Sunday, September 1, 2019

A central issue in Victorian novels Essay

Discuss the role and expectations of women in Middlemarch In Middlemarch Eliot demonstrates what she believes is an incongruity in Victorian society. She uses a range of female characters as both good and bad examples as to their fulfilment of differing expectations, and the roles they play in their interaction with others. The role that a character plays is a manifestation of expectation, and it depends on whose expectation this is that defines their place in society. The characters that most adapt their role to fit with the opinions of a majority often hold more prestige within the provincial society. However Eliot’s message is clear when we see that those who follow the expectations of a minority, and in particular those who follow their own path, end up happy by the close of the novel, even if the role which they assume is essentially an orthodox one. Victorian patriarchy gives the most inclination to expect to the male characters of the novel. Individuals such as Mr. Brooke hold very rigid, sincere views as to the proper conduct and position of women; he and the bulk of the male province believe in a ‘lightness about the feminine mind’, and that they are ‘too flighty’ to comprehend the same breadth of information as a male. He expects women to be an adornment, being able to ‘play you or sing you a good old English tune’ rather than have knowledge of ‘classics, mathematics’ and ‘that kind of thing’. He requires women to have the simple function of a light entertainer, never having need of an opinion because subjects that would require one are ‘too taxing’. Eliot is being highly ironic in depicting Brooke in this way, highlighting his want of a woman being able to perform tricks, like a complex dog, as ridiculous, and even more so in its acceptance among his friends. It is soon obvious that his friends agree with him so because they are of similar thinking. The opening of the novel depicts a meal at which both Sir James Chettam and Mr. Casaubon are guests of his, and they both seem to be similarly inclined as far as their expectations of women, although perhaps more in deed than in word. Sir James displays outrageous naivety towards women with sweeping statements such as; ‘ladies usually are fond of Maltese dogs’. Eliot is presenting him with such irony that he is made to look extremely misguided in such a channelled view that most ladies are ‘fond’ of something so specific as a Maltese dog. His over-simplistic thinking is coupled with an expectation of material love in women, which is obviously incorrect considering that he offers the dog as a gift to Dorothea who regards it as ‘parasitic’. Chettam errs in expecting Dorothea to love him for the ‘excellent human dough’ that he has received through birth. He has more emphasis on the quality of his future bride as a trophy rather than a lover, weighing in his mind whether it would be better to marry Dorothea or Celia, her sister, and concludes that Dorothea is ‘in all respects superior’. He expects women to share this unaffected, showy attitude towards love in assuming that he is capable of marrying either of the sisters, and that they naturally would coincide with his desire. He is therefore hurt when he learns that ‘he was not an object of preference to the woman he had preferred’, and we see that Dorothea is more unorthodox in her role in denying the ‘amiable, handsome baronet’ her courtship. Celia, however, is more accommodating to Chettam, and when she eventually marries him she assumes the role of a ‘great pet’. Her position of subordinance is also one of pampering; she has been socially elevated by marrying a wealthy aristocratic knight, and her attitude that women should aim for a status like her own is made clear when she scalds Dorothea that ‘she could think marrying Mr. Ladislaw, who has got no estate or anything’. The intentions of Sir James and the theories of Brooke are disappointed in Dorothea because the preordained role that she has designated herself is one of intellectual expansion and assistance, in order that she may ‘make life beautiful’. She has ‘not the same tastes as every young lady’, believing it her destiny to marry someone scholarly and great. She ruminates early in the novel how she ‘would have accepted’ Milton, so that she could aid him in his studies ‘once his blindness had come on’, and also ‘the judicious Hooker’, so that she could ‘save him from that wretched mistake he made in matrimony’; in both of these cases she would consider such a union a ‘glorious piety’. She considers her role as being in harmonious union with an intellectual who is destined for great works; a man who’s physical weaknesses she could accommodate for, whilst she could gain some scholar through matrimonial instruction. Although her idea of ‘a really delightful marriage’ is not necessarily unorthodox inasmuch as she is prepared for a life of subservience under someone she genuinely believes to be superior to herself, it is Dorothea’s criteria concerning the nature of her partner distinguishes her from other characters such as Celia or Rosamond Vincy; she desires an element of ‘a sort of father’ in her husband, which is why she rejects the offer of marriage from Sir James, who could ‘never affect her as a husband’. Marriage to Edward Casaubon fulfils her preconception of her future role, regarding his knowledge as ‘a lake compared to [her] little pool’. This may have been the case had Mr. Casaubon had similar expectations for her as his wife. Having been ‘looking forward to higher initiation in ideas’, she is disappointed when Casaubon considers her a hindrance rather than an aid. He expects her to be more of a background secretary, doing his bidding whenever he so wishes. Even during the courtship when Dorothea asks whether she should ‘prepare’ herself ‘to be more useful’ and ‘learn to read Latin or Greek’, to aid him in his study, he discourages her from taking such an active role in their marriage by fearing ‘that it might be wearisome’ to her. On their honeymoon disaster transpires when Casaubon has an outburst in which he demands that Dorothea stay out of his scholarly affairs, because ‘the true subject matter lies entirely beyond [her] reach’. So Dorothea’s role and Casaubon’s expectations regarding their marriage contradict, and this ultimately brings about their downfall. Perhaps Dorothea’s idea of matrimonial role would have clashed with the majority of the Middlemarch denizens. This certainly appears to be the case at one of Brooke’s functions at Tipton Grange when various men discuss her and compare her with Rosamond Vincy. Their expectation of an element of ostentation in women is shown when Mr. Chichely concludes that Dorothea is does not ‘lay herself out’ enough to please them, and that ‘there should be a little filigree about a woman’. This conception of the ideal young woman seems to exhibit itself in Rosamond, whom Chichely would choose above both Dorothea and Celia. Rosamond considers her destined role as a married woman, and, similarly to Celia, pursues elevation in ‘that middle-class heaven, rank’. She sees marriage to Tertius Lydgate as desirable because of his ‘certain air of distinction congruous with good family’ with which she is impressed. She also feels that he has prospects of leaving Middlemarch, which would fit her preferred role perfectly as it would sever connections with her lowborn mother.

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