Judging by its sheer size alone, it is little wonder that many people express intimidation upon viewing what is widely regarded as George Eliot’s greatest literary achievement: Middlemarch. Deemed by many as “the greatest English novel” Eliot’s classic social commentary on middle-class Britain is considered a premier example of Victorian fiction. Despite the seeming quaintness and self-containedness of its setting, the story is in no way hampered by myopia as some might expect; on the contrary, Eliot manages to sketch and portray a wide array of distinct characters. It is difficult to distill Middlemarch down to a basic summary. It is at once a critique of religion, politics and class, and a love story, yet also more than any of these things individually. The entire sweep of the novel is more than the sum of its parts. There are many valuable lessons that can be gleaned from its pages, but it accomplishes this without straying into overt moralizing or sermonizing. The book is particularly interesting in the way it deals with relationships between men and women. Dorothea Brooke represents what it was like to be a young woman in a time where women were, as a general rule, not valued for their intellect or ambition, but instead were expected to be merely pleasing ornaments. Bored and dissatisfied by the limited scope of her life, Dorothea believes that her only means of escape is to seek refuge in serving and becoming accessory to a great man: if she is not permitted to achieve greatness on her own, then she must marry and become the pillar of support for one who is. But it is this belief that leads to her making a disastrous marriage, to a man who, though she idolizes him, cannot prove worthy of her devotion. Eliot shows through Dorothea’s tortured conflict how many women were constantly made to choose between love and respect, between desire and ambition.
Whereas a man could be a sole operator in his life, women were seen as inherently only fit to be “helpmates.” Their primary role was to ensure that by taking care of all domestic cares and worries, their husbands would be free to pursue their intellectual and professional interests unimpeded, which would lead to Virginia Woolf emphasizing the importance for women of possessing a similar creative sanctuary, equivalent to that possessed by men, in her book A Room of One’s Own. But in Eliot’s day, women much of the time were granted no such space, and those who didn’t conform to the domestic ideal were also summarily seen as undesirable and unlovable. She herself was fortunate to escape such a fate; she lived as the lover of George Henry Lewes, who encouraged and helped her to nurture her talents, but most women were not so lucky. Dorothea then as a character perfectly exemplifies this struggle. She is far from the only strong female character though present in the novel. It is my belief that Mary Garth is in many ways the unsung heroine of Middlemarch. Though at first glance she seems to be cast in the same mold of more common Victorian female characters, such as the angelic Agnes from David Copperfield, Mary is not only winsome and sweet-natured but also irrepressibly clever with a refreshing side of acerbic wit. Far from being blind to Fred’s failings, she does everything in her power to make him a better man. Even Rosamund Vincy, despite her cherubic facade, shows herself to be surprisingly ruthless in her efforts to secure her and her husband’s property. (Perhaps Eliot was pulling from the wiles of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp for inspiration in her making of Rosamund?) All of the characters though are wonderfully realized. Fred is a character that, despite his shortcomings, is hard not to root for, and Will Ladislaw’s romanticism makes it easy to see why Dorothea would be allured by him.
Eliot’s novel can also be read as a kind of critique and comparison of Enlightenment thought versus Romanticism and the new waves of thought in literature, philosophy, and art that it catapulted, primarily through the characters of Causabon and Ladislaw. Causabon is representative of the “old guard,” and his obsession with his The Key to All Mythologies, and his reliance on “outdated” ideas that had fallen out of fashion ultimately hamper him from moving forward and being a suitable husband for Dorothea. Rationalism is his raison d’etre. Will, contrarily, is a proponent for feeling and emotion. A kind of “new man,” Will represents progress and change. (Eliot also uses Will’s bohemian origins to point toward his inherent free-spiritedness, as well as draw further contrast between him and Causabon.)
If both men truly do represent these two contrasting philosophies, then the implications are quite interesting. Eliot raises the question of who is, in fact, more of the dreamer, Causabon, who unrealistically believes that he can have the love of a woman without doing any of the work necessary to keep her, or Will, who views Dorothea as a kind of madonna, made all the more desirable by her unattainability. This brings us back to Elliot’s initial point of the novel: neither man truly sees Dorothea as she truly is. For Causabon she is an inferior person, there only to satisfy his eyes and serve his interests, and for Will, she is an idealized vision of womanhood that does not exist. Eliot essentially argues there are really only two choices for a woman: to be neglected for what she is, or worshipped for what she is not. We see this pattern again with Rosamund Vincy and Lydgate, since Lydgate marries her purely for her beauty and the “feminine” virtues she appears to embody, only to be disappointed when she shows her true colors. Mary alone as a character is not objectified, physically at least, but she still is expected to be perfect in more ways than one, and thus still carries the burden of “the angel in the house” myth: the belief that women were men’s better angels, and were supposed to model and uphold all that was pure in the home.
Eliot thus accomplishes a great deal in her masterpiece. She manages to tell both a compelling story and also raise important societal questions in the process.