Marriage as Slavery in Middlemarch

May 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

It is only as an historian that he [the author] has the smallest locus standi. As a narrator of fictitious events, he is nowhere. –Henry James Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready to be institutionalized. –May WestOne of George Eliot’s challenges in Middlemarch is to depict a sexually desirous woman, Dorothea, within the confines of Victorian literary propriety. The critic, Abigail Rischin, identifies the moment that Dorothea’s future husband, Ladislaw, and his painter-friend see her alongside an ancient, partially nude statue of the mythic heroine, Ariadne, in a museum in Rome as the key to Eliot’s sexualization of this character. Ariadne is, in the sculpture, between her two lovers. Theseus, whom she helped to escape from her father’s labyrinth in Crete has already left her, while the jubilant God, Bacchus, her next lover, has yet to arrive. “By invoking the silent visual rhetoric of ancient sculpture,” writes Rischin, “George Eliot is able to represent the erotic female body far more explicitly than Victorian conventions of… language would permit… By juxtaposing the statue with Dorothea, Eliot displays Dorothea’s erotic potential.” Here, Eliot uses an allusion to another type of narrative to fully illustrate her own heroine, and empower her with emotions that Victorian women were not supposed to possess.Later, Eliot, the novel’s omnicient narrator, uses a parabol to explain her theory of perspectivism. She compares the self-centered characters of her creation to candels, who all see “concentric” patterns of events (“scratches,” in the parabol) develop around themselves because their vision (“light”) only extends so far in every direction; not because, as they think, events revolve around them (ch 27). J. Hillis Miller, in “Optic and Semiotic in ‘Middlemarch,'” explains the etymolgy of the word “parable,” a word which Eliot herself uses in the midst of telling it, saying, “It means ‘to set aside,’… A parable is set or thrown at some distance from the meaning which controls it and to which it obliquely or parabolically refers.” Eliot’s decision to self-consciously utilize a parable resembles her allusion to the ancient statue. Unable to fully explain something by itself, Eliot takes advantage of literary devices to displace the content and coat it so that her reader may swallow the meaning.Sir Thomas Browne’s definition of “satire,” which Eliot includes at the begining of chapter 45, further admits Eliot’s awareness of the “displacing” (as Miller says) literary tact she employs in describing ideas that her reader will not otherwise be comfortable with, like her sexual female character or her complex theory on perspective. “Without the borrowed help and satire of times past;” goes the quotation from Browne, “condemning the vices of their own times [passed times], by the expressions of vices in times which they commend [present times]… [Satirists] cannot but argue the community of vice in both” (422). A bit earlier, Eliot puts the definition more subtely in the words of Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s father, “Satire, you know,” he states, “should be true up to a certain point” (369). Middlemarch itself is written in the context of having taken place about 40 years prior (1832) to the point in time that the narrator herself occupies (1871). Likely, Eliot frames her criticisms of the town of Middlemarch such that they reflect on the then-current state of things in England. An instance of Eliot’s blatant use of satire herself in the novel takes place at the begining of chapter 35 when she compares the folk of Middlemarch to the animals boarding the biblical Noah’s Ark, saying, “One may imagine [that] allied species made much private remark on each other” (318). She is pointing out the ridiculousness of the Middlemarch townspeoples’ gossip loops by displacing the same problems onto a religious history. On yet a further level, though, Eliot is probably commenting on the propensity to gossip in then-modern England amongst her very readers. By making her historical fictional characters faulty, Eliot avoids a direct confrontation with these readers, who superficially sense that she is not judging them, but rather only her literary inventions; on a deeper level, however, they presumably see the similarities between themselves and, for instance, Mrs. Cadwallader. Again, we see Eliot removing herself from the actual thing she is discussing so that she may maintain her reader’s attention and trust. As Miller says in another of his essays that discusses Middlemarch, “Narrative and History,” Eliot “proposes a view of the writing of history [fiction] as an act of repetition in which the present takes possession of the past and liberates it for a present purpose.” In Eliot’s usage of all three of these devices: allusion, parable and satire, she is able to convey ideas and criticisms that would otherwise be difficult to get across without alienating her audience. George Eliot does not, however, simply condemn obviously bad things like gossiping in Middlemarch. She also uses the forum to make a political criticism of the institution of marriage. For this, Eliot doesn’t use any of the standard literary devices, such as I have just outlined, but she does keep to her method of displacement (“setting aside”). She draws implicit parrallels between the hot political topics, including slavery and serfdom discussed by the book’s characters and the compromised position of married women. The public opinion of slavery in 1833 (the time of the novel’s action) must have been fairly negative as it was that year abolished in the British Empire. Rischin says, in her essay on Dorothea’s resemblance to Ariadne, “The narrator does not make explicit the parrallels between the sculpture and the living woman.” Similarly, the narrator never outright calls on her reader to associate his probably sympathetic views to emancipation of actual slaves with married womens’ rights. But, the connection is definitely implied by the metaphoric language Eliot uses. The novel’s central heroine, Dorothea, moves through two marriages in the course of the book, which takes place over about three years. In the first of these marriages, to a much older, probably impotent man named Causabon, she plays the role of a slave. Speaking of Causabon, Dorothea adeptly notes that “obligation,” such as Causabon puts on her, “may be stretched till it is no better than a brand of slavery stamped on us when we were too young to know its meaning” (376, emphasis added). Likewise, she describes that in being with Casaubon she has “shut her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits” (410, emphasis added). Even after he dies, Casaubon manages to keep his “dead hand” in her life through the threat of taking away her inheritance, on which she is mostly financially dependent. If the reader is willing to agree that slavery is wrong, as would have been most likely given the time period and the opinions of the characters in Middlemarch, then the reader should also agree that keeping Dorothea in submission is wrong. When Dorothea marries Ladislaw, regardless of the consequent loss of her fortune, she clearly has a better, more equal marriage to someone she loves and has a physical union with, but she is still the lesser member of that union. In fact, her place resembles the “hereditary farmer” on Mr. Brooke’s land, Mr. Dagley. This sort of “man was free to quit if he chose, but… there was no earthly ‘beyond’ open to him” if he did (382). The sarcastic way the narrator descibes the farmer’s theoretical options shows that in actuality the farmer is just another type of slave. Sadly, Dorothea’s position as “wife and mother” with Ladislaw at the end eerily resembles that of Mr. Dagley. “Many who knew her [Dorothea],” the Finale says, “thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another… But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done” (793). For both, there is an illusion of freedom in actual slavery. Eliot is appealing to the reader’s sense that slavery is wrong and trying to work from there smoothly toward married women’s like lot. Both suffer from, what Eliot calls, the “humiliation of dependency” (648). Yet a third in-vogue victim-ridden political issue discussed in the novel, capitol punishment, also applies to Dorothea’s life. Ladislaw and Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s uncle, are both opposed to it (373); meanwhile Dorothea seems to be succumbing to it as a result of her suffocating relationships. Sir James is “convinced that… marriage [is] fatal for Dorothea,” speaking specifically of her second one to Ladislaw (778). And, the literary critic, Miller, agrees when he states that Dorothea “nearly [made] a fatal mistake in marrying Casaubon.” Capitol punishment is another form of slavery in some ways, as it is a way of excluding a person from participating properly in society.Ladislaw is the mouthpiece for these liberal political views that are dominant in the novel. The critic, Terry Eagleton, calls Ladislaw’s position, “an attempt to integrate liberal idealogy,” into the work while Suzanne Graner concurs saying, “Will is himself a reformer.” The character, Mr. Brooke, labels Ladislaw as having “enthusiasm for liberty, freedom, [and] emancipation” (346). Interestingly, “It is undeniable,” the narrator states, “that but for the desire to be where Dorothea was… Will would not… have been meditating on the needs of the English people or criticising English statemanship.” (441).Rosamond, who, in many ways is the opposite of Dorothea, being selfish, vain and “disposed to admonish her husband” (792), is the second of Middlemarch’s heroines. Conversely to Dorothea, Rosamond cements her own subjugation by obsessing over the slave-master relationship herself and wanting to be dominant. One of her first thoughts when she begins to fancy her future husband, Dr. Lydgate, is that he “would be especially delightful to enslave” (116). “How delightful to make captives from the throne of marriage with a husband as crown-prince by your side — himself in fact a subject” (417). The reason she is so quick to cling to the notion of this sort of relationship is that she is a model member of society, the top of her class. She internalizes the processes that are normal and perpetuates them. Thus, she actually ends up being subjected to a painful enslavement herself when Lydgate loses face. Dorothea summarizes Lydgate’s feelings on the subject to Rosamond, saying that “his marriage was of course a bond” and that one must “walk always in fear of hurting another who is tied to us” (757, emphasis added). Rosamond is “tied” to her husband and must bear with the consequences of all his actions. In trying to subjugate him to herself, she just brought them into that brand of interaction so he could easily dominate her when the time came for him to fall.The third heroine, Mary Garth, seemingly ends up with the most happy marriage at the novel’s Finale, but even she is “bound” like the rest of them (792). “Most persons were inclined to believe that the merit of Fred’s authorship was due to his wife… But when Mary wrote a little book… every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred” (789). Their life is happy because they are both creating and they financially stable, but the work they do is taken away from them because of the marital construct. Much as a slave is not free to own anything — everything he has truly belongs to his master — so too, the members of marriage don’t even own their intelletual property.The smaller, self-contained anecdotes about marital relations that come up in the novel are even more extreme examples of this same trend: marriage as slavery for women. In passing, our narrator, in the indirect voice of the people, tells us that Mr. Bulstrode was “‘given to indulgence’ — chiefly in swearing, drinking, and beating his wife” (228). Here, the fact that he beats his wife is as mundane as his other habits and not considered as something of particular concern by the townspeople. It is tolerable for a man to treat his wife as his subject. Lydgate’s first love, the actress Laure feels so stifled by her marriage that she goes to the opposite extreme and murders her husband for being “too fond” and wanting to “live in Paris,” and not in her hometown (148). “I do not like husbands. I will never have another,” she declares, thereby summarizing one of the messages Eliot is trying to convey throughout (149).Not only does Middlemarch’s content seem to denounce Victorian marriage, Eliot’s personal life as Mary Ann Evans supports this atypical stance. For 24 years, Eliot lived with George Henry Lewes in a romantic relationship, though she was not married to him. Additionally, the political environment of the time she was writing about and the time she was writing from, was one of serious governmental reforms. In 1829, “Catholic emancipation ending most denials or restrictions of Catholic civil rights” came about. A few years later, in 1833, slavery was abolished in the British empire. And, Eliot’s written “picture of provincial society in England” is set “just before the Reform Bill of 1832,” while the narrator is writing from a few years after the second Reform Bill of 1867. Both of these bills increased the number of people who could vote and lead “inevitably to the democracy” that England “eventually” estabished. Similarly, just one year before the first publication of Middlemarch, the Married Womens’ Property Act was passed (1870). Although women did not completely get the vote in England until 1928 (ten years earlier women over the age of 30 were included as a result of the 4th Reform Bill), Eliot’s Middlemarch does approach the problem of womens’ lack of freedom in marriage. She tries to pull her reader in through an imminent critique that makes use of her reader’s probably already-held negative opinions about slavery, and then she tacitly shows that that reprehensible situation is reflected in the lives of women in marriage’s constricting grasp.BibliographyBogdanor, Vernon, The People and the Party System, London: Cambridge University Press, 1981.Eagleton, Terry, “George Eliot: Ideology and Literary Form,” in Middlemarch: New Casebooks, Ed. John Peck.Eliot, George, Middlemarch, Great Britain: Penguin, 1994.Graner, Suzanne, “Organic Fictions,” in in Middlemarch: New Casebooks, Ed. John Peck.Miller, J. Hillis, “Narrative and History,” in ELH (English Literary History), vol. 41 (1974). pp. 455-473.Miller, J. Hillis, “Optic and Semiotic in Middlemarch,” in Middlemarch: New Casebooks, Ed. John Peck.Morgan, Kenneth O. (Ed.), The Oxford Popular History of Britain, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1993.Rischin, Abigail S., “Ekphrasis, Narrative and Desire in Middlemarch,” in PMLA, vol. 111. pp. 1121-1132.

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