Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In the context of postrevolutionary England’s sluggish attempts at political reform, George Eliot details in Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life the range of a tradition-bound provincial mentality unable to comprehend and unwilling to accept change. She begins by uniting two narratives begun separately, both about self-deluded idealists, Dorothea Brooke of the landed gentry and Tertius Lydgate, newly arrived in insular Middlemarch, the quintessential country town of petty snobberies, power plays for social status, and gossipmongering. Integrating additional plots, Eliot embodies her theme: a narrow medium of ignorance, prejudice, and bigotry limits individual opportunity and growth; persons with “great souls,” such as Dorothea, Will, Garth, and Farebrother, may transcend that medium to contribute to social improvement and partially realize their own potential. Noble motives may be frustrated, however, by those trapped in self-interest, such as Casaubon and Rosamond, or thwarted by provincial minds unequipped by knowledge or training to evaluate new ideas and approving only of those who “do as their neighbors do,” or limited by the dead hand of the past—outmoded customs and laws, especially those governing property inheritance.

Eliot’s portrayal of marriage issues treats what the nineteenth century called “the Woman Question”—controversies about the “nature of women,” their proper education, whether young ladies should have opinions (as Dorothea does) or submit to men’s (as Celia does), whether married women should be allowed to own property, and whether any women should be allowed to vote or work for economic independence instead of being kept in their domestic “separate sphere.” Allowing domestic contentment to the conventional Celia and, later, the creatively realistic Mary, Eliot invalidates generalizations: In Laure and Rosamond, she boldly combats Coventry Patmore’s popular “Angel in the House” stereotype, but she evokes sympathy for the angelic, if aspiring, Dorothea, who is suffering...

(The entire section is 838 words.)