Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life is a novel written by English novelist, poet, and journalist George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans); it contains eight volumes which were published between 1871 and 1872. Set in the fictional town of Midlands, the novel tells several stories of many interesting characters, with the most notable one being the story of the young and ambitious Dorothea Brooke. As it contains several socially and politically relevant themes, such as idealism, populism, virtue, religion, marriage, education, and the position of women in nineteenth-century English society, many analysts consider Middlemarch to be a realist novel.
Dorothea Brooke is a nineteen-year-old orphaned girl who lives with her sister Celia and her uncle Arthur. She is generous, intelligent, very kind, and deeply religious, and she is probably the closest the novel gets to a main protagonist. Dorothea spends her time helping the needy, and her biggest aspiration is to build cottages and colonies for the tenant farmers who live on her uncle’s estate so that they can have better working and living conditions.
She believes and hopes that she is destined for greatness, but, at the same time, she is aware of her role as a woman in society. Her greatest ambition is to have a much greater and more meaningful life, and she wishes to become a person who will make a difference in the world.
Dorothea knows that she is not exactly the best example of obedience and femininity and that society greatly limits her dreams and ambitions; thus, she stubbornly decides to marry the forty-five-year-old scholar Edward Casaubon, hoping that he will teach her many new things about life. However, Casaubon spent most of his youth in solitude, which transformed him into a distant and passionless man, and Dorothea realizes that she has trapped herself in an unhappy and miserable marriage.
In her attempt to suppress her dreams, aspirations, and desires and be whatever society expects her to be as a woman, Dorothea learns how suppressing one's true nature can have terrible consequences for one's mental and emotional state.
Nonetheless, Dorothea deeply devotes herself to her husband and spends her days acting as his secretary. This becomes especially evident in chapter 21:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling—an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects—that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.
She insists that he is not an evil man, but merely narrow-minded and conservative, and she sacrifices her happiness in order to conform to societal norms. Dorothea might think of this as a comfort, but, in reality, it is very much a challenge.
Thus, when Mr. Casaubon suddenly dies, Dorothea feels immense grief and sorrow. She copes with her feelings by continuing her husband’s work. However, when she learns that he doubted her devoutness and faithfulness and forbade her to marry his younger cousin Will Ladislav, Dorothea feels betrayed and immediately stops her attempts to finish his project. Essentially, this is how Eliot tells us that Dorothea has gone back to her old independent self.
Her second marriage to Will Ladislav seems to be a much better choice. Dorothea and Will have always felt connected to one another, mainly because of their similar personalities and shared hobbies and interests. By marrying Will, Dorothea finally experiences love, understanding, fulfillment, and happiness, and she greatly matures as a person.
She was not a woman to be spoken of as other women were.... He only wanted her to take more emphatic notice of him; he only wanted to be something more special in her remembrance than he could yet believe himself likely to be. He was rather impatient under that open ardent good-will, which he saw was her usual state of feeling. The remote worship of a woman throned out of their reach plays a great part in men's lives, but in most cases the worshipper longs for some queenly recognition, some approving sign by which his soul's sovereign may cheer him without descending from her high place. That was precisely what Will wanted. (chapter 22)
However, Dorothea never really realizes her dreams and aspirations. She becomes a wife and mother, but beyond that, she is just a regular person with a regular life, and nothing else. Eliot mentions that Dorothea never stops being strong-willed and temperamental, but at the same time, she deeply regrets not fulfilling her ambitions for a greater life; however, Eliot also makes sure to tell us that this is not for lack of trying, but for lack of opportunity.