In Middlemarch Eliot demonstrates what she believes is an incongruity in Victorian society. She uses a range of female characters as both good and bad examples as to their fulfilment of differing expectations, and the roles they play in their interaction with others. The role that a character plays is a manifestation of expectation, and it depends on whose expectation this is that defines their place in society.
The characters that most adapt their role to fit with the opinions of a majority often hold more prestige within the provincial society. However Eliot’s message is clear when we see that those who follow the expectations of a minority, and in particular those who follow their own path, end up happy by the close of the novel, even if the role which they assume is essentially an orthodox one.
Victorian patriarchy gives the most inclination to expect to the male characters of the novel. Individuals such as Mr. Brooke hold very rigid, sincere views as to the proper conduct and position of women; he and the bulk of the male province believe in a ‘lightness about the feminine mind’, and that they are ‘too flighty’ to comprehend the same breadth of information as a male. He expects women to be an adornment, being able to ‘play you or sing you a good old English tune’ rather than have knowledge of ‘classics, mathematics’ and ‘that kind of thing’. He requires women to have the simple function of a light entertainer, never having need of an opinion because subjects that would require one are ‘too taxing’. Eliot is being highly ironic in depicting Brooke in this way, highlighting his want of a woman being able to perform tricks, like a complex dog, as ridiculous, and even more so in its acceptance among his friends.
It is soon obvious that his friends agree with him so because they are of similar thinking. The opening of the novel depicts a meal at which both Sir James Chettam and Mr. Casaubon are guests of his, and they both seem to be similarly inclined as far as their expectations of women, although perhaps more in deed than in word.
Sir James displays outrageous naivety towards women with sweeping statements such as; ‘ladies usually are fond of Maltese dogs’. Eliot is presenting him with such irony that he is made to look extremely misguided in such a channelled view that most ladies are ‘fond’ of something so specific as a Maltese dog. His over-simplistic thinking is coupled with an expectation of material love in women, which is obviously incorrect considering that he offers the dog as a gift to Dorothea who regards it as ‘parasitic’.
Chettam errs in expecting Dorothea to love him for the ‘excellent human dough’ that he has received through birth. He has more emphasis on the quality of his future bride as a trophy rather than a lover, weighing in his mind whether it would be better to marry Dorothea or Celia, her sister, and concludes that Dorothea is ‘in all respects superior’. He expects women to share this unaffected, showy attitude towards love in assuming that he is capable of marrying either of the sisters, and that they naturally would coincide with his desire. He is therefore hurt when he learns that ‘he was not an object of preference to the woman he had preferred’, and we see that Dorothea is more unorthodox in her role in denying the ‘amiable, handsome baronet’ her courtship.
Celia, however, is more accommodating to Chettam, and when she eventually marries him she assumes the role of a ‘great pet’. Her position of subordinance is also one of pampering; she has been socially elevated by marrying a wealthy aristocratic knight, and her attitude that women should aim for a status like her own is made clear when she scalds Dorothea that ‘she could think marrying Mr. Ladislaw, who has got no estate or anything’.
The intentions of Sir James and the theories of Brooke are disappointed in Dorothea because the preordained role that she has designated herself is one of intellectual expansion and assistance, in order that she may ‘make life beautiful’. She has ‘not the same tastes as every young lady’, believing it her destiny to marry someone scholarly and great. She ruminates early in the novel how she ‘would have accepted’ Milton, so that she could aid him in his studies ‘once his blindness had come on’, and also ‘the judicious Hooker’, so that she could ‘save him from that wretched mistake he made in matrimony’; in both of these cases she would consider such a union a ‘glorious piety’.
She considers her role as being in harmonious union with an intellectual who is destined for great works; a man who’s physical weaknesses she could accommodate for, whilst she could gain some scholar through matrimonial instruction. Although her idea of ‘a really delightful marriage’ is not necessarily unorthodox inasmuch as she is prepared for a life of subservience under someone she genuinely believes to be superior to herself, it is Dorothea’s criteria concerning the nature of her partner distinguishes her from other characters such as Celia or Rosamond Vincy; she desires an element of ‘a sort of father’ in her husband, which is why she rejects the offer of marriage from Sir James, who could ‘never affect her as a husband’.
Marriage to Edward Casaubon fulfils her preconception of her future role, regarding his knowledge as ‘a lake compared to [her] little pool’. This may have been the case had Mr. Casaubon had similar expectations for her as his wife. Having been ‘looking forward to higher initiation in ideas’, she is disappointed when Casaubon considers her a hindrance rather than an aid. He expects her to be more of a background secretary, doing his bidding whenever he so wishes. Even during the courtship when Dorothea asks whether she should ‘prepare’ herself ‘to be more useful’ and ‘learn to read Latin or Greek’, to aid him in his study, he discourages her from taking such an active role in their marriage by fearing ‘that it might be wearisome’ to her. On their honeymoon disaster transpires when Casaubon has an outburst in which he demands that Dorothea stay out of his scholarly affairs, because ‘the true subject matter lies entirely beyond [her] reach’. So Dorothea’s role and Casaubon’s expectations regarding their marriage contradict, and this ultimately brings about their downfall.
Perhaps Dorothea’s idea of matrimonial role would have clashed with the majority of the Middlemarch denizens. This certainly appears to be the case at one of Brooke’s functions at Tipton Grange when various men discuss her and compare her with Rosamond Vincy. Their expectation of an element of ostentation in women is shown when Mr. Chichely concludes that Dorothea is does not ‘lay herself out’ enough to please them, and that ‘there should be a little filigree about a woman’. This conception of the ideal young woman seems to exhibit itself in Rosamond, whom Chichely would choose above both Dorothea and Celia.
Rosamond considers her destined role as a married woman, and, similarly to Celia, pursues elevation in ‘that middle-class heaven, rank’. She sees marriage to Tertius Lydgate as desirable because of his ‘certain air of distinction congruous with good family’ with which she is impressed. She also feels that he has prospects of leaving Middlemarch, which would fit her preferred role perfectly as it would sever connections with her lowborn mother.
She is prepared to be utterly subordinate, as long as she is provided with every comfort in which she is accustomed to indulge. Having been ‘the flower of Miss Lemon’s school’ she has been bred into a position of material showiness; her piano playing is delivered ‘with the precision of an echo’ of Kapellmeister. The fact that her playing resembles an echo removes any element of artistic flair, and shows that she accepts the role as performing merely for the purpose of attention, rather than to enjoy or enhance her musical talent.
Rosamond also advertises herself in front of Lydgate, so that he is capable of imagining his pride in having her as his wife. She is aware of every move that she makes in front of the doctor; when they first met at Featherstone’s ‘every nerve and muscle in Rosamond was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at’. She has been brought up amongst attitudes similar to those of Brooke, and as a result has accepted the role in courtship as, basically, a certificate of prowess, and one who takes care ‘not to show her dimples on the wrong occasion’ lest it make her look superficial.
She seems to fit every one of Lydgate’s expectations in a woman, who desires a wife whose beauty is ‘by its very nature virtuous, being moulded only for pure and delicate joys’. Rosamond has been ‘moulded’ into this role her entire life, deliberately moving in such a way that ‘her flower like head… was seen in perfection above her riding habit’, and her purpose for providing such ‘delicate joys’ in her manner is thus displayed.
Lydgate’s expectations in women changed after he unfortunately, but romantically, fell in love with a French actor, Laure, followed her across from Paris to Avignon after the tragic death of her husband, only to learn that she had murdered him ‘because he was too fond’. This painful memory seems to have changed Lydgate, who is now repulsed by ‘large-eyed silence’, and Rosamond, being the ‘very opposite’, is extremely attractive to the doctor.
The formula for a failed marriage is obvious when, once married, Lydgate’s expectations of Rosamond as his wife contrast with her own comprehension of her role. All her respect for Lydgate disappears when she notices that she does not have the material wealth that she has been accustomed to, and that her dreams of acquiring a ‘first-rate position elsewhere than in Middlemarch’ show themselves to be impossible for Lydgate. Her acceptance of the role as the subservient wife who brings prestige and status to Lydgate vanishes as she panics, realising that her role is not as she imagines and she does not have every comfort that she envisaged. She blames Lydgate, thinking that ‘if she had known how Lydgate would behave, she would ever have married him’.
Lydgate’s expectation of her respect as his wife is also shattered when she goes behind his back in her panic. She writes to his uncle in asking for money and, Lydgate having received an unappreciative reply, accuses her of ‘secret meddling’, and having ‘incompetence to judge and act’ for him. Their marriage deteriorates further for the rest of the novel.
The role of Susan Garth in her marriage, and the expectations of Caleb, present a much more harmonious image than with these other failures. There is a mutual respect between the couple, and Caleb expects his wife to be submissive under patriarchal authority, but also to take a more active role in decision-making and with the family; Caleb will ‘take no important step without consulting Susan’. Susan does, therefore, have an authoritative role in affairs, but she also knows when to ‘make herself subordinate’, a compromise in her role that creates the blissful nature of their marriage.
However Susan holds a position that is never over-assertive. She knows her husband well, comprehending ‘a sign of his not intending to speak further on the subject’. Unlike Rosamond, Susan is able to give up material wealth for love of her husband. Her place in society is flexible; although her ‘grammar and accent were above the town standard’, she is prepared to accept a life that renounces ‘all pride in teapots or children’s frilling’.
Mrs. Garth is independent in teaching the children and managing the home, whilst Mr. Garth is independent in his work. Mrs. Garth gains security in knowing that the household would not properly function without her whilst overlooking Caleb’s ‘incapacity of minding his own interests’, and Mr. Garth gives her due respect in his expectations for her to do so. She respects Caleb in a way quite alien to Rosamond, and Caleb returns this in a way quite alien to Casaubon.
Eliot also presents Mary Garth’s role in relationship to Fred Vincy as an example. She unquestionably saves Fred by directing the energy of his love for her towards spurring him into employment and decency, by saying that she would never engage herself ‘to one who has no manly independence’. She respects him even after he financially cripples their family.
Mary is quite exempt from the expectations of others, other than those of Featherstone for which she is employed. Fred’s only requirement of her is not to think him a ‘good-for nothing blackguard’, whilst he would ‘try to be anything’ Mary wanted if she would profess her love for him. Mary uses such a pledge to make Fred work himself out of debt. Their marriage is ultimately a successful one, and again this is mostly due to non-assertiveness as far as Fred’s expectation goes, similarly to Mr. And Mrs. Garth.
Dorothea is educated by the failure of her marriage to Casaubon, and is perhaps able to see that their problems arose from his lack of accommodation for her role within the marriage. She marries Will Ladislaw, who would have given up ‘everything else in life’ only to ‘watch over her’, and his reverential attitude towards her gives her the scope to pursue her own role in the relationship. This role does include, as she had initially wished, helping a man achieve great feats, by ‘being in the thick of a struggle’ against the Parliamentary ‘wrongs’ of the nation.
Eliot does not necessarily insist on unorthodoxy in a relationship to give success. She is not particularly writing against patriarchal roles and expectations, as shown when she writes that Dorothea was ‘known in certain circles as a wife and mother’, despite creating her as exemplary of how she feels the place of women in society should be. The same is true of Mr and Mrs Garth, as she accepts her wifely duty to allow Caleb his power in the household.
Eliot is essentially writing against superficial or disrespectful roles, such as the one assumed by Rosamond; she does this by making her marriage a complete failure by the end of the novel. She also writes against the wrongs in the expectations of men towards women, such as the ones that shaped Rosamond into a falsity, and the limiting, restrictive expectations of Casaubon that ruined his marriage to Dorothea. The happiness that exists by the end of the novel are the product of respectful, flexible attitudes towards one another.