Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
Middlemarch has received criticism for the fate of its heroine Dorothea Brooke as some believe she does not live up to feminist ideals as she remains limited in her influence and matched to an inferior partner. Do yo think such criticism is warranted?
[Spoilers for George Eliot’s Middlemarch, particularly the end.]
I admit that the match between Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Brooke surprises me a little every time. Though I realize that Will is closer in temperament to Dorothea than her first husband is, it seems clear from his introduction that Will lacks focus and direction. Dorothea, always looking for a way to be useful in life and advance a higher cause, perpetually busy planning housing and other improvements for the estate, seems too motivated for him. But the two love each other, and Dorothea willingly gives up her first husband’s money to marry Will.
Furthermore, Eliot indicates that Will changes, working for the public good and serving in Parliament. Dorothea aids him in this work. Some “thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother,” but Dorothea finds fulfillment in giving of herself to others and in serving in these roles. If she is content being known as a wife and mother, then I see nothing wrong with her fate.
Some may desire to see Dorothea single and independent, or matched to someone with equal imagination or someone with greater social status. However, Dorothea makes a choice that is consistent with her ideals, which inspire her to be a helper rather than the main actor. To dismiss this role as inferior does, I think, a disservice to all the people who stand behind others to support them.
5 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Middlemarch”
Can I co-sign all of this? Dorothea made almost all of her own choices with serious thought, directed by her own internal compass — it didn’t always work out in her favor + she occasionally made what her society or modern readers think of as a “mistake”, BUT that doesn’t reduce her character or her agency. I didn’t even like Middlemarch for totally unrelated reasons, but I still never really understood why some readers think it has an anti-feminist message.
I can see that readers would be disappointed that Dorothea ends up married to a man who probably isn’t quite her intellectual and moral equal, and that she never makes the grand changes in the world she dreamed of. But I think that’s also a realistic ending, especially for Dorothea’s day. I think what we can take away is that at least Dorothea bulked social conventions enough to make her own choice about a husband, even if that meant giving up wealth and some social standing.
I never thought of the book as anti-feminist. I agree with the comment above that Dorothea always seemed to think out her decisions quite thoroughly and knew what she was getting into. Now, I guess that could mean she was “settling” for the most she could get as a woman at the time, but I’m not sure the book represents her decisions that way. In some sense, the book seems to indicate, not that it’s a shame that she never got to put into effect her grand housing schemes because men were always dragging her down, but rather that many of her plans were always impractical pipe dreams. She’s good-hearted but isn’t always rational about what can or cannot actually be accomplished. Marrying Will and helping “through” his position in Parliament ended up being an achievable way she could accomplish good in the world, rather than one that was just an idealistic daydream.
Is that sad? Maybe. But I think it’s a realistic outcome, considering this isn’t a fantasy book about a special snowflake savior who upends the world. Most people will have to find the small ways in which they can actually effect change in the world, rather than doing something huge and dramatic like a hero in a movie.
I think that in some ways the ending is actually supposed to be a commentary on what was feasible for a woman to achieve at the time. Dorothea can’t really join Parliament herself, so if she wants to be involved in politics she has to work through her husband instead. It’s perhaps not the ending all readers want, but it’s probably a happier ending than many women achieved.
Yeah, some of it’s definitely related to the fact that she’s a woman. But I also think it’s a general commentary on what it’s feasible for anyone to accomplish.
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