How does Dorothea, the heroine of George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, compare with Edna from the Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Edna from Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening is generally considered to have been modeled on Emma of Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, the story of a married woman bored with a respectable life and marriage in a dull provincial town, who has an affair and eventually commits suicide. Nonetheless, Edna is also similar to Dorothea in several important ways.

The central question all three works posed was that of the role of middle and upper class women in nineteenth-century society. Both Dorothea and Edna long for something beyond motherhood and parties.

In the case of Dorothea, this longing takes a strongly religious form. Eliot often compares her to St. Theresa in the depth of her spiritual longing; in the middle ages she would have been attracted to a life in a convent. Instead, she decides to marry Casaubon and help him with his scholarship, but her enthusiasm fades when she discovers that rather than vague romantic dreams, scholarship requires long hours in libraries and learning German.  

Edna too longs for something beyond her rather unexciting husband and marriage, and for a while takes up painting as a creative outlet, but that proves ultimately unsatisfying. 

Both women then channel their desires for a more meaningful life into adultery. In the case of Edna, she has an affair with Alcee Arobin, but loves Robert, who despite claiming to love her, leaves her. She, like Emma in Madame Bovary, commits suicide.

In Dorothea's case, she falls in love with Casaubon's second cousin Ladislaw, who in many ways shares her ideals. After Casaubon's death, Dorothea and Ladislaw marry and are seen moving forward in a happy future in which they can both pursue their ideals. This seems to suggest that for Eliot, marriage (like her own relationship with Lewes) does not need to be a trap for women. What matters is that women, single or married, have the freedom to pursue useful lives using their intellects and imaginations. 

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