularly restrictive and suffocating for women. This is explored most notably through the novel’s central character, Dorothea Brooke, who dreams of a grand, intense, and meaningful life that is fundamentally incompatible with the role society has prescribed for her. As a result, she becomes confused about what she really wants and makes some bad life decisions that only serve to further isolate her from her true self and desires. Through Dorothea, the novel implicitly critiques the oppressive expectations society places on women. At the same time, however, it also shows that any resistance is inherently limited, as alternative ways of living for women at the time simply did not exist.
As a heroine, Dorothea is deeply sympathetic. She is ambitious, idealistic, free-spirited, and kind, yet these admirable aspects of her personality make it difficult for her to conform to the gender norms of the society in which she lives.
For example, she is “enamored of intensity and greatness,” fond of horse-riding, and dreams of building cottages for tenant farmers so that they might live in better conditions. These passions do not conform with societal expectations of women, and thus although these dreams and impulses exist very strongly within her, Dorothea feels ashamed of them and attempts to suppress them. She wants to conform to a feminine ideal, which leads her to be highly self-critical and continually make promises she doesn’t keep (such as her vow to give up horse-riding).
Dorothea’s half-hearted attempt to suppress her own desires and personality leads her to exist in a confused and self-contradictory state. This shows that gender roles have the effect of alienating women from themselves.
Dorothea attempts to resolve the internal conflict she feels between her desires and societal gender roles by marrying the much older Rev. Edward Casaubon. Because Casaubon is a scholar working on a highly ambitious project on religious history (The Key to All Mythologies), she believes that she can access the “intensity and greatness” she craves via him.
When Dorothea decides to marry Casaubon, the people around her are confused and (accurately) predict that the marriage will not bring her happiness. They can see what Dorothea herself cannot: she is both suppressing her own nature and trying to achieve the impossible by living through her future husband. Dorothea claims that she wants a husband who can be like a father to her and teach her about things; however, as Mr. Brooke points out, she is a strong-willed person attached to her own opinions. Marrying Casaubon is thus a recipe for disaster.
It is painful to witness Dorothea make such a patently bad life decision, which ends up making her miserable. At the same time, the novel’s exploration of gender norms shows that Dorothea’s decision to marry Casaubon is not made out of mere foolishness. Rather, Dorothea is trapped by the conflict between her own impulses and society’s expectations of her as a woman. The misery of her marriage to Casaubon is only a symptom of this wider problem.
When Casaubon dies, Dorothea has a chance to reevaluate her life and, through her second marriage to Will Ladislaw, ends up choosing a path that brings her far greater happiness and fulfilment. This shows that it is better to stay true to oneself than to attempt to conform to society’s restrictive ideals of how women should behave. On the other hand, Dorothea’s ultimate fate as a housewife and mother reminds readers that there is only so much women can do to resist gender roles in a society that has so few rights, resources, and opportunities available to women.
Dorothea loves Will, but her own dreams—such as the cottages and “colony” she planned to build for tenant farmers—remain unrealized at the end of the novel. The narrator observes: “Many who knew her [Dorothea] thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be known only in certain circles as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done.”
This captures the difficulty of the situation Dorothea and other strong-willed women of the time find themselves in. They desire a richer and more expansive life than that of a wife and mother, but the reality is that there is basically no alternative for them. Thus, even if they rebel against the gender norms of the era, there is only so much that this rebellion can achieve.
Women and Gender ThemeTracker
Women and Gender Quotes in Middlemarch
Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
“It is very hard: it is your favourite fad to draw plans.”
“Fad to draw plans! Do you think I only care about my fellow creatures’ houses in that childish way? I may well make mistakes. How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?”
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, 'Oh, nothing!' Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts - not to hurt others.
Of course, he had a profession and was clever, as well as sufficiently handsome; but the piquant fact about Lydgate was his good birth, which distinguished him from all Middlemarch admirers, and presented marriage as a Prospect of rising in rank and getting a little nearer to that celestial condition on earth in which she would have nothing to do with vulgar people, and perhaps at last associate with relatives quite equal to the county people who looked down on the Middlemarchers. It was part of Rosamond's cleverness to discern very subtly the faintest aroma of rank.
The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose name you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same.
Thus his intellectual ambition which seemed to others to have absorbed and dried him, was really no security against wounds, least of all against those which came from Dorothea. And he had begun now to frame possibilities for the future which were somehow more embittering to him than anything his mind had dwelt on before.
And here Dorothea's pity turned from her own future to her husband's past - nay, to his present hard struggle with a lot which had grown out of that past the lonely labour, the ambition breathing hardly under the pressure of self-distrust; the goal receding, and the heavier limbs; and now at last the sword visibly trembling above him! And had she not wished to marry him that she might help him in his life's labour? - But she had thought the work was to be something greater, which she could serve in devoutly for its own sake. Was it right, even to soothe his grief - would it be possible, even if she promised - to work as in a treadmill fruitlessly?
In the hundred to which Middlemarch belonged railways were as exciting a topic as the Reform Bill or the imminent horrors of Cholera, and those who held the most decided views on the subject were women and landholders. Women both old and young regarded travelling by steam as presumptuous and dangerous, and argued against it by saying that nothing should induce them to get into a railway carriage.
The business was felt to be so public and important that it required dinners to feed it, and many invitations were just then issued and accepted on the strength of this scandal concerning Bulstrode and Lydgate; wives, widows, and single ladies took their work and went out to tea oftener than usual; and all public conviviality, from the Green Dragon to Dollop's, gathered a zest which could not be won from the question whether the Lords would throw out the Reform Bill.
“And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better.”
Dorothea laughed and forgot her tears.
“Well, I mean about babies and those things,” explained Celia. “I should not give up to James when I knew he was wrong, as you used to do to Mr Casaubon.”
Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done - not even Sir James Chettam, who went no further than the negative prescription that she ought not to have married Will Ladislaw.