Truth Claims of Marriage, Gender, and Social Class in Middlemarch and Great Expectations
Realism is an imperative theme across Middlemarch and Great Expectations. “The primary aim of realism is to represent real life for the time it is written, and it is the job of the author to create a number of different techniques in order to do so.” There is a substantial variety surrounding the number of truth claims used throughout George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Charles Dickens Great Expectations. These truth claims represent reality in their own ways. In this essay, I will be discussing how the truth claims of marriage, gender, and social class represent realism across both novels and how they can also contrastingly be discredited.
The first truth claim made in George Eliot’s Middlemarch are the difficulties and hardships in marriage, particularly on women. The Victorian time period is known to be the era of Romanticism but there were also a lot of very unhappy marriages during this time. The ideology of marriage across Middlemarch differs over Great Expectations, as the women in Middlemarch primarily conformed to their conventional roles as women, whereas the majority female characters in Great Expectations did not, with the exception of Biddy. Across Middlemarch, we are portrayed with the realities of marriage. Whilst many Victorian novels consider marriage as the ultimate source of happiness, Eliot portrays it to be the contrary. Marriages in the Victorian era were acclaimed by society to be more of a business transaction than an actual act of love. Victorian women needed to find husbands in order to gain financial and social stability and as Philippa Levine puts it, “for the women who did not marry, whether by choice or by chance, spinsterhood marked her as one of society’s unfortunates.” In the case of Middlemarch, Dorothea marries Casaubon because she naively believes he will help her achieve her highest potential as she says, “marriage is a state of higher duties” (38). Casaubon further demonstrates the unromantic portrayal of marriage as he writes in his proposal letter that “for the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need”. This sentiment resonances as if he is completing a business contract as opposed to romantically attempting to court Dorothea.
Throughout the start of the novel, the female protagonist Dorothea is ambitious with her dreams: she dreams of building cottages for farmers and enjoys horse riding – she is described to be “enamoured of intensity and greatness”. When Dorothea decides to marry Casaubon, we, as readers, can see her character slowly start to suppress her own nature as she believes she can access the same “intensity and greatness” she craves through her husband. Dorothea claims she wants a husband that can be a father figure to her and teach her about things, even if she is a strong-willed woman herself, because a woman living in her time period only had the option of living vicariously through her husband.
Dorothea’s reality of her marriage is exposed in Chapter 81, when she confronts Rosamond about her affair with Ladislaw: “I mean, marriage drinks up all of our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort love. I know it may be very dear, but it murders our marriage”. In this quote, Dorothea is expressing how marriage and love have no correlation and in fact, love can ruin a marriage ultimately. George Eliot further evaluates this when she says “but we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorothea’s, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know”: Eliot presents the consequences of accepting the role of the conventional role of a woman in the Victorian society can lead to women accepting their suffering from their marriages and further reinstates the historical facts that women had very few rights indeed.
Marriage in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations additionally portrays a similar truth claim about the unhappiness that comes with love and marriage. As a social reformer, Charles Dickens was very critical of Victorian society and only had wishes to improve it. Through his narrative of Great Expectations, the theme of injustice is a truth claim to how the majority of Victorians felt during the time. Dicken’s aim was to collect these social truth’s into showcasing the realities of the Victorian time period. The first marriage to prove the truth claim of marriage wrong in the 19th century is Mrs. Joe. She is immediately portrayed to be a violent woman and even unconventionally oppresses Joe and Pip in the house. She is described to have gained a “reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had bought me (Pip) up by hand” suggesting she is violent towards her son in her disciplinary methods. Surprisingly enough, she is also the same with her husband, Joe, as Dicken’s describes on page 39 of the novel: “she pounced on Joe, and, taking him by the two whiskers, knocked his head for a little against the wall behind him” – this quote in the novel strongly demonstrates her rough character, as she is not described to be the stereotypical ‘angel of the house’ of the Victorian period. ‘Angels of the house’ were described to be gentle, loving, obedient mothers and wives’ and Dicken’s proves Mrs. Joe is the polar opposite. Moreover, she is not feminine and does not have the trait of a proper housewife or wife to her husband. Michael Slater also finds in his critical analysis of the female characters in Dicken’s novel, that “Dickens sees women only as they have been typecast by men – as angelic ministers of grace and inspiration, as tormenting characters, as threats of male liberty”. Considering the fact Charles Dickens was anti-feminist, it is served as a warning when he portrays the majority of the women in Great Expectations to be rebellious and un-womanly like. His book serves as a reminder to women to not break social laws and orders as he creates characters like Mrs. Joe, Estella, and Mrs. Havisham and essentially ruins their lives in the novel.
Additionally, another truth claim made by Middlemarch is the role of women and general gender roles. During the early 19th century, there was a very hostile environment in England surrounding typical gender roles that were very strictly enforced within society. George Eliot demonstrates how the expectations that were held on women were particularly suffocating and restrictive in contrast to men. George Eliot’s real name is Mary Anne Evans, but used the male pen name of George Eliot as she had full knowledge that she would be taken more seriously if the public knew she was a male writer, showcasing how society viewed women in the early 19th century. In Middlemarch, readers are similarly continuously presented with the stark contrast between the male and female characters and their roles within the novel. From the very beginning of the novel, Eliot highlights these realities on what the male characters really think of women. “I don’t pretend to argue with a lady on politics, your sex is not thinkers, you know”. This quote strongly demonstrates the realities behind not just what the male protagonists think in Middlemarch but the general idea that women knew nothing of politics and were deemed to be uneducated is a truth claim from the Victorian era as a whole. The novel itself has received much criticism from female writers as its protagonist, Dorothea is presented to be a woman with an intelligent mind and a noble soul and it is disheartening when at the end of the novel, she does not break free from societal pressures of her gender role as a woman in the 19th century.
Furthermore, the truth claims of gender and the role of women are surprisingly deflated as demonstrated in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. In the 19th century, women were considered to be physically and mentally inferior to men and were more suited towards a more domestic and motherlier role, the ‘angel of the house’. In Great Expectations, the female characters are portrayed in opposition to their confined roles as women in this century. Great Expectations as a whole, lacks female characters that fully conform to the ‘angel of the house’ duty that they were placed into, all except for the character of Biddy. Mrs. Joe is manipulative, Estella is seductive, and Ms. Havisham is a misandrist. However, whenever readers were introduced to a female character, they are in their homes with the exception of Estella, who travels from Satis House to London. Contrastingly, the men, such as Pip, are introduced to be in the privacy of his own home or roaming the streets of London and the same goes for Joe Gargery who has a social presence at the local tavern. Michael Slater says that “Dickens is subscribed to the bourgeois construction of femininity and domesticity” and that he, like the majority of Victorians, had an idea that men and women had dissimilar natures but came together eventually. However, for some of the novel, both male and female characters maintain their gender identities subject to the Victorian time period and live with the appropriate social space for each sex to an extent. Dickens writes Estella to be the polar opposite of a 19th-century ideal woman. Estella is raised by Mrs. Havisham to torment men and to “break their hearts”. This demonstrates the determination the female characters had to break out of their spheres in society and as their conventional roles as women and to also break out of the truth claim that women were delicate and sensitive.
Social class is also another truth claim that portrays Middlemarch to be a realistic novel. The novels subtitle “A Study of Provincial Life” demonstrates that Eliot has purposes to provide the reader with an insight as to how “provincial life” during an era where the systematic element of class is an important element in structuring society. The “provincial life” Eliot mentions is defined by the fact that all of her characters are somehow interwined with one another in a complicated professional web and this then results in an intense social hierarchy throughout majority of the novel.
Class apprehension is a theme that runs through the novel but also through the Victorian period itself, it is a truth claim that many people had the same ideas of class and the system was not particularly liked by the working class as no matter how hard they worked, if they were not born into wealth, it was increasingly difficult to get there. According to Dale H, common labourers, a common job of the working-class, was 3 shillings for a 10 hour day across 6 days of the week.
In Middlemarch, family reputation is an obsession led by class nervousness, leading into an obsessive behaviour as to who the women in the novel marry. The only way to rise up the social ladder was through marriage, which is why the characters in the novel hold it to such a serious extent.
In Chapter 12 of the novel, we are given a glimpse into how Rosamond and Lydgate bond over their shared distaste of the provincial way of living in the town of Middlemarch. Rosamond, for example, is eager to marry Lydgate strictly due to the fact he comes from a honourable family as Eliot describes “Lydgate 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”. In the novel, Rosamond is so fixated and obsessed with her social standing that she does not realise that Lydgate in fact does not have any money, and it ultimately becomes one of the key factors that destroys their marriage. Eventually, the obsession with social class in the small town of Middlemarch showcases that its community are stuck in a self-deprecated and prejudicial way of living and the truth claims about social class and money further reinforce the realism in Middlemarch.
These ideologies are also demonstrated in Great Expectations. With the novel being set near the end of the Industrial Revolution, there became a time period where the dramatic improvement in manufacturing thus created new job opportunities for those born into lower and poorer classes, in order to move up to wealthier classes. Generally, the lower classes were looked down upon by upper classes. In Great Expectations, characters were treated differently dependant on their class, showcasing how much social class really mattered. There is a section of chapter 4 of the novel where Mrs Joe attempts to impress her guests by showcasing the most lavish part of the house, presenting her families wealth to be more luxurious than it actually is. Although Mrs Joe is worried for her reputation and feels ashamed of her class, Pip and Joe are less interested in appearing refined and wealthy and appear to be more comfortable when they arrive in their “punishingly stiff Sunday clothes”. Further on in the novel, class is further represented when Pip and Joe attend one of Victorian England’s working class schools run by Mr Wopsle’s great-aunt where it is portrayed that although Joe is complimented on his intelligence, it is then discovered that he cannot actually read. Further on in the chapter, Pip is asked to play at the wealthy Miss Havisham’s house, to which Mrs Joe is incredibly excited for, merely due to the fact that her being middle class and Miss Havisham being upper class, they fantasise about the idea that associating with her somehow will bring them social graces in society and get them financial gain. Toward the end of the novel, Joe comes to see Pip in chapter 27, he treats Joe differently due to his social class and there is an awkward tension between the two characters. Pip describes Joe’s arrival as “not with pleasure, I had the shapest sensitiveness as to being seen by Drummle” – portraying that Pip felt awkward and embarrassed that Drummle would see him differently for associating himself with a lower-class person such as Joe. The encounter becomes increasingly tenser between the two classes when Joe calls Pip ‘” sir” and the strain on their once friendship is appearing strained. When Joe leaves early, he leaves Pip with “Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one mans a blacksmith, and ones a whitesmith, and ones a common blacksmith and ones a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come”. This quote suggests to readers that Joe is acknowledging that he is a common blacksmith and Pip is a goldsmith, and the differences in their social class have now bought about the end of their friendship and their separation.
To conclude, there are numerous truth claims used by the novels Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Middlemarch by George Eliot. These truth claims were true in some retro respects but further proved to be false in others. The truth claims of marriage, gender and class were all used by both novels in their best efforts to represent reality. As both novels were written in the Victorian time period, the general consensus on marriage was that the wife had towed for financial and social security and follow the ‘angel of the house role’ in being the best wife to her husband. Middlemarch showcases the realities of how unhappy women were in this position as they were expected to live in a domesticated sphere whilst their husbands could do whatever they wanted. Great Expectations showcases the opposite as all of the women with the exception of Biddy, are fearless and disobedient and Dicken’s portrays in his novel the terrible consequences of women that act this way. Furthermore, the presentations of gender and class are also truth claims made in the early 19th century as women again, had zero rights. Class in both novels showcases how difficult life was for working class people and societies viewpoints on them. Both novels use these points to showcase truth claims that were made in society at the time the novels were written, and it is these points that help demonstrate Great Expectations and Middlemarch to be ‘realistic’.
Middlemarch: When The Rose Colored Glasses Shatter
Marriage — the act of uniting two beings under vows that uphold morals to honor, love and cherish for as long as both partners shall live — is undoubtedly one of the oldest traditions known to human existence. There may not be an era as exceptionally pro marriage as the Victorian period, as it was the societal norm to dictate marriage as the ultimate goal. However, the expectations of marriage seemed to perplex more free-thinking Victorians like the author George Eliot. Such notions are addressed in the novel Middlemarch, which examines a number of characters as they traverse through courtship and marriage relationships. Through the characters of Dorothea, Casaubon, Rosamond and Lydgate and their particular marriages, Eliot shows how people can be blinded by fantasies of an idealized relationship. And these fantasies render them woefully unprepared for the realities of a true marriage union when these rose-colored glasses are taken off.
The marriage between Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon is a prime example of such unrealistic expectations and disillusionment. It appears as though Dorothea has one great flaw: her excessive hopes and expectations. From the very beginning of the novel, she develops optimistic assumptions about married life. Rosamond Vincy too weaves fantasies about marriage to Tertius Lydgate upon his arrival in Middlemarch. She does not want to marry a man from Middlemarch: “she was tired of the faces and figures she had always been used to” (Eliot 106) so a seemingly well off newcomer such as Lydgate appeared to fit her grand idea of romance. And Dorothea views Causuabon as a “great soul” (Eliot 20), and soon the idea of marriage is “already planted in her mind” (Eliot 24). Both Dorothea and Rosamond begin idolizing their respective suiters, thus establishing their first misleading expectations of marriage.
Dorothea falls in love with the potential Casaubon brings for her own personal growth to fuel her ambition to change the world for the better: “the union which attracted her was one that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance, and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path” (Eliot 22). She would finally be able to rise above the restrictions imposed on her as a young woman in a Victorian society. However, with a marriage so dispassionate and ultimately broken, tis aspiration never comes to fruition. In parallel, Lydgate maintains his own fantasies about marriage, hoping for one in which “his wife would have that feminine radiance…beauty which by its very nature was virtuous, being moulded only for pure and delicate joys” (Eliot 183). Upon meeting Rosamond, he remarks that she is “grace itself…she is perfectly lovely and accomplished. That is what a woman ought to be: she ought to produce the effect of exquisite music” (Eliot 103). And thus, Lydgate’s perception of what a woman should be leaves him terribly unprepared for his marriage to a woman particularly like Rosamond, who proves to be quite the opposite of “exquisite music.”
Like Lydgate’s unpreparedness in a marriage with Rosamond, once married, Dorothea strives to help Causabon in his affairs, but in truth he desires a wife that will not get involved with his work but more so take care of domestic affairs. Dorothea soon realizes that her marriage is not as fulfilling — both intellectually and emotionally — as she thought it would be. Almost similarly to Dorothea’s initial fascination with Casaubon, when Lydgate meets Rosamond he is impressed by her charms, talents, and beauty and thus indulges in his own fantasy about Rosamond being everything “a woman ought to be.” He is “completely mastered by the outrush of tenderness at the sudden belief that this sweet young creature depended on him for her joy” (Eliot 189). With time, however, both Rosamond and Lydgate soon realize that they have deceived themselves, which the narrator had previously foreshadowed: “Poor Lydgate! Poor Rosamond! Each lived in a world in which the other knew nothing” (Eliot 185).
The marriage between Rosamond and Lydgate is a clear image of the violent shattering of expectations, as both enter their union with shockingly false ideas of one another and ultimately with no inclination to compromise. Rosamond is devastated to discover that Lydgate does not see the necessity in living at the level of luxury she sees as obligatory. Eliot metaphorically compares their marriage to a “delicate crystal” to convey the fragility and marred beauty, of their union. Dorothea and Rosamond — and of course Lydgate and Casaubon — indeed face the difference between what they expect from marriage, and what they receive. However, Dorothea learns from this eye-opening experience and brings her newfound knowledge when she marries Will Ladislaw after Casaubon’s death. She finally gains autonomy, and Rosamond, it seems, will continue to learn the art of compromise for the remainder of her life.
Dorothea and Rosamond are not content with the normal ways of Middlemarch, and the two women seek ways to escape what they discern as their society’s mediocrity. Dorothea learns to save herself through compromise, and her perseverance comes from her own will to do so. And thus Eliot reveals a significant theme within the novel: compromise, which is a vital part of marriage. The reality of married life consists of expectations, disappointments, and understandings. And ultimately one cannot have a successful marriage without reaching the final, almost ego sacrificing step: compromise.
The Importance of Form in Relation to the Historical Content in Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, and Middlemarch
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Great Expectations by Charles Dicken’s and Middlemarch by George Eliot simultaneously display the notion that the form is one of the ways it can be understood in relation to the specific historical context from which it emerges. Additionally, they similarly have been shaped by the material conditions of production and reception set in the Victorian Era through social class and conditions. Although Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a gothic novel, it relates to Great Expectations in its love major conflicts with love, the imperivness of social class and the role of women. Middlemarch by George Eliot also represents the desperation for majority of women to wed into wealth and financial and social security due to the material conditions of the 18th century. In this essay, I will be discussing the debate as to whether the form of the novel can only ever be fully understood from its historical context and how material conditions have shaped Great Expectations, Middlemarch and Wuthering Heights to highlight social class as they have. With all three novels based in the Victorian Era, they also all come head on with the Industrial Revolution which additionally shapes the novel, as there was an increase in the production of better working conditions, higher wages and shorter working days. It overall bought substantial social changes which then shaped Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations and Middlemarch to have the high themes of society and class.
Charles Dickens was born in 1812 and primarily lived in poverty for the majority of his childhood. His father, incompetent and reckless with his finances, was sent to debtors’ prison when Dickens was only twelve years old. It is argued that Dicken’s life is reflected on his protagonist Pip in Great Expectations as they had a similar upbringing and found financial success in London at a relatively young age. Historically, the 19th century bought about substantial change for Britain. Great Expectations was set towards the end of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which was a time period that provided substantial technological improvements. It is clear throughout the duration of the novel that social class is a prime theme in Dicken’s Great Expectations. In addition to this, Dicken’s makes it clear to readers his own person distain towards the Upper-Class, most likely due to his similar past experiences being raised in a working-class family. He showcases a wide variety of characters to showcase the historical context behind Victorian England whilst simultaneously portraying the large divide between working class and upper class. As the novel begins, Dicken’s portrays to us Pip’s infatuation with Estella, and his desires of becoming the ultimate gentleman. Being a gentleman during this era ensued of a man being well groomed, well-spoken and well looked upon within society. Pip grows throughout the course of the novel and becoming the ultimate gentleman in this era meant either being born amongst ‘gentlemen’ or being born into the upper-class wealth. As Pip is an orphan and lives with his sister and her husband, Joe, Dicken’s indicates to readers that due to the way society worked at the time the novel was set, it would be most likely and more realistic that Pip would be stuck as working class for the rest of the novel. This makes Pip’s sudden and ironic inheritance by Magwitch becoming his mysterious benefactor a shock to the audience as the beginning of the novel implies that if you are born into a certain class, you were most likely to stay in that class for the rest of your life or in the very best case, become a gentlemen. Estella, as Pip’s love interest, initially looks down on Pip for his social status and looks down towards lower working class as a whole. Estella, being upper-class, made rude and snarky remarks towards Pip when they are initially introduced to each other. Being raised by the heartbroken Mrs Havisham, it comes to no surprise to readers when she calls Pip “common boy” whilst picking at his social class. This upsets Pip as he critiques himself for his “common boots and course hands”, leading him to feel “humiliated, hurt, spurned, upset, and angry”. Due to Pip living within other lower working-class people for the majority of his life, it is clear that it comes as a shock to him to be treated this way by Estella and Mrs Havisham as he was never in much direct contact with the wealthy beforehand. Pip’s sudden financial inheritance leads him to go through many character changes through the course of the novel. When Pip begins to dress nicer, he becomes embarrassed by his small town and particularly of Joe who is now much lower than him socially. When Joe visits Pip in his London home in Chapter 27, Pip feels ashamed and embarrassed of Joe. Simultaneously, Joe even refers to his old friend as “sir”, showcasing how Dicken’s portrayed the upper class to be even something that ruined long-standing friendships. During his visit, Pip even goes as far to ironically judge the clothes that Joe is wearing as he makes a comedy of Joes “efforts to appear polished”. Pip can be described, “as Pip climbs the social ladder, he sinks lower on the human”, further reinforcing how a sudden change in material conditions has changed Pip’s character completely.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is another novel that demonstrates that has been shaped by the material conditions of its production and reception. Wuthering Heights’s form is not the only literary device that can only ever be fully understood in relation to its historical content as its characters and language do also. Heathcliff, one of the novels protagonists, represents how social class is an important factor within this novel. Similarly, to Pip in Dicken’s Great Expectations, Heathcliff is also born an orphan, which threw him into the worst social class societally possible. Having a lower social class meant similarly to Pip, he was not able to interest the woman of his dreams, Catherine, due to his social class not being adequate enough for her and not rich like the Linton’s were. In chapter of the novel, social power is clearly highlighted when Nelly Dean narrates Heathcliff’s story of the time himself and Catherine were caught trespassing the Linton’s property. She describes how Linton swiftly dismissed Heathcliff due to his social class and the way he was dressed ‘unfit’. Mrs Linton even dramatically “raises her hands in horror” as she shouts at him saying “A wicked boy, at all events” and “you frightful thing! Put him in the cellar, papa” and that Heathcliff was “quite unfit for a decent house” whilst additionally making comment of his language. Whereas Catherine was immediately welcomed as they familiarised themselves with their fellow upper-class neighbour. It was widely known that working class people in the Victorian era typically spoke much differently in comparison to upper class people, examples include the lack of pronunciations of the letter ‘G’ and lacking the posh accent that the upper class were known for. English author Nancy Mitford started an uproar within working class society when she released an essay named Noblesse Obliged. Her essay contained a glossary of terms of ‘U and Non-U English’ – an abbreviation for Upper Class and Non-Upper-Class English. Examples from Mitford’s essay included the difference between saying a person had a nice home. She explained in her glossary that an Upper Class would use the language “They’ve a very nice house” in comparison to a non-upper-class person likely saying “they have (got) a lovely home”. The differences in these languages explain why the Linton’s immediately dismissed Heathcliff and recognised his social economic status not just by what he was wearing, but the language he used as well. Terry Eagleton further argues that Heathcliff could possibly be a “purely atomised individual outside of the family and society of an opposing realm”. This passage portrays that the novel was predominantly shaped by the material conditions as social class is a theme repeated throughout. Not allowing Heathcliff to come into their home showcases that Dicken’s wants readers to believe the wealthy looked down upon those that were lower class, particularly as they mock the way he is dressed by calling him “frightening” – the use of hyperbole shows how far the upper-class went to mock those below them socially. Overall, Heathcliff’s treatments for a large portion of the novel showcases how Wuthering Heights is shaped by the material conditions of the Victorian period, as they look down on him for the appearance of his clothes and even the language he uses.
Mrs Havisham is a prime example of a bitter Upper-Class woman in the late 18th century. Charles Dicken’s has an interesting representation of her character as it leaves readers strongly disliking her whilst simultaneously feeling quite sorry for her due to the fact, she mourns her husband leaving her just as they were to get married. It is said that Mrs Havisham was wearing her wedding dress and putting on her second shoe when she heard of her future husband Compeyson, leaving her. Heartbroken, she returns home, still in her wedding dress, still wearing the one shoe, and dramatically setting all of the clocks in her house to be twenty minutes to nine, as that was the exact time, she learned of the heart breaking news. When Pip arrives at Mrs Havisham’s home in chapter 8, he describes it to be of “old brick, and dismal, and a great many iron bars to it”. When Pip introduces himself to Mrs Havisham for the first time, he describes her to be dressed in “rich materials” and described the bouquet of flowers to have had “no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes”. Similarly, to Wuthering Heights, Satis House has a gothic feel to it as it is described by Pip to be “old brick, and dismal” and that some of the windows had even been “walled up” giving it an eerie feeling of the unknown. However, one of the very first introductions of Mrs Havisham in the novel comes from Pip, where he says in Chapter 7: “I had heard Mrs Havisham up town”. Dickens portrays the stark knowing differences between Pip and a woman who is upper-class as he describes her to be “up town”, far away from the working-class village he was living in. He further goes on to describe her as the “immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house, who led a life of seclusion”. This portrays Dicken’s true representation of the upper class to him as he contrastingly describes her house to be “large” but still dismal” and “rich” but “grim” suggesting that although Mrs Havisham does have a large house and is financially thriving, her house is still considered to be dismal and although she is rich she is still a “grim” character. Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem that helped readers at that time understand where Mrs Havisham was coming from in her mean-spirited character. Duffy is known for taking on a first-person narrative to better understand where the character is coming from and helps them feel less misunderstood. In this case, Duffy writes a poem about Mrs Havisham named “Havisham”, a very angry and bitter, resentful tone is used throughout the majority of the poem, perhaps to imply how Mrs Havisham felt being left by her fiancé. The 4th line in the second stanza says “the slewed mirror, full-length, her, me, who did this” insinuating that she is trying to find someone to put the blame on her fiancé leaving her. Overall, Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is an interesting and sympathetic way to perceive why Dicken’s wrote her character to be as bitter as she is.
Middlemarch by George Eliot is a novel full of English antiquity. Whilst Middlemarch focuses on particular protagonists through the duration of the novel, it predominantly gives readers insight into how the community was during this time period. The subtitle of the novel is “A Study of Provincial Life”, foreshadowing the book will go into detail about community and social class. Similarly, to Wuthering Heights with the characters Heathcliff and Catherine, Middlemarch has protagonists Dorothea and Casaubon who portray the importance of marriage when it comes to rising in social ranks. Much similarly to the other novels discussed, once you were set into a social class through your upbringing and family, it is incredibly difficult to get out of it and up into steady wealth. As Dicken’s showcase how a sudden inheritance and becoming a gentleman can rise your social rank, George Eliot shows us how marriage was also a means to get women into better social positions. Marrying into wealth was strongly encouraged. The novel showcases how it is shaped by material conditions in Chapter 12 when Rosamond takes a liking to Lydgate as she fantasises over what a future would be like with him as she dreams of “impressing Lydgate’s high-ranking relatives” furthermore proving that she, like many women during this period, married for wealth and social status in majority of situations. Marriage is a substantial theme throughout the novel as it links to social class, many marriages take place throughout the novel. George Eliot portrays marriage in a realistic manner and showcases it exactly how it would have been during the Victorian Era. According to Bennet, “marriage is the only conceivable career”. Women did not have many opportunities during the Industrial Revolution as men subsequently did, meaning they had no other choice but to marry into financial security and live their lives and wives and mothers. Another marriage that failed was the marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond, it is clear through the novel that Rosamond strictly marries Lydgate for a higher social ranking as when times became financially tough, Rosamond withdraws herself and becomes more bitter towards Lydgate. This further portrays that although they may have married for love initially, under the surface, Rosamond was only after Lydgates prospects of giving her a higher ranking within society and financial stability. This is due to her cold behaviour once Lydgate starts to become financially unstable. Overall, Middlemarch is shaped by the material conditions of the Victorian period as Eliot showcased the realities behind marriage. Due to the Industrial Revolution providing more steady careers for men and hardly any for women, women then had to turn into marrying for wealth if they were ever going to keep themselves afloat.
To conclude, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Middlemarch by George Eliot both portray the ideology of the importance of form one of the literary devices in relation to the historical content from which it emerges. However, all novels mentioned also use other literary devices to showcase this, such as language, characterisation and structure. Additionally, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations and Middlemarch are all showcased by their authors to demonstrate the material conditions of production and reception through the hardships of the Victorian Era and the stark differences between lower working class and upper classes. All novels contain a variety of characters from all backgrounds, such as orphaned children, those born into wealth from a young age and those who inherit wealth later on. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations similarly portray the large divide between the working class and the wealthy and also the life changing difference an inheritance can make to a working person’s life. Both Dicken’s and Bronte portray the ‘too good to be true’ notion as neither Pip or Heathcliff end up very happy with their sudden fortunes and it doesn’t end up solving all of their prior issues. Eliot’s Middlemarch is more focused on how form and other literary devices relate to the historical problems about gender and females place in society as opposed to wealth like Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights did. Overall, all 3 novels do showcase that form can be understood in relation to the historical context in which it emerges, but it is not the only factor, as language, structure and characterisation contribute also. All three novels have been clearly shaped by the material conditions of their times as social class play a large factor across them all.
Being a Woman in the Victorian Era
The status of women in the Victorian era is often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between the United Kingdom’s national power and wealth and what many, then and now, consider its appalling social conditions. During the era symbolized by the reign of British monarch Queen Victoria, women did not have suffrage (voting) rights, the right to sue, or the right to own property. At the same time, women participated in the paid workforce in increasing numbers following the Industrial Revolution. Feminist ideas spread among the educated female middle classes, discriminatory laws were repealed, and the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum in the last years of the Victorian Era.
In the Victorian Era women were seen, by the middle classes at least, as belonging to the domestic sphere, and this stereotype required them to provide their husbands with a clean home, food on the table and to raise their children. Women’s rights were extremely limited in this era, losing ownership of their wages, all of their physical property, excluding land property, and all other cash they generated once married. When a Victorian man and woman married, the rights of the woman were legally given over to her spouse. Under the law the married couple became one entity where the husband would represent this entity, placing him in control of all property, earnings and money. In addition to losing money and material goods to their husbands, Victorian wives became property to their husbands, giving them rights to what their bodies produced; children, sex and domestic labour.
Rights and privileges of Victorian women were limited, and both single and married women had hardships and disadvantages they had to live with. Victorian women had disadvantages both financially and sexually, enduring inequalities within their marriages and social statuses, distinct differences in men and women’s rights took place during this Era. Men were provided with more stability, financial status and power over their homes and women. Marriages for Victorian women became contracts, one which was extremely difficult if not impossible to get out of during the Victorian era. Women’s rights groups fought for equality and over time made strides to change rights and privileges, however, many Victorian women endured their husbands control, cruelty targeted against their wives; including sexual violence, verbal abuse and economic deprivation and were given no way out. While husbands participated in affairs with other women wives endured infidelity as they had no rights to divorce on these grounds and their divorce was considered to be a social taboo.
By the Victorian era, the concept of “pater familias”, meaning the husband as head of the household and moral leader of his family, was firmly entrenched in British culture. A wife’s proper role was to love, honour and obey her husband, as her marriage vows stated. A wife’s place in the family hierarchy was secondary to her husband, but far from being considered unimportant, a wife’s duties to tend to her husband and properly raise her children were considered crucial cornerstones of social stability by the Victorians. Women seen as falling short of society’s expectations were believed to be deserving of harsh criticism.
Representations of ideal wives were abundant in Victorian culture, providing women with their role models. The Victorian ideal of the tirelessly patient, sacrificing wife is depicted in The Angel in the House, a popular poem by Coventry Patmore, published in 1854.
The poem became such a touchstone of British culture that in a lecture to the Women’s Service League in 1942, Virginia Woolf said “killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”
Working-class women often had occupations to make ends meet, and to ensure family income in the event that a husband became sick, injured, or died. There was no workers’ compensation until late in the Victorian era, and a husband too ill or injured to work often meant an inability to pay the rent and a stay at the dreaded Victorian workhouse.
Throughout the Victorian era, some women were employed in heavy industry such as coal mines and the steel industry. Although they were employed in fewer numbers as the Victorian era continued and employment laws changed, they could still be found in certain roles. Before the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, women (and children) worked underground as “hurriers” who carted tubs of coal up through the narrow mine shafts. Women also traditionally did “all the chief tasks in agriculture” in all counties of England, as a government inquiry found in 1843. By the late 1860s, agricultural work was not paying well, and women turned to industrial employment.
In areas with industrial factories, women could find employment on assembly lines for items ranging from locks to canned food. Industrial laundry services employed many women. Women were also commonly employed in the textile mills that sprang up during the industrial revolution in such cities as Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham. Working for a wage was often done from the home in London, although many women worked as “hawkers” or street vendors, who sold such things as watercress, lavender, flowers or herbs that they would collect at the fruit and vegetable market. Many working-class women worked as washerwomen, taking in laundry for a fee. Spinning and winding wool, silk, and other types of piecework were a common way of earning income by working from home, but wages were very low, and hours were long; often 14 hours per day were needed to earn enough to survive. Furniture-assembling and -finishing were common piecework jobs in working-class households in London that paid relatively well. The lowest-paying jobs available to working-class London women were matchbox-making, and sorting rags in a rag factory, where flea- and lice-ridden rags were sorted to be pulped for manufacturing paper. Needlework was the single largest paid occupation for women working from home, but the work paid little, and women often had to rent sewing machines that they could not afford to buy.
Women could not expect to be paid the same wage as a man for the same work, despite the fact that women were as likely as men to be married and supporting children. Child-minding was another necessary expense for many women working in factories. Pregnant women worked up until the day they gave birth and returned to work as soon as they were physically able. In 1891, a law was passed requiring women to take four weeks away from factory work after giving birth, but many women could not afford this unpaid leave, and the law was unenforceable.
As education for girls spread literacy to the working-classes during the mid- and late-Victorian era, some ambitious young women were able to find salaried jobs in new fields, such as salesgirls, cashiers, typists and secretaries. Work as a domestic, such as a maid or cook, was common, but there was great competition for employment in the more respectable, and higher-paying, households. Private registries were established to control the employment of the better-qualified domestic servants.
Throughout the Victorian era, respectable employment for women from solidly middle-class families was largely restricted to work as a school teacher or governess. Once telephone use became widespread, work as a telephone operator became a respectable job for middle-class women needing employment.
Three medical professions were opened to women in the 19th century: nursing, midwifery, and doctoring. However, it was only in nursing, the one most subject to the supervision and authority of male doctors, that women were widely accepted. Victorians thought the doctor’s profession characteristically belonged only to the male sex and a woman should not intrude upon this area but stay with the conventions the will of God has assigned to her. In conclusion, Englishmen would not have woman surgeons or physicians; they confined them to their role as nurses. Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was an important figure in renewing the traditional image of the nurse as the self-sacrificing, ministering angel—the ‘Lady with the lamp’, spreading comfort as she passed among the wounded. She succeeded in modernising the nursing profession, promoting training for women and teaching them courage, confidence and self-assertion.
Literature in Victorian Era
While in the preceding Romantic period poetry had been the dominant genre, it was the novel that was most important in theVictorian period. Charles Dickens (1812–1870) dominated the first part of Victoria’s reign: his first novel, Pickwick Papers, was published in 1836, and his last Our Mutual Friend between 1864–5. William Thackeray’s (1811–1863) most famous work Vanity Fair appeared in 1848, and the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte (1816–55), Emily (1818–48) and Anne (1820–49), also published significant works in the 1840s. A major later novel was George Eliot’s (1819–80) Middlemarch (1872), while the major novelist of the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign was Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), whose first novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, appeared in 1872 and his last, Jude the Obscure, in 1895.
Robert Browning (1812–89) and Alfred Tennyson (1809–92) were Victorian England’s most famous poets, though more recent taste has tended to prefer the poetry of Thomas Hardy, who, though he wrote poetry throughout his life, did not publish a collection until 1898, as well as that of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89), whose poetry was published posthumously in 1918.Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) is also considered an important literary figure of the period, especially his poems and critical writings. Early poetry of W. B. Yeats was also published in Victoria’s reign.
With regard to the theatre it was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century that any significant works were produced. This began with Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, from the 1870s, various plays of George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) in the 1890s, and Oscar Wilde’s (1854–1900) The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895.
Victorian novels tend to be idealised portraits of difficult lives in which hard work, perseverance, love and luck win out in the end; virtue would be rewarded and wrongdoers are suitably punished. They tended to be of an improving nature with a central moral lesson at heart. While this formula was the basis for much of earlier Victorian fiction, the situation became more complex as the century progressed. There was a struggle to conquer the flaws of human beings with great virtues. It was a principle that those who struggle to attain morality would most probably achieve positive results in the end if not tortured by natural circumstances or evil vices.
During this era, scientific and industrial developments increased, but the problems get worse. The class division was still continuing and the middle class and its values were rising. Unlike the optimistic view in the early Victorian period in which people believed that the bad effects of industrialism would be solved; in the late Victorian period, people became to realize that it was the common people who endured the aftermath of the industrial revolution, while the upper-class enjoyed the financial rewards. The novels portrayed the life among the poor and helped to develop the social consciousness of the middle-class readers. People realized that men, women and children, who worked in mines and factories, were the victims of the system. The writers were not satisfied with their times and they had a critical view towards the society. Among the issues they represented in their fiction were: the industrial revolution, technological improvements, class conflict, the debate between religion and science, and the woman question.
Charles Dickens is the most famous Victorian novelist. Extraordinarily popular in his day with his characters taking on a life of their own beyond the page, Dickens is still one of the most popular and read authors of that time period. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836), written when he was twenty-five, was an overnight success, and all his subsequent works sold extremely well. The comedy of his first novel has a satirical edge and this pervades his writing. Dickens worked diligently and prolifically to produce the entertaining writing that the public wanted, but also to offer commentary on social problems and the plight of the poor and oppressed. His most important works include Oliver Twist (1837–1838), Dombey and Son (1846–1848), Bleak House (1852–1853), Great Expectations (1860–1861), Little Dorrit (1855–1857), Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865) The Old Curiosity Shop, and A Christmas Carol (1843). There is a gradual trend in his fiction towards darker themes which mirrors a tendency in much of the writing of the 19th century.
For example, the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities reflects the dilemma and the conflict of the Victorian period in terms of different social classes:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”
While for some this period was a symbol of wealth and richness for some (the working class) it was the exact opposite.
William Thackeray was Dickens’ great rival in the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign. With a similar style but a slightly more detached, acerbic and barbed satirical view of his characters, he also tended to depict a more middle class society than Dickens did. He is best known for his novel Vanity Fair (1848), subtitled A Novel without a Hero, which is an example of a form popular in Victorian literature: an historical novel in which recent history is depicted.
Brontë Sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë produced notable works of the period, although these were not immediately appreciated by Victorian critics. Wuthering Heights (1847), Emily’s only work, is an example of Gothic Romanticism from a woman’s point of view, which examines class, myth, and gender. Jane Eyre (1847), by her sister Charlotte, is another major nineteenth century novel that has gothic themes. Anne’s second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), written in realistic rather than romantic style, is mainly considered to be the first sustained feminist novel.
Later in this period George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), published The Mill on the Floss in 1860, and in 1872 her most famous work Middlemarch. Like the Brontës she published under a masculine pseudonym.
Science, philosophy and discovery
The Victorian era was an important time for the development of science and the Victorians had a mission to describe and classify the entire natural world. Much of this writing does not rise to the level of being regarded as literature but one book in particular, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, remains famous. The theory of evolution contained within the work shook many of the ideas the Victorians had about themselves and their place in the world. Although it took a long time to be widely accepted, it would dramatically change subsequent thought and literature.
Other important non-fiction works of the time are the philosophical writings of John Stuart Mill covering logic, economics, liberty and utilitarianism, and the large and influential histories of Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution, A History permeating political thought at the time with Friedrich Engels writing his Condition of the Working Classes in England and William Morris writing the early socialist utopian novel News from Nowhere. One other important and monumental work begun in this era was the Oxford English Dictionary which would eventually become the most important historical dictionary of the English language.
Realism Literature Under the Lens of Artistic Movements
What is Realism Literature?
The realist literary movement came about in the latter half of the 19th century as a reaction to the ideals of the Romantic period which preceded it. While the works of Romantic authors were characterized by an emphasis on imagination and emotion, the Realists were primarily concerned with depicting life as a portrayal of reality —unpredictable, ambiguous and complex. Realist writing was characterized by its attentiveness to detail and its focus on character (rather than plot) development. What is more, the founding authors of the Realist literary movement, among them George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, were lauded for promoting a new form and style of writing; their work was laden with ‘frame narratives’ (stories contained within stories), and complex psychological dilemmas as manifested in the changing perceptions of happiness, inner conflicts and constant struggles with self-image and identity of notable characters such as Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and Anna Karenina in Leo Tolstoy’s widely acclaimed book entitled Anna Karenina.
Realist writers sought to be as objective as possible in their writing simply to promote their goal of presenting reality in its crude form. Although writers of previous periods often told their stories through omniscient narrators, the narrators of realist works tended to be unreliable and often misinformed—a deliberate effort on the part of realist writers to show that nothing is known for certain and facts are constantly changing, becoming multi-dimensional in nature. Realist authors, however, were remarkably generous when it came to providing detail; their writings were marked by elaborate descriptions and in-depth observations, many of which had little bearing on the progression of the novel’s plot. For this reason, some would call realist writing “dull” or “depressing” in comparison to that of the preceding period—yet it is the very use of such details that allowed authors of the period to stay true to their ultimate cause which was to portray life, in all its drabness or excitement, as realistically as possible with only the pen in their hands.
Conditions within Society
The 19th century proved to be an era of transition for Europe in various regards, and realist literature reflected this. With the doubling of the continent’s population during the 1800s, mass exoduses began to occur in various nations as large numbers of previously self-sustaining rural residents opted to migrate to cities and metropolitan areas in search of opportunities and ultimately, a better quality of life. These large-scale movements also hastened the pace of industrialization, aided in part by the improvement of transportation technologies. Railroads became essential to the lives of many, with realist author Leo Tolstoy conveying the significance of these railroads through multiple allusions to trains in his 1877 work Anna Karenina.
The increased mobility provided by these trains and other modes of transportation also resulted in a greater interconnectedness within European society as a whole. With people now able to travel freely and therefore associate with those of varying backgrounds, the formerly rigid class structure prevalent during previous centuries began to give way in favour of the emergence of a newly realized middle class, or, the bourgeoisie. Many realist authors demonstrated this shift in societal hierarchy through their novels’ focus, with the protagonists of their works not belonging to the aristocracy, but rather being common people, in common situations. At the forefront of this movement for inclusivity was father of the realism, Honoré de Balzac, whose most eminent work, La Comédie humaine was written with the intent of portraying “all aspects of society,” a trend continued by his successors.
Furthermore, not only were all aspects of society beginning to become increasingly considered, but similarly so were all aspects of the mind. Advances in the field of psychology were occurring simultaneously alongside the advances of the European people as a whole. Within the psychological community of the mid-1800s arose a greater appreciation for the degree of complexity of the mind, taking into account its various processes in relation to each other, and the collective impact of these processes on the human psyche. This proved central to the characterization of protagonists within realist works, as they were presented as multidimensional characters that, like their creators and those around them in the real world, existed not merely within a good/bad dichotomy, but rather as complex human beings with intricate drives and ambitions.
Stendhal, the pen name of French author Marie-Henri Beyle, was considered one of the earliest and foremost important realist authors. He was especially well known for his detailed analysis of his characters’ psychology in his novels where he explored psychological and historical dimensions. He was one of the first authors to include extensive descriptions of character psychologies that included feelings, thoughts and inner monologues. Stendhal strived to create works that focused on interior characterization that drove external action. He wasn’t content with realism novels that only state the actions of the characters. Instead, Stendhal wanted to explain the motivation behind every action and to delve deeper into the minds of characters. As a result, he is considered the father of psychological realism.
One of Stendhal’s most famous psychological novels is Le Rouge et le noir. Set in France after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and during the restoration of the monarchy, the novel tells the story of Julien Sorel’s, the main character’s, life in a monarchic society with rigid social class implications. Split into three books, the plot follows Julien as he attempts to climb the social ladder. Having been brought up as the son of the carpenter and identifying as a romanticist, Julien doesn’t let his modest upbringing deter him from rising socially through talent and hard work. He eventually becomes a private secretary of the prominent de la Mole family. However, despite moving among high society, the family and their social circles snub Julien for being a commoner. After being betrayed both romantically and socially, Julien realizes the materialistic society of the Bourbon Restoration: French society cannot accept a low-born man of superior intellect and sensibility simply because he possesses neither material wealth nor social connections.
By setting the novel during the Bourbon Restoration, Stendhal is able to weave themes of idealistic Republicanism and realistic politics of counter-revolutionary conspiracies. Throughout the novel, he questions the sincerity of those who are aware of having to play a role to gain social approval and the hypocrisy they display. Unlike realism novels before that had an omniscient narrator, Le Rouge et le noir was one of the first novels to feature subjective realism which was a restricted point of view to that of the protagonist at only the given moment. This added to the novel as it provided a conscience to justify or explain and action or feeling. This technique can be found in numerous modern novels.
Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)
Honore de Balzac was a French journalist, author, playwright, literary critic, art critic, essayist and printer. He has influenced novelists such as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and Gustave Flaubert. Balzac paid specific attention to detail and unfiltered representation of society and is often considered as one of the founders of realism in Europe. He often incorporated elements of his own life experiences, creating La Comédie humaine, a multi-volume collection of novellas that depicted French society during the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy. It was his unbiased and straight-forward depiction of the private lives of his characters that classified him as a realist author.
The collection had many sections that covered numerous themes such as money, power, social success, family and France after the Revolution. One section of the collection, Scènes de la ve Parisienne, featured one of Balzac’s most influential works: Le Père Goriot. Set in Paris after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and after the monarchy was restored back to the throne, the novel depicts the growing tension between the aristocracy who existed during King Louis XVIII’s reign and the Bourgeoisie who were the products of the Industrial Revolution. It follows the life of law student Eugène de Rastignac who wants to move up in society. He lives in a boarding house with an elderly retired man named Jean-Joachim Goriot who is often ridiculed by the other tenants because he has bankrupted himself to support his two emerging upper-class daughters. Rastignac has difficulty fitting in with the aristocrats but is able to enlist the help of his cousin Madame de Beauséant. He meets Delphine, one of Goriot’s daughters, and is encouraged by Goriot to pursue her despite Delphine being married. Eventually Goriot is overcome with grief at his own impotence after he learns the true nature of his daughters and dies alone. Le Père Goriot focuses on social stratification, corruption and family relations. Balzac tries to convey the process of moral degradation in order to obtain power and to redefine the definition of family as a means to a financial end. He also states obligations of the older generations to the younger generations through the form of deprivation and sacrifice.
The novel’s use of meticulous and abundant detail was the first time such detail was ever found in literature; this technique distinguished Balzac’s work in the literacy realm. Today, realism literature is known for its elaborate descriptions and serious characters that try to accurately depict life as it was.
George Eliot (1819-1880)
George Eliot, the pen name for Mary Anne Evans, was an English novelist, journalist and translator. She was one of the most prominent and influential realism authors in the Victorian Era. Forced to adopt a male pen name in a male-dominated society, Eliot was able to escape the stereotype of women only being able to write romances. She provided the female perspective of issues of her time that were highlighted in her novels.
An example of this is her novel Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life that illustrated many of the problems within society. Middlemarch is considered Eliot’s masterpiece as a product of past successes and is lauded by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels written for grow-up people.” It involves multiple plots told from the perspectives of a large cast of characters and deals with their delusions in a society with underlying themes of gender status, the true nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, hypocrisy, political reform and education. Through the voices of said characters, Eliot is able to discuss then-current events such as the Great Reform Bill, the expansion of railways, the death of King George IV, and the state of contemporary medical science.
However, what made Middlemarch different from the other realism novels was its relatively happy ending. Eliot believed in the morality of humankind and used this belief as a framework for the merciful and compassionate interactions among her characters. The characters had opportunities to make good decisions and used mentoring figures to provide guidance during rough situations. While those who made the “right” decision were awarded, those who made selfish or vain decisions were punished with disappointment, disaster or even death.
Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
The son of a family of doctors, Flaubert was a Frenchman who grew to become one of the most acclaimed writers of realist literature in all of Europe. He travelled frequently during his career, often drawing from events such as the Revolutions of 1848 to shape the underlying ideas of his writing. Flaubert was known for candidly remarking to his fellow novelist George Sand that “the age of politics was over”, perhaps claiming that the Bourgeoisie-dominated state would soon fall apart. Interestingly enough, he himself was a member of the bourgeoisie, yet his work tended to empathize with the people representing different lower classes.
Flaubert composed multiple novels before his death in 1880, but Madame Bovary, published in 1856, remains his most acclaimed piece. The novel features Emma Bovary, a young doctor’s wife who is consumed by her desire to lead a luxurious upper-class life. Through Emma, Flaubert juxtaposes romanticism with realism, emphasizing how romantic visions of life rarely come to fruition. In many ways, Flaubert’s depiction of Emma’s unsuccessful pursuit of happiness is a testament to the predicament of women in 19th century Europe. While male characters in the novel leave her small village in France to pursue their career goals, Emma is confined to her role as a subservient housewife. What is more, when her experiences as a wife and mother do not live up to her expectations, she has to confront the crude reality that she would have no choice but to live a drab, provincial life. Flaubert brings out countless realist ideas through his work: Emma’s accumulation of massive debts, for example, illustrates the idea that actions have consequences. Her fruitless affairs destroy her unrealistic ideas about love and her hopes for a more exciting life. By the end of the novel, Emma has committed suicide, her husband has died of depression, and her orphaned daughter is shipped away to work in a cotton mill; all of these events clearly manifest Flaubert’s view of the harsh realities of life.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a Russian novelist, playwright and essayist. As the son of an aristocrat, he received a proper education; he was influenced by one of his tutors who beat him to oppose violence for the rest of his life. Known for his moralistic views, he identified as being a moral thinker and social reformer. As a realism author, he believed that the aristocracy were a burden on the working class and that the only solution to this was an anarchical society.
War and Peace is an epic that depicts the story of Russian Society during the Napoleonic wars. It thoroughly explains in articulate detail the impact of the French invasion and Napoleonic influence on Tsarist Russian society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. It includes over 500 characters with around 160 real persons. In relation to realism, Tolstoy artfully points out the recording of history as a sophism – much like the Achilles and the tortoise analogy. If one were to arbitrarily examine small elements of motion, it would seem that Achilles would never pass the tortoise. The idea of continuous motion must be incorporated to reach the true solution. Similarly, history is continuous, arising as it does from innumerable human wills. However, it is examined as arbitrarily as the ancients would motion in two ways. The first, taking an arbitrarily selected series of continuous events and then proceeding to examine it as apart from others. The second is to consider the actions of one man (such as a king) as equivalent to the sum of many individual wills. Tolstoy points out the ultimately false nature of history, as it is both continuous and the result of millions of individual chains of cause and effect too small to be individually examined. This question of history is captured perfectly by the quote: “Man in connection with the general life of humanity appears subject to laws which determine that life. But the same man apart from that connection appears to be free. How should the past life of nations and of humanity be regarded—as the result of the free, or as the result of the constrained, activity of man? That is a question for history.” (Epilogue 2, Ch. VIII)
Anna Karenina, another book by Tolstoy, describes the tragedy of married aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina as a result of her affair with the affluent Count Vronsky. Vronsky is willing to marry her if she would agree to leave her husband Karenina, a government official, but she is vulnerable to the pressures of Russian social norms, her own insecurities and Karenin’s indecision. Anna is harshly shunned, becoming further isolated and anxious. As Vronsky pursues his social life, she grows increasingly possessive and paranoid about his “imagined” infidelity. Anna pleas for forgiveness, though to no avail, ultimately resulting in her committing suicide by throwing herself under a moving train. Naturally arising from the story, whether or not explicitly, are the themes of hypocrisy, jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, marriage, society, progress, desire, passion, contrast between agrarian and city lifestyles. Themes that all relate to the lives of real people every day. One of the most haunting quotes in this book, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” captures the theme of family, specifically broken families.
Pier-Glass and World Order in George Eliot’s Middlemarch
Eliot and the Pier-Glass
George Eliot introduces a fascinating metaphor in Middlemarch in order to make the claim that the world does not have any inherent order; individual perspectives create different illusions of the world. The compelling central image of the pier-glass allows for different layers of Eliot’s metaphor to permeate throughout the section of text. At first read, the pier-glass seems to simply describe Eliot’s thoughts about Rosamond’s vanity and while valid, the metaphor goes beyond a single character on a page. Eliot transcends the need for the concept to work solely within the confines of the plot and instead makes a claim encompassing all of society. Furthermore, the phrasing of the passage permits the reader to truly think about the illusion Eliot’s perspective creates in the novel; is the novel a cohesive piece of literature by its own merit or merely a series of random scratches that happen to come together by the candlelight of her point of view?
Eliot opens up the passage by citing the pier-glass concept came from the mind of a philosopher. This statement immediately tells the readers that the metaphor will stem from a complex thought process and work within multiple dimensions. Eliot’s word choice further cements the notion of the complex metaphor by calling it a “pregnant little fact”: each word heavy with significance (Eliot 248). The word “pregnant” provokes a visceral, and most likely unconscious, reaction from the reader due to the inherent implications of the word. When the reader sees a concept described as “pregnant”, the pier-glass having a multi-faceted meaning becomes the natural conclusion. The word choice gives emphasis to the rest of the passage, gives the readers a hint for what to expect, and gives Eliot the foundation on which to delicately balance the layer of the pier-glass imagery.
Eliot’s choice to utilize the word “little” presents a stark contrast to her use of “pregnant”. Where “pregnant” implicated the intricacy of Eliot’s metaphor, the use of “little” forces the reader to shrink their expectations, and not get caught up in the grandiosity of Eliot’s words. Eliot’s phrasing suggests an undertone of mystery: the concept large but the audience small. In other words, the facets of the pier-glass do not garner the attention of the masses and so the masses remain oblivious to the magnitude of the pier-glass.
Still integral to Eliot’s argument, the last word she chooses to describe the pier-glass metaphor, “fact”, becomes a simpler word to grapple with. After using more ambiguous and symbolically weighted words, the use of such a simple ending word solidifies Eliot’s claim. If the reader had any doubt before finishing Eliot’s opening sentence, they do not after her assertion of her claim as fact. After tackling the symbolism behind “pregnant” and “little”, Eliot uses “fact” as a way to assure her audience that she has confidence in her claim and to not doubt the truth of the assertion.
The first section of Eliot’s assertion begins with the literal interaction of the reader with the pier-glass. The reader’s introduction to the glass sets up the premise of the individual perspective with the phrase “Your pier-glass”; Eliot’s use of the second tense forces the reader to claim the pier-glass as their own without any way to create distance (248). The ownership given to the reader makes an easy transition to the glass that “will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions” as an imperfect object they are now responsible for (248). Eliot’s wording goes back to the allusion made earlier on in the paper. The phrase is written with a strong undercurrent of double meaning. On the surface, Eliot simply states that a polished pier-glass will inevitably end up marked in some way but those same words take up a new meaning when put together with the statement she made about the entire metaphor having multiple layers. Once the reader digs underneath the literal words Eliot puts on the page, her objective becomes clear¬. The scratches on the glass represent the events that take place in the reader’s life––numerous, inconsequential, random.
Eliot takes the idea of a random series of life events one step further with the rest of the passage. If she left the metaphor with just the concept of life as a series of random events, her entire assertion would not come across as believable. The reader, no matter how learned, does not see his or her own life as random and inconsequential; Eliot must expand upon her claim in order to keep the reader invested. Eliot’s justification comes in the form of beautiful imagery as she states, “place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun” (248). Where the scratches on the glass represented the events of an individual’s life, the candle (or more accurately the flame) represents the individual. Eliot expresses her belief that only the individual can provide incite into the makings of his or her own life. Without someone to give perspective on his or her own life events, the rest of the world has no context as to what the events mean. For example, if the reader sees a photograph of two little girls picking flowers, all that can be said with certainty lies within the above description (two little girls picking flowers). The reader has no way of knowing if the girls are siblings or best friends. The reader has no way of knowing if the girls pick flowers to give to a loved one or to press them in between book pages. Eliot says that person’s life remains only as important as the memories the person has to go along with it.
Eliot’s belief cements by her use of the word “sun” to round out the assertion she makes. While the word may seem innocuous, as simply a different way to describe the light coming from the candle, the history behind the sun makes it impossible to allow the word to exist in the sentence without attempting to dissect further meaning. It is a universally known fact that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. The events of a person’s life make sense because of the person they center themselves around. A person does not make sense because of the events of the world.
The sun also has the added benefit, at least to Eliot, of having a connotation that leans toward self-centeredness. Eliot would not have chosen a word so heavy with implication if it did not have exactly the correct amount of implication that she wanted. Eliot takes great care when crafting the entirety of Middlemarch when it comes to word choice, imagery presented, metaphors explained, etc. and it seems doubtful that she would so easily ignore the variety of meanings and undertones that come into existence over a world like “sun”. By using the sun as the descriptor for the candle flame, Eliot compares individuals to the sun of which their own life events circle around––a person’s events revolve around them and only make sense because of them.
The undertone of egoism that presents itself becomes a fully fleshed-out reality when Eliot continues with “the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection”; Eliot uses firm and persuasive language to drive home the point that a person’s own self-involvement crafts the illusion of the world that they live in (248). Eliot once again speaks to the reader directly during the phrase but this time, instead of just forcing the reader to take ownership, she utilizes the word “only” as a way of telling the reader that no argument can be broached on the subject matter. Eliot allows no questions with the use of “only”: she stands firm in her decision that no other person could make sense of the reader’s world the way that the reader could. After taking her stance, Eliot begins to poke at the egoism of the individual when she describes a person’s life as a “flattering illusion” as if to say that no matter how good everything in the individual’s life may seem, it is only a product of the individual’s self-involvement. If individuals had the capability to look outside the bubble of their own lives, they would realize the inconsequentiality of their existences, a mere speck in the timeline of all of history. Most people, Eliot claims, do not have the ability to look outside themselves into the greater, less structured world but instead allow themselves to exist within the confines of their comfort zones where everything makes sense because it comes together from their own inherent ideas and biases but will undoubtedly not encompass a complete picture of the world.
Eliot’s claim becomes the infrastructure for a closer look into the novel as a whole. By asking the reader to grapple with such a broad and fascinating claim about society, she asks the reader to also grapple with the perplexing idea that perhaps her novel falls under the same constraints that the rest of the world does. After the opening paragraph of chapter twenty-seven in the novel, the reader faces an endless cycle of questions. If Eliot does not want the reader to think of her assertion as anything but true, then the novel also becomes a world in and of itself that Eliot created through her own perspective and inherent biases. Only the best writers have the ability to call into question the entirety of their own work based on a passage within the work itself. Eliot wants the reader suspicious of everything he or she encounters and while she paints a well-imagined and vivid atmosphere within Middlemarch, she wants the reader remain cognizant of the fact that the world she created cannot become the be-all and end-all definition of the world during that period of time, but instead a world that she saw and experienced through the eyes of a female during the 1800s.
Eliot remains one of the most influential and talented writers of her time. The ability to take the single image of a scratched mirror and turn it into a commentary on the pervasive egoism of society takes an immense amount of delicate crafting. She has the ability to carefully choose words that she knows will hold the most influence over the readers and put them together to create a beautiful, multi-layered metaphor over the course of a few sentences. The pier-glass, while seemingly innocuous, shapes the reader’s perspective of the content they read for the rest of the novel and shifts their own perspective about life in an egocentric society. The metaphor she uses takes the reader out of the novel entirely and has them questioning what about the novel stems from reality and what stems from Eliot’s own imagination, despite its genre classification as realistic fiction. While the content of the novel remains obviously important, Eliot’s main goal was to inspire the readers to think about, to interact with, and to analyze the inner workings of a society focused on its own individual interests both in and outside the context of a novel.
Compromise as a Happy Solution
In Chapter Twenty of Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke realizes that she has made a grave mistake in marriage: “…for that new real future which was replacing the imaginary drew its material from the endless minutaiae by which her view of Mr. Casaubon and her wifely relation, now that she was married to him, was gradually changing with the secret motion of a watch-hand from what it had been in her maiden dream” (178). In considering the future of her relationship, Dorothea’s shifting perspective is compared to the insidious motion of time measured on a watch. The “imaginary” hopes of Dorothea’s youth yield a more realistic mind-set as she gains life experience. Thus, selfhood is not fixed, but changes with time’s progression. Dorothea’s vulnerability to time is emphasized by the narrative’s focus on her inner life’ her attitudes rather than her actions. Judging Dorothea to be a mock-heroic figure whose ambitions are trounced by time’s inevitable passage, we might be tempted to read Middlemarch as a chronicle of defeat; this conclusion is unfair. In actuality, George Eliot’s creation of Dorothea Brooke is an attempt to create a viable epic hero. In grappling with the problem of time, it is evident that Dorothea achieves the only kind of heroism accessible to an intelligent human being who hopes to change the world: the heroism of happy compromise.
Learning to compromise and yet lead a fulfilling life is Dorothea’s biggest challenge. In the Finale of the novel, the narrator says: “For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it” (765-6). This apparently straightforward statement is more problematic than it seems. Dorothea can only really experience her life as an “inward being.” Her circumstances may “determine” her actions, but the way in which she understands, justifies and structures those actions is through her own perceptions. Because time passes and she gains experience, she is able to derive new meaning from the decisions she makes. The meaning she can create out of her life choices is ultimately all that matters.
An examination of her circumstances at the start of the novel further illuminate this theme. When we first meet Dorothea, she is nineteen years old, living under the roof of an uncle whom she regards with some “impatience”(4-5). If she wants to escape his roof, she requires a husband. Additionally, she has plans to improve the peasant cottages on the surrounding farmland. This desire to reform the world at large precludes the possibility of her being contented with a cloistered, spinster life. To carry out her plans, Dorothea needs power, capital and, to some extent, freedom. The only hope for these things lies in marriage. Furthermore, her acquaintance with men is limited and, considering the rigidities of the class system, her choice of a spouse is more nominal than actual. So, it is not surprising that Casaubon seems different and appealing when compared with the other men available to her, namely her primary suitor, the self-satisfied Chettham. Casaubon is quite a bit older than her, and he is an intellectual and scholar. Logically, he appears to be the best choice. Considering Dorothea’s lack of experience, can we blame her for marrying him? No, nor does it lessen the genuine goodness of her motivation. In fact, many less heroic women would probably accept Chettham, who is young, handsome, rich, and indulgent “an obvious”
Shortly after she marries Casaubon, Dorothea realizes she has made a bad choice. Interestingly, the implication is not that she should have accepted Chettham (as it might be for Jane Austen), but simply that she begins to change her mind about Casaubon. Most of the narrative’s emphasis is on Dorothea’s epiphany that she misperceived her husband’s true nature. This epiphany is related to her relationship to time as she undergoes a process of maturity whereby she adjusts her ideals to the reality that is set before her. Middlemarch suggests that we can no longer learn from traditional epic forms; heroes who are not affected by time cannot teach us anything. In the case of Dorothea, we can appreciate her changes as they relate directly to her growth over the passage of time. She can only learn the truth about Casaubon by living with him, through the gradually accumulating experience of the everyday. And were she to remain “changeless,” Dorothea would merely be foolish. The mistake she makes with Casaubon is didactic, as it necessitates a readjustment of her values and ways of seeing.
Howeover, what is heroic about Dorothea’s choice to marry Casaubon lies in its intention: she believes him to be a Milton-like figure, and marries him for this reason. The cognitive process whereby, over time, she discovers he is not the man she initially believed him to be is what makes her story compelling. As Dorothea gets to know Casaubon, so does the reader; in identifying with our heroine’s psychological coming-of-age, we learn a valuable lesson.
Eventually, Dorothea does succeed at deriving satisfaction from her knowledge of the world and her situation within it. Although she never builds the cottages, she does fall in love with Will Ladislaw and, in doing so, is able to finally make sense of her life experience. The narrator says: “she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining” (722). This moment is remarkable because it demonstrates Dorothea’s ability to accept who she is while concurrently acknowledging the importance of the “manifold wakings”and “palpitating life” of the outside world.
Sympathy with her fellow man is finally actualized not in the physical reality of cottages, but through a process of interiorization. Hence, specific actions prove less important for Dorothea than her overall ability to extract meaning from her life.
Dorothea goes on to renounce her fortune and marry Ladislaw. This decision involves compromise “giving up money that might have been used for social good” but it also makes Dorothea happy. When her sister objects that she will no longer have the means to build cottages, Dorothea replies: “I have never carried out any plan yet.” (750). Is she a failure because she never builds the cottages? Ruskin asserts that: “No great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution” (92). Dorothea reaches a “point of failure”: she will never be able to execute the plans for the cottages, but she herself is not a failure. Like Ruskin “great man,” she has a tendency to dream of things she cannot actually achieve the fundamental human problem. We will never do all that we dream because as human beings we are subject to time and, eventually, death. In coming to realize that she is susceptible to time’s passage, Dorothea “grows up.”And, if she desires happiness, she must readjust her perception of her own life, which no longer need be focused on her “plans.” In distinguishing between the individual and her achievements, Eliot reconfigures the terms of heroism. Middlemarch suggests that our inner reality must be superior to outer reality if we are to prevent ourselves from being crushed by time.
Nevertheless, failing to recognize that renouncing her inheritance is a necessary step in her quest for happiness, many critics disapprove of Dorothea’s second marriage. The codicil on Casaubon’s estate, which prevents her from keeping the money in the event of her marrying Ladislaw, is a symbolic as well as literal impediment to her spiritual freedom. She has to give up the money in order to rid herself of Casaubon’s yoke.
Dorothea is not utterly free from the pressures of her circumstances: nobody is. But by making the brave decision to renounce her fortune and marry Ladislaw, she feels free. Her transgressive attitude towards her society and her willingness to give up money for love is indicative of Dorothea’s success. With time, her outlook changes; she realizes that her own ideas have made life more difficult than it needs to be; her inner reality has hampered her outer reality. The compromises she makes at the end of the novel are the correct ones, because they are resultant of her decision to “satisfy (her) spirit” and thus marry Ladislaw. Dorothea learns that just as she can only experience the world through her own perceptions, she must hope to change the world in the same way.
In lieu of all this, why do so many readers find it difficult to accept Dorothea as heroic? The tendency to judge her based on her actions and not the meaning she construes from those actions creates countless problems of interpretation. Assessing her character is difficult, because the narrative coaxes us to deny her heroism by comparing Dorothea with obsolete models. Traditional heroes like St. Teresa and Antigone, are not represented, as she is, in relationship to time’s passage. Therefore, the astute reader must make sense of Dorothea through a complex critical process that involves deconstructing and then reconstructing forms of epic heroism.
But, of what use is an epic hero if she is perfect, if we cannot learn anything from her? How can we learn from a hero who has no inner life and is not subject to the pressures of time? Reading Antigone, for instance, will teach us more about the worldview of the Greeks than how to make decisions in our own lives. With Dorothea, Eliot creates a hero who functions successfully in the relativistic modern epoch. Dorothea’s psychological journey is marked by her discovery of self-significance and a re-evaluation of her circumstances. The narration of Middlemarch focuses on the formative the years in which she readjusts her values in order to achieve these aims, transcending the navet of her youth through the real life experience that time’s passage forces upon her. Compromise arises from the exercise of supposed free will in a world that is not actually free. But, ultimately, Dorothea is able to make sense of these compromises, imbuing her decisions with meaning and learning to lead what she perceives to be a fulfilling and happy life. What more can anyone hope for?
Illusions and Reality Collide in Middlemarch
In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, each character struggles to reconcile his desires with the realities of his life. This struggle often leads to an imaginative construction of reality in the “fellowship of illusion.” In this novel, the characters of Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate share a similar form of imagination, both constructing in their minds an ideal marriage vision. As these illusions are forced to surrender to reality, the characters must attempt to understand the desires that fueled their imagination in the first place, and must try to make peace with their situation. The narrator attempts to show through these two characters this common tendency of humanity to create what we desire as a tool for dealing with a disappointing and limited life.
Dorothea and Lydgate imagine strangely coincidental forms of the ideal marriage partner. Dorothea seeks an intellectually dominant man who will guide her to her higher purpose, while Lydgate seeks a submissive woman who will share in his difficulties and help him achieve his lofty goals. In many ways, it seems they were looking for each other. The common element in this ideal was someone with whom they could share their higher goals, but both ended up with someone quite different. Dorothea is described as looking for “the union?that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance, and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path” (23). Dorothea’s ideal of herself in a state of submission seems a strange contrast to her remarkable self-reliance. This, however, is a manifestation of her imagination. She imagines herself free from mortal constraints, and a marriage that is “trials” and “a state of higher duties” (35) is an exhibition of this freedom from the worldly. She is acting against the passion in her character, imagining that she does not need to fulfill these base desires, and wants a husband that is more like a father. We see later that this elevated illusion cannot be long sustained.
In the absence of this ideal person, Dorothea and Lydgate imagine the virtues they seek in the people at hand. With little experience, Dorothea concludes Casaubon to be “a man who could understand the higher inward life” (17) in what the narrator tells us is an assessment in which “She filled up all blanks with unmanifested perfections, interpreting him as she interpreted the works of Providence, and accounting for seeming discords by her deafness to the higher harmonies. And there are many blanks left in the weeks of courtship, which a loving faith fills with happy assurance” (66). Lydgate too at first believes Rosamand to be the ideal woman he has imagined, “an accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labors” (320). Each of them is filling in the blanks of their lives with another person, Dorothea envisioning that she’s found the father figure she has always been lacking, and Lydgate imagining he has found the companion to make his great labors easier.
Great desires are present in these two characters to fuel such leaps of the imagination, and sustain the illusions created. Each of them imagines an ideal companion in someone who is in fact very different from that ideal and gives no encouragement towards the illusion. Lydgate and Dorothea both create such tremendous illusions because they have such extensive goals. Lydgate, like Dorothea, imagines himself to be above everyday cares, with romance and financial concerns having little relevance to his plans. He is torn in the novel between the good things he can do and the everyday life, which interferes. In order to achieve great accomplishments, these characters must imagine freedom, and they do in their renunciations of village concerns. These illusions, however, end up trapping them. Lydgate believes that his flirtation means nothing to anyone, and finds himself entangled more completely than he would have been if he had acknowledged social norms. He forgets that every great scientist “had to walk the earth among neighbors who thought much more of his gait and garments than of anything which was to give him a title to everlasting fame” (133), and these threads of social pressure work their immense power to draw him into marriage. Both Lydgate and Dorothea find themselves governed by desire, though they believe they are immune, and it is the desire itself which creates this illusion of freedom. Once trapped in marriage, Lydgate spins illusions in an effort to gain some happiness out of a marriage that was not what he desired.
The illusions created by Dorothea and Lydgate in their attempts to find fulfillment end up harming them. Both are disappointed in their marriages, having let their imaginations trap them with people who don’t understand them and in fact work against their goals. Dorothea, after her marriage to Mr. Casaubon, is reduced to an incarnation of surrendered passion and desire, saying “I have no longings” (356). Lydgate finds that his delusions and ideas of femininity have gotten him into a situation he can’t handle, and sees himself doomed to “a future without affection” (592). The illusions these characters created also contribute to keeping their marriages unmanageable, by creating obstacles to understanding by a refusal to see their mates in their reality. The result for both these characters is a retreat of their dreams from an active fulfillment to a secret desire.
Lydgate is still further harmed by the illusions he has created. His renunciation of worldly concerns not only draws him into financial trouble, but tarnishes his reputation and hurts his practice. The financial trouble he accrues by imagining himself to be above such concerns leads him to accept money from Bulstrode that is perceived in Middlemarch as a bribe. His lofty treatment towards those people has also led to an animosity against him in Middlemarch, creating still more problems. The “petty medium of Middlemarch had been too strong for him” (170).
The narrator is quick to tell us, however, that imagination is not all bad. She tells us, instead, that it is a shared human experience necessary for survival. That, “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar” (177). Some illusion, she argues, is necessary to protect us from the overwhelming full reality of the world. The narrator also comments that it is impossible to know everything about another person in a short time, especially through formalized courtship, so some characteristics must be imagined in order for a relationship to progress. “Life could never have gone on at any period but for this liberal allowance of conclusion, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization” (17).
Imagination is also useful in this novel in that it provides the characters an opportunity for moral victory in getting past their illusions and understanding some of the real complications of the world. After Dorothea “had begun to see that she had been under a wild illusion” (193), she continues to be devoted to Mr. Casaubon, a man she had deceived herself about in marrying. This devotion is morally elevated above the devotion she exhibited from within her delusion. Dorothea realizes that her disappointment come from her own imagination, not his failings, and pledges to continue, as she promised, in her duty as a wife. In this way imagination offers Dorothea a chance to exhibit her high morality in a way that is in touch with reality, in contrast with her earlier delusional attempts to show herself free from passion through self-sacrifice.
The shared human experience of imagination as a buffer to reality pervades the plot of Middlemarch. Each character is led by vanity to imagine themselves independent of social pressures that in fact determine their lives. Dorothea and Lydgate both engage in extreme creations of the imagination out of a desire to fulfill goals that go beyond the everyday provincial life, and in an attempt to be happy in the situations in which they find themselves. They are not, however, looked down upon for this, but accepted as only more proof of this human need to fill in the blanks. As each character begins to “emerge from that stupidity” (193), they are given the opportunity to show their true moral standing through the way in which they deal with the realities with which they are confronted. Dorothea morally elevates herself in this post-imaginative situation, showing her ability to accept her duties. Lydgate is less satisfying, forcing himself into a perpetual compromise in which he maintains some of his illusion while completely sacrificing his goals and himself to the consequences. The temptation to imagine is inescapable in the world of Middlemarch, and, the narrator tells us, in the world at large. “We are all of us imaginative in some form or other, for images are the brood of desire” (324).
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.
A Sympathetic Happiness: Dorothea’s Moral Development in “Middlemarch”
Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining. – MiddlemarchA chief aim of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is to unloose the normally nebulous web of causality that shapes and guides all of humanity’s affairs. By explicating the full extent of humankind’s many varied experiences, the novel aspires to produce an understanding of our being that is both collective and long-lasting; it is a comprehensive “experiment in life” that endeavors towards the discovery of “enduring truths which would ennoble human existence.” Yet, what are these truths and how can they be achieved? Though the citizens of Middlemarch hail from different backgrounds and bear different fates, those who achieve happiness reach the same realization: they are part of a world and a struggle beyond their own immediate selves. In her path away from egoism and alienated suffering towards humanistic sympathy, Dorothea is a premiere example of Eliot’s theory of moral development.Though Dorothea is not a devout egoist like other people in Middlemarch, she nonetheless displays an undue faith in the power of her actions, a fault which is founded on the same separation from and ignorance of the greater world. This failing is characteristic of the first stage in Eliot’s theory of moral development, in which one’s self is the center of the world. The egoistic behavior that results from this stage is a sort of gambling in which one lays trust in their own powers to supersede the rest of the world’s forces. Such characters are unable to imagine the full consequences of their own actions. But unlike Casaubon, Bulstrode, or Fred Vincy, Dorothea does not suffer from an inability to comprehend her effect on others. When she expresses sadness at the “feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better,” it is clear these “better” things are not egoist works like ‘The Key to All Mythologies’ but good works for others (Eliot, p. 835). Neither is she mired in the selfish, false pretense that the world exists for her alone – as her plans to build better cottages on Sir James’ estate attests. Indeed, the narrator states lucidly that “she [is] open, ardent, and not in the least self-admiring” (Eliot, p. 10). Rather, Dorothea rests on the opposite end of the spectrum from egoism – “voluntary submission” (Eliot, p. 29). Yet, there exists a temptation to pronounce – as Casaubon does once in a fit of anger – that her religious beliefs are “vagaries”: unorthodox adventures of capricious fancy (Eliot, p. 421). Such subjective cynicism is not wholly accurate, but it elucidates the tragedy of Dorothea’s character; her idealism lacks a true grounding in the world and thus appears “childlike” and “stupid” (Eliot, p. 51). The fact that her pursuit is grounded in such naÃ¯vetÃ© causes her to share the same fate as any egoist – the fall into miserable solidarity. “All Dorothea’s passion was transfused through a mind struggling towards an ideal life,” unfortunately all “the radiance of her transfigured girlhood fell on the first object that came within its eye level”: Casaubon (Eliot, p. 45). Though “the union which attracted her was one that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance” she is forced to endure a harrowing pain on her way to “the grandest path” (Eliot, p. 29). Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon represents a period of suffering and alienation which distinguishes the second stage in Eliot’s theory of moral development. Though the marriage had appeared to be based on the best foundations – piety, devotion, and scholarly, theological pursuit – Dorothea is forced to recognize the cruelty of the world through the relationship. What is supposed to be a union of mutual contentment is actually causes remote suffering as “in the miserable light she s[ees] her own and her husband’s solitude” (Eliot, p. 426). Under Casaubon she is forced to “live more and more in a virtual tomb,” separated not only from the people and things which make her happy, but her own self as well (Eliot, p. 475). She “wait[s] on his glances with trembling, and shut[s] her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits, that she might be petty enough to please him” (Eliot, p. 426). Society has crushed a premiere idealist to pettiness and “like one who has lost his way and is weary, she sat and saw as in one glance all the paths of her young hope which she would never find again” (Eliot, p. 426). Even after Casaubon’s death, Dorothea is subjugated to alienation and torment because of his will, which stipulates that if she marries her true love, Will Ladislaw, she will lose all the property she has inherited. In a tender moment she intimates her suffering to Will, “Sorrow comes in so many ways. Two years ago I had no notion of that – I mean of the unexpected way in which trouble comes, and ties our hands, and makes us silent when we long to speak…I was very fond of doing as I liked, but I have almost given up” (Eliot, p. 545). Committed to a vow of sorrow, Dorothea appears to sway on the precipice of despair, yet the realization that she is a part of a greater world delivers her from sadness. Facing the most agonizing realization of her life, Dorothea confronts the conflict between her own individual desires and her devotion to help others, and grasps that the two are actually powerfully intertwined. In her subsequently redoubled efforts of compassion she enters the third and final stage of moral development: sympathy. She happens upon Rosamond and Will holding hands and, realizing that she may never be able to embrace the man she loves, “sob[s] herself to sleep on the cold floor” (Eliot, p. 787). Yet Dorothea forces “herself to dwell on every detail and its possible meaning. Was she alone in the scene? Was it her event only?” (Eliot, p. 787). She recognizes the answer is no; the incident is “bound up with another woman’s life” (Eliot, p. 787). “This vivid sympathetic experience return[s] to her now as a power” and she propels herself “towards the perfect Right,” to a new level of compassion, saying, “‘What should I do-how should I act now, this very day if I could clutch my own pain, and compel it to silence, and think of those three?'” (Eliot, p. 788). Dorothea realizes she is part of the greater world and that “the objects of her rescue [are] not to be sought out by her fancy” but, rather “chosen for her” (Eliot, p. 788). She resolves to return to Rosamond and urge her to remain faithful to her own marriage. Dorothea’s words are representative of a new knowledge of sympathy, a calling which is beyond her own desires or pain. Compassion is no longer a fulfillment of a higher purpose; it is a necessary responsibility to her life and others’. In this manner, Dorothea recognizes the unity of being throughout humanity and expresses an enduring, ennobling truth: a person’s life depends not only on the will of him or herself, but also on the empathy and good deeds of others. She finally lives up to the Prelude’s metaphor of her as a modern Saint Theresa; as the narrator writes, “The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” (Eliot, p. 838). And with her transcendence of egoism also comes the transcendence of suffering. Dorothea is able to cast off the shackles of Casaubon’s death, replacing her mourner’s garb with fresh clothes which are symbolic of her new life, and disregarding his biddings when she marries Will. Yet the achievement of this happiness, this deliverance from alienation, provides one final insight into Eliot’s philosophy because it is only received through another instance of compassion from Rosamond. By embracing the enduring truth of universal sympathy, one can expect reciprocation and-despite the uncertainty of life’s palpitations- attain a lasting, respectable happiness.Works CitedEliot, George. Middlemarch. London: Penguin Books, 2003.Paris, Bernard J. Experiments in Life: George Eliot’s Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965.
Marriage in Middlemarch: The Becoming Effect of Gaining Outward Perspective
George Eliot writes that a marriage is either a “gradual conquest or irremediable loss of union” (Eliot 832). In other words, marriage is a joint venture that has the goal of eventually culminating into the union of two separate persons. In Middlemarch, the “gradual” advancement towards union can be seen in the marriage of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy that only occurs when Mary forces Fred to become sufficiently developed as a person and chose a career that suits him. If either participant refuses to add to the functioning of the marriage, the marriage will become one of mutual enmity such as that of Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. In this novel, a happy marriage can be said to encompass a perspective that is broad enough to know what another feels and a willingness to work together. The couples who are still together and happy at the end of the novel are the success stories, such as Fred Vincy and Mary Garth and Ladislaw and Dorothea-all of whom have matured enough to thoroughly know both themselves and their partners. Through the novel’s couples, Eliot shows that marriage is an endeavor requiring a perspective that is inclusive of one’s partner and provides adequate knowledge of the self.To begin, Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon are a study in opposites as Dorothea loses grip of herself in order to more completely serve Casaubon while Casaubon acts with little regard to Dorothea’s own desires. Dorothea’s feelings for Casaubon are influenced by his supposed wisdom and her hopes that it will allow her to become more educated and have a higher purpose in life. She desires to be of constant usefulness to the weak and aging Casuabon by lending him her nineteen year old eyes for reading. But this preoccupation with Casaubon’s wishes lead Dorothea to make the unwise decision to completely lose herself with Casaubon. Instead of continuing to pursue her pet project of building more adequate housing for farm workers, Dorothea wishes to become merely Casaubon’s assistant. She in turn makes herself entirely dependent on him for her happiness and self-worth. When Casaubon chooses to exclude Dorothea, she is left with nothing to live for.After her marriage, Dorothea is frequently characterized as ruminating on her regrettable decision. She falls into a state of bewilderment and self-catechism asking herself, “Is he worth living for?” (426). Formerly, she had an individual drive to better the world through the construction of more suitable cottages. Dorothea needs the consent of a man to construct these cottages as men hold the money and the land. Ironically, if Dorothea had married Sir Chettam his willingness to cooperate with his partner may have made the cottage project a success. Casaubon is so adamant about his own pursuits that he neglects his union with Dorothea. Casaubon is “buried in books” (Eliot 447), and wishes to exclude Dorothea from his studies to the point where he neglects her on their honeymoon. Their marriage had a short courtship and thus a weak foundation for marriage. Eliot is disposed to think of short courtships as providing an unsteady foundation for the later marriage: “A fellow mortal with whose nature you are acquainted with 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” (Eliot 195). One needs time to learn the other before endeavoring to be united within them for a lifetime. The marriage of Casaubon and Dorothea is of course a failure. Instead of face to face mediation, their marriage is cemented through letters. Casaubon ruminates on how the acquisition of Dorothea, however prized, does not make him happy, “his surprise that though he had won a lovely and noble-hearted girl he had not won delight” (Eliot 85). Likewise, Dorothea is miserable and often ruminates on her unhappiness. Their meetings however short are strained because of their mutual displeasure. In their first attempt at conversation, the hostility is highly evident. Dorothea claims that Casaubon speaks to her “as if [she] were something [he] had to contend with” (Eliot 282). Despite that Dorothea addresses the animosity between them, Casaubon’s only reply is to ignore the obvious contention in his marriage in favor of again pursuing his own self-interests, saying that he has, “neither the leisure nor energy for this kind of debate” (Eliot 282). In this instance, “this kind of debate” would refer to Casaubon paying any mind to Dorothea’s stature or personal needs within the union. The author’s query of “but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” may be answered by the fact that Casaubon’s silence on marital subjects means he is less proactive in attempting to gain insight into his wife’s personality. The reader gets more of her perspective because her perspective is not stagnated and is less concentrated on herself alone. In the same way that Casaubon views Dorothy as an ornament, both Lydgate and Rosamond view each other as luxury items to acquire and not so much as people. Lydgate does not acknowledge that Rosamond is a person with personal whims. He views Rosamond as a plant, and by “marrying her, he could give her a much-needed transplantation” (Eliot 350). He takes it for granted that her only desire in life will be to facilitate her union with him. However, Rosamond is entirely concerned with how financial circumstances affect her and her alone. Lydgate’s lack of devotion to his own dreams leads him to eventually believe that he was a “failure: he had not done what he meant to do” (Eliot 835). Similarly, Rosamond views Lydgate not as a person but as more like an object. Rosamond wishes to meet and later marry Lydgate because he is a novelty she wishes to acquire, “She was tired of the faces and figures she had always been use to — the various irregular profiles and gaits and turns of phrase distinguishing those Middlemarch young men whom she had always known as boys” (Eliot 97). Their refusal to view one another as anything but objects forecasts their eventual inhumane treatment of one another. Rosamond and Lydgate’s poor opinions of one another create an environment in which Lydgate ridicules Rosamond, and she withdraws from him. Though very savvy and persuasive, Rosamond never manages to gain respect from her husband. She purges her feelings of her own negligible existence within her marriage to Dorothea, claiming, “Tertius is so angry and impatient if I say anything” (Eliot 796). Rosamond becomes practiced at “inwardly wrapping her soul in cold reserve” against any attempts at what she perceives as criticism (Eliot 792). Rosamond’s happiness deteriorates as she is not allowed to express herself without insult. Lydgate is also unable to express himself as others think, “him enviable to have so charming a wife” and he chooses to speak in superior terms to intentionally ridicule and perplex Rosamond (Eliot 835). Shortly before his death, Lydgate calls Rosamond, “his basil plant,” and when she asks for an explanation does not explain the reference’s origin but only says it flourishes “wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains” (Eliot 835). It is evident that Lydgate thinks of Rosamond as something that kills his intellectual advancement. Upon being remarried, Rosamond, “often spoke of her happiness as ‘a reward’-she did not say for what, but probably she meant that it was a reward for her patience with Tertius” (Eliot 835). Thus Lydgate’s lack of respect for Rosamond as a person causes her unhappiness.Through their insufficient courting and mutual resolution not to attempt to understand one another, Lydgate and Rosamond doom their marriage to perpetual unhappiness. Both refuse to re-analyze their situation and to attempt to find relate to one another. Lydgate does not view Rosamond as an intelligent creature and as this perspective is never adjusted she withdraws from him. Their failure to value one another’s strength leads to strife within the marriage. Lydgate and Rosamond fail to work together to solve the financial dilemma that causes a rift in their marriage. Their mutually negative views of each other cause Rosamond and Lydgate to become progressively unhappy. Unlike the marriage of Rosamond and Lydgate, Dorothea and Ladislaw’s marriage is based on a lengthy, well-developed courtship that has many trials. Their first meeting is one of complete misunderstanding of the meaning of each others’ speech. Dorothea meets Ladislaw whilst he is painting and comments that paintings are like a “Greek sentence…which means nothing to me” (Eliot 79). Upon hearing this statement, the infrequently wise Mr. Brooke exclaims, “Bless me, now, how different people are!” (Eliot 80). Mr. Brooke, having lived with his niece for several years, knows that this is a simple comment on Dorothea’s self. But her statement on her ignorance of art is taken by Ladislaw as “a covert judgment” and “was certain that she thought his sketch detestable” (Eliot 80). At present both Ladislaw and Dorothea have an infantile perspective of the world, discerning all events and others’ thoughts as strictly relating to themselves. They are married after a suitably long period of acquaintance and after both parties have been given adequate time to weigh the consequences of their relationship.An important part of what makes the marriage of Dorothea and Ladislaw contented is that Dorothea is allowed to broaden her perspective before marrying Ladislaw. She has always desired to do well for the world but she changes charitable causes from the ostentatious construction of cottages to becoming an unknown benefactor of the New Hospital. For Dorothea, at least, charity is something one does to make one’s self feel good, not so much for the sake of others. She first dwells on a portrait and then looks out of windows realizing the life that exists outside her self. After surprising Ladislaw and Rosamond, Dorothea has a night of woe but then, “began to live through yesterday morning deliberately again, forcing herself to dwell on every detail and its possible meaning” (Eliot 787). Dorothea is becoming a better reader of people and taking into account their perspectives, asking herself, “Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only?” (Eliot 787). Empirically, of course, the answer is no, she is not alone and this self-remonstration is evidence of Dorothea overcoming her former view that it was her world. She now acknowledges the desires of others and that events affect all involved. Her newly adjusted perspective allows Dorothea to acknowledge Ladislaw’s own motives and relationships outside of the connection they have. Dorothea and Ladislaw have a more successful marriage than others due to their coordinated efforts and acceptance of each others’ self prior to the marriage itself. Dorothea’s wish to aid humanity fails not because of Ladislaw’s hindering her, but rather because of the construction of patriarchal authority and Casaubon’s will which makes her choose between love and the funds to grant charitable wishes. While it is true that “there was always something better which she might have done,” her inefficiency to complete her dreams is not due to self-neglect but rather a product of this period which restricted women from endeavoring to have both a home life and dreams (Eliot 835). Ladislaw is concerned about Dorothea’s possible regret of their union. Ladislaw allows Dorothea to be self-oriented and has concerns of his own such as his writing. They both willingly lose status and wealth to move to a house in London. Their devotion to one another is unquestionable. Dorothea gives up the money and the becoming effect of outward propriety and assent of public opinion. Will Ladislaw makes public proclamations of his love for her, such as “No other woman exists by the side of her,” a sentiment that the by nature inwardly focused Dorothea (Eliot 778). He proves his love by depriving himself of his hometown for sake of her happiness and fulfillment of her own wants. A like capacity for willful deprivation is seen in the marriage of the Bulstrodes, a couple whose relationship is not chronicled but that demonstrates an uncanny ability to perceive and empathize with others. Both Bulstrodes appear to be consummate interpreters of public opinion and the effect of external forces. At the town meeting subsequent to Mr. Raffle’s death, Bulstrode “since the first mention of his name, had been going through a crisis of feeling” proof that he is highly aware of that he is in low estimate by others in the room (Eliot 726). Mrs. Bulstrode is not foretold of the negative opinion her husband now holds in the community and characterized as an “imperfectly taught woman; she learns of it by communicating with Mrs. Hackbutt (Eliot 749). Though her husband is marked by scandal and public opinion means to ostracize him, Mrs. Bulstode stands by him, uttering the simple words, “Look up, Nicholas,” to him when he is in the deepest trenches of despair. The scandal is too ugly for Mr. Bulstrode or Mrs. Bulstrode and both “shrank from the words which would have expressed their mutual conscienceness” but through a well-developed understanding of one another they communicate and sympathize with one another.A similar knowledge of both the self and of one’s marriage partner is what makes the marriage of Mary and Fred different. Mary has worked to develop a distinct self-knowledge. Through self-examination, Mary has come to important conclusions on what is suitable for her, such as when she acknowledges she would not make a good school master. Mary Garth works to maintain her personal happiness before her wedding. When faced with burning Featherstone’s will, Mary acts out of self-preservation and her belief in what is proper. She acts righteously despite the promise of more than enough wealth to settle her family’s debt brought on by Fred. Mary’s strength and knowledge of both herself and Fred create the circumstances that allow them to have a happy marriage. She refuses to marry Fred until he has an occupation which suits him, because she realizes that pursuing the wrong career endangers not only his happiness but her own. Instead of giving way to despair, Fred’s respect for Mary inspires him to work harder. He finds a new sense of self and takes more pride in who he is. His newly developed faith in himself and enables Fred to stand up to his father and conventional thought, decreeing that, “I think I can be quite as much of a gentleman at the work I have undertaken, as if I had been a curate” (Eliot 568). Fred, though ignorant of the idea that Farebrother may admire Mary, recognizes the value of using him to address Mary on a subject that he is too timid to speak to her about. Mary, despite Fred being considered by most to be screw-up, does not ridicule her partner to submission, but develops the tactic of recognizing the forces outside her and her husband which they must both contend with together. Instead of finding fault in her husband, Mary blames forces outside of him, for example when Fred purchases a bad horse it “was of course the fault of the horse, not of Fred’s judgment” (Eliot 833). By not blaming Fred, as Lydgate blames Rosamond for her imperfections, it frees her to love him and him to receive love, not shame. By means of Mary’s guidance, Fred obtains a vocation and a girl that makes him happy. The marriage of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth is the antithesis of the unhappy marriages of the Lydgates and Casaubons. Their marriage is the exemplar of good. They are described as having, “achieved a solid mutual happiness” (Eliot 832). Their long courtship spans almost their entire lives. They have a thorough knowledge of one another. They both have some pursuit to occupy themselves. Both take up writing. Unlike the normative proscribed roles of masculinity and femininity, it is remarked by the townspeople of Middlemarch that in their home both can be and write however they wish, hence the controversy over the authorial rights to Fred’s Cultivation of Green Crops and the Economy of Cattle-Feeding and Mary’s supposed children’s book, Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch (Eliot 832). The freedom from typically proscribed gender roles within the marriage is a hard test. Breaking from traditional roles could mean ostracism from the rest of the town, but Mary and Fred are so accepting of one another that they have seemingly allowed one another the praise for the other’s work.The author of Middlemarch smartly advocates that acknowledgement of external forces is pertinent to the happiness of one’s self. Eliot proclaims that a human being needs to take notice that every person is subject to external forces and other people, writing that “there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it” (Eliot 838). The notion that the partners in a marriage should respect one another is a distinctly feminist viewpoint. Middlemarch, though subtle in its proclamations, does contend that the female perspective should be addressed and that society is faulty in its exclusion of females, “Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy” (Eliot 279). The personal pursuits and career efforts of Middlemarch’s citizens must be obtained in order for a person to be happy in his or her marriage. An effort at cooperation and acknowledgement of the other member in the union must be made for a marriage to be a happy one. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Penguin Group. New York. 1994.