To what extent is Dorthea’s background and education tied up with her community idealism in Middlemarch?
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The Prelude of Middlemarch very obviously ties Dorthea, as the central character and analogous of Saint Theresa, to community idealism as does Elliot's very direct description of Dorthea, lacking any subtlety, in the beginning paragraphs of Chapter 1 where the reader is told that she yearned by nature “after some lofty conception of the world” and was likely to “incur martyrdom” in a “quarter where she had not sought it.”
Since Middlemarch picks up when Dorthea is “not yet twenty,” her family and cultural background play a more prominent role in revealing her character traits than her education does, which is only briefly referred to by Elliot. Dorthea’s lineage is from gentility, which is why she and her sister are ladies, with the lowest ancestral professional level in recent generations having been clergyman or admiral. The way Elliot elaborates on and justifies Dorthea’s religious and idealistic character traits is to proclaim the presence of a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell in the Inter-Regnum. Puritanism was an idealistic (perhaps questionable ideals…) religion that by its very nature had a community focus as its ambition was to purify the Church of England and instill a new definition of righteous living in its adherents.
Dorthea’s religion was on the austere side, similar to that practice by St. John in Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She wore severe clothing without ornamentation on the clothing or her person and she was devoted to projects of doing good for the villages surrounding the farming estates. Dorthea’s religious background gives her earnest motives; she is not motivated by social vanities and self advancement, but by the idealism of being involved in a great accomplishment, like her husband’s supposed scholarly work and writing. Dorthea’s background seems tied up with her community idealism to a great extent.
Dorthea’s education had been with two families, hers and her sister’s, one in England and one in Switzerland. Since this is all that Elliot says of their education, her contemporary readers would be led to surmise that their educations were in keeping with the standard education of ladies of some means in England in the latter half of the nineteenth century, which would include reading of “suitable literature” such as classic translations, some mathematics, foreign languages, music, painting, needle arts and other artistic accomplishments. Dorthea’s education seems tied up in her community idealism to a negligible extent.
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