Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
The Victorian era tends to be imagined by Americans as characterized by extreme sexual and emotional repression—the classic English stereotype of the "stiff upper lip." Behind this shallow historical analysis hides an explosion of literary inventiveness, illustrated by the wild (and international) success of writers such as the Brontes and Thomas Hardy, whose novels articulated scathing and sensational attacks on time-honored English traditions like marriage and the role of aristocracy in society. Though generally lighter in tone and more prone to satirical farce than works by either of these other writers, The Egoist secured the high standing of George Meredith within this milieu.
Sir Willoughby Patterne is a pointed caricature of the contemporary English aristocrat. In an era where the government was responding to public pressure toward humanistic approaches to policy and assuming responsibility for areas of society that had traditionally been the domain of church and charity (such as marriage, public health, and education), Patterne is the epitome of the pampered, willfully ignorant narcissist. His self-absorption is so extreme that he demands his environment (and everyone who populates it) revolve entirely around validating his sense of himself as peculiarly sensitive and idiosyncratic—thus his goal in securing a marriage is to find someone to reflect all of his interests and emotions back to him, insulating him and providing an escape from what he calls "the world," or in other words, literally everything that exists outside of his lavish estate. Patterne's utter lack of interest in the feelings of anyone around him, from his prospective marriage partners to the human staff that serves him, opens the path to a broader critique of the old-money English culture he represents, from the privileged insularity of their lifestyle to the human impact that lifestyle has on the wider world around them. The fact that throughout the novel there are hardly any events set anywhere outside of the grounds of Patterne Hall is one of the starkest manifestations of this theme.
Meanwhile the evolution of Clara Middleton's attitude toward Patterne's suit from wonder to revulsion provides a microcosm of Meredith's attitudes toward the oppressive institution of marriage and the political condition of women in Victorian England. While initially dazzled by the opulence of Patterne Hall, Clara quickly becomes unnerved by her suitor's repetitive fantasies of complete disengagement from the outside world, and she develops the feeling that life at Patterne Hall would render her a prisoner, her identity entirely subsumed to her fiancee's navel-gazing. Contrast this attitude with that of her family, particularly her father, who are too blinded by the potential advantages to themselves offered by the match to be receptive to Clara's emotional concerns. The system of complex patriarchal rites and public propriety that pertains to marriage among this class seems to bar every avenue for Clara's escape; while a previous victim of Patterne's was able to escape by elopement with another man, Clara has no such option, and her fate seems sealed. Only through a series of subtle stratagems is she able to secure her freedom and happiness within this rigid and archaic system.
When seeking specific examples in the text to expand on these themes, special attention must be paid to the manner in which the estate itself—the rooms within it and their functions, the other buildings on the property, and so on—reflects the attitudes and values of Sir Willoughby Patterne himself. The means by which the characters socialize and express their personalities (the episode of Patterne and Dr. Middleton discussing Clara's future over wine is a pointed example) will also yield substantial material for close analysis.