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.