IntroductionMiddlemarch is a novel that many consider unusual. Despite being a Victorian novel, the work has numerous characteristics typical to modern-day's novels. The moving novel's setting was done in the early 1830s and involves a narration about a fictional village that is facing huge social change along with rapid industrialization and amplified social mobility (Kelly 12). In the said community, a single religious faith that ties the society together does not exist while much of the detail given is an examination of the Middlemarch society's class from clergy, manufacturers, professional men, laborers to farmers. The novel's focus is on Tertius Lydgate and Dorothea Brooke, the two main characters who marry disastrously, thwarted idealism. Eliot breaks with convention whereby instead of giving her work a happy ending with the inevitable marriage as expected with a female romance fiction writer, she instead chooses to detail marriage realities and unhappy couplings. Eliot's work focuses on the depiction of various social issues of the Victorian period such as women's roles and society's expectations through the novel's main characters. As such, the following paper provides a discussion of the Victorian social issues as illustrated by Eliot, while also examining some of the principal characters. Some of the key social issues that will be discussed include the role of women, female subordination, prejudices against women, the unsuccessful pursuit of education among women and marriage as an escape.
Starting with the role of women, it can be analyzed by looking at the woman of the Victorian period who is depicted by Eliot as one who had no freedom when it came to the choice of her own destiny. This is unlike the 21st-century women who can be described as independent as they can make key decisions related to the direction that their life should take (Petrckova 43). The modern day woman can decide on whether to focus on her personal career or take care of her family and home, whether to marry or the class, age of the man to marry as well as whether to remain single. Unlike their Victorian period counterparts, modern day women can decide to play the role of their family's breadwinner while the husband remains at home to carry out domestic chores and take care of their children (Henson 18). Therefore, there exist significant differences in terms of the roles played by women in the Victorian society and those of the 21st century (Green 25). For a comprehensive understanding of the role of women in the Victorian society, evidence from Eliot's work will be examined in relation to the life of a typical woman of the Victorian period.
In the Victorian society, the role of a woman began at childbirth whereby child delivery was the deemed the most important event in a woman's life. Therefore child delivery was seen as the woman's solemn duty and was liked to her position and status in the society. Ironically, in the Victorian society, talking about pregnancy or the delivery itself was considered inappropriate, something that led to the use of metaphors and euphemisms to in place of direct descriptions. This is demonstrated by Eliot in her description of a mother who died while giving birth, "The delicate plant had been too deeply bruised and in the struggle to put forth a blossom it died" (Eliot 83). In the Victorian society, the upbringing of children was not the same for boys and girls. There was no access to any type of education except that which was run by churches in the form of Sunday schools. However, children belonging to the affluent society members were taken care of by nannies in their early age before governesses educating them at home at a later age. The governesses' background was that of a middle class and possessed education necessary to teach the fundamentals of education and basic elementary studies such arithmetic, reading and writing (Henson 31). Other than these, young girls of the Victorian society were also taught how to paint, speak in foreign languages such as French as well as playing the piano. Unfortunately, for a majority of these young ladies, that was all, according to their educational expectations as proceeding with education to higher levels such as the university was deemed pointless for women whose main expectation in the society was to take care of their children and homes.
For the mature women, there were two categories, the working and those who had no job. The main occupation of a woman of the Victorian period was either a domestic servant or factory worker (Hertz 23). Contrary to the expectation that one would prefer working as a domestic servant in a fine house to a factory worker in poor conditions, this was never the case as domestic service was associated with long working hours compared to those of a factory worker. It is said that the hours spent in domestic service were not under any legislative regulation and were therefore unquestionably longer than those working in the factory (Hertz 52). According to Sunbul, in 1873, it was calculated that the day of house-maids extended from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., during which they were given a total of only four hours of rest which was also spent taking meals and doing some needlework (28). This implied that domestic servants spent about twelve hours in their actual work, longer than those spent by women working in a factory by two hours. Further, while a factory employee's working period was reduced by two hours on Saturdays, the house-maids worked longer and the case was also similar on Sundays whereby factory workers could be given enough time to rest but for the domestic servants, it was almost a busy day just like the others (Sunbul 37).
Therefore, the lives of women in the Victorian society had major drawbacks in terms of social contacts shortage whereby the possibility of a young woman meeting the man of their choice and courting was minimal while the requirement of being in uniform, the servility symbol, could be considered as offending (Green 28). Therefore, the women of the Victorian period were perceived as unequal partners, unlike their male counterparts. It has been evident that this usually started as early as childhood whereby girls were treated in a different way from boys in relation to their roles in the society (Henson 57).
Another key social issue of the Victorian period is the unsuccessful pursuit of education among women of this period. In her novel, Eliot argues that education was vital as it plays a significant role in determining an individual's character. In line with this, Eliot makes the poor preparation of women for future opportunities a central topic in her work. This is demonstrated by her efforts to focus the readers' attention to the social issue of women's education. She states that "girls at all levels of the society were educationally deprived as compared with boys of their own class" (Eliot 27). Rosamond, Dorothea, and Mary are used by the author to demonstrate the inequality that existed in the Victorian society in terms of educational opportunities among social classes and between the sexes. For instance, Dorothea has almost all that she needs or desires as a girl of her age including wealth, class and ample free time in a noble environment. She is filled with passion to serve humanity through good and great deeds (Hertz 36). Therefore, she finds herself in a situation where she strives for the fulfillment of her plans but has no idea about what to do based on the fact that "she was oppressed by the indefiniteness which hung in her mind, like summer haze, over all her desire to make her life greatly effective (Eliot 20). Dorothea's uncertainty was as a result of the society's opinion about women irrespective of their social class, and majorly due to her lack of education. To get beyond the society's limits regarding women, Dorothea draws plans for cottages and persuades men to have them built (Henson 48). This way, she was able to get the men think of her as an individual. She goes ahead to show her drawings to Sir James Chettam in her efforts to get the approval of a male. Since Sir Chettam is courting Dorothea, he is already pervasive to spend time with her (Kelly 37).
Eliot uses this scene to show a noble woman's efforts in pursuit of knowledge to receive acceptance from the male culture. Despite Dorothea being from social strata of the highest rank in the society, she is still in the need for approval of a male (Green 60). This is as a result of the patriarchal social order norms that lead women of the Victorian society forming such attitude. They constantly have a feeling of getting approval from their male counterparts in the society. This does not only happen to Dorothea, but Mary and Rosamond also face the same challenge in which they are bound to the Middlemarch men. This serves as a clear indication of the deep penetration of male-dominated norms into all the sub-culture of the Victorian period. Unlike other women in the society who are kept busy by fashion embroidery, Dorothea finds no satisfaction from fashion needlework. This is evident at the point where her sister Celia wants the jewels belonging to their mother divided but Dorothea shows no interest in her statement that "they are all yours, dear. We need to discuss them no longer. There-take away your property." (Eliot 10). Furthermore, she emphatically tells Celia that she cannot wear a cross as an ornament, after an argument over wearing a pearl cross (Hertz 102).
Instead of wasting her time with jewelry and other ornaments, Dorothea desires to have the part of life that the Victorian society never offered to women. Dorothea becomes a victim of the society's patriarchal norms for declining to toe the line to the order's expectations regarding a woman's behavior and role in the society. According to Eliot, Dorothea stresses the need to do something different and more valuable than what is expected of a woman of the Victorian period. Eliot quotes, "she despises women a little for not shaping their lives more and doing better things" (Eliot 447). Thus, Dorothea outs a blame on other women in the society who fail to struggle for progress in their lives. Her education can be compared to "the nibbling and judgments of a discursive mouse (Eliot 23). Her search for knowledge can be attributed to the fact that she is striving for a personal fulfillment which rises above egoism and perfectly combines personal desire with the demands of the society.
When the wealthy baronet, Sir Chettam, and Edward Casaubon, the scholarly clergyman have dinner at Brookes, Sir Chettam reveals his new farming plans but asks for an approval from Dorothea who responds that "it is not a sin to make yourself poor in performing experiments for the good of all" (Eliot 13). This depicts the woman's dedication to the society's betterment as it is her belief that every single person is responsible for the life of each of the society's members. As such, Dorothy makes an attempt to improve life in Middlemarch by acting as a source of help for the people around her. As stated by Eliot, she makes every effort to provide public assistance whereby she spends a good portion of her time in "the infant school which she had set going in the village" (Eliot 8). She also draws plans for some buildings. Her gratification in carrying out these activities is as a result of the desire in her to see the town undergo development. However, the society she is living in offers women fewer opportunities in comparison to men. It is notable that women of the Victorian society were vulnerable due to the minimal offers provided to them by the society. This made them expect less and never imagine that work could be a necessity to them as it was for men. Normally, women were expected to remain at home taking care of their children and handling home chores while wai...
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