Middlemarch – To what extent is gender a dominant concern of the novel?

In any text concerned with the intimate and varied lives of human characters, gender is usually of prime importance. Therefore we might turn the question around and ask with what else the novel Middlemarch is concerned. Something else also relevant to the question is that evidence suggests that different cultures and different historical periods within the same culture, tend to rear male and female babies in different ways, giving rise to changes in roles. A feature in Hutchinsons New English Encyclopaedia says:

It has been plausibly argued, however, that gender differences are purely arbitrary, that societies with different child-rearing practices have different attitudes toward men and women and their roles, and that in an ideal world gender differences could be abolished and many of the inequities of present-day society eliminated.[i]

So, as the novel is about realistic people, of course gender is mentioned and dealt with throughout the book. Therefore I will modify the question and ask how the text presents gender, and what is said about the subject.

Considering that Eliot has written a prelude to the novel that is echoed at the end, we can look for clues in what is said. St. Theresa of Avila is used as a metaphor for the personal and social struggle of some women.[ii]

Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.[iii]

Connecting this with the later words –

… for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.  Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.[iv]

– the mention of ardour, the yearning of womanhood, the spiritual grandeur and the meanness of opportunity stand out as key issues. Because the ‘common yearning of womanhood’ is mentioned in connection with ‘meanness of opportunity’, the passage gives the impression of a potential felt by women but which is only capable of expression when ‘opportunity is not ‘mean’. One might therefore assume the book to be mainly about the striving of women, especially as the novel ends with a return to a mention of Theresa and the noble or ignoble life of women – particularly the heroine of the novel, Dorothea. However, the history of how the novel came to be written, the merging of two novels, suggests that the life of Lydgate is as much a central topic as that of Dorothea.[v] Therefore we cannot assume this is simply about women weighing their potential against social and moral opportunity.

Turning to the main text, something that stands out is the incredibly detailed and lengthy description of the characters motivations in given situations. An interesting example of this is in the scenes where Fred Vincy tries to make some money by buying a horse to sell for profit. The narrator starts with the words, ” Fred was not a gambler.”[vi] The text then goes on to say:

… he had not that specific disease in which the suspension of the whole nervous energy on a chance or risk becomes as necessary as the dram to the drunkard; he had only the tendency to that diffusive form of gambling which has no alcoholic intensity, but is carried on with the healthiest chyle-fed blood, keeping up a joyous imaginative activity which fashions events according to desire, and having no fears about its own weather, only sees the advantage there must be to others in going aboard with it.[vii]

The passage in all continues for five-hundred words. Here the narrator first defines a condition – alcoholic gambling. By use of the past tense – he had – we are led to look back on Fred, and through comparison with the defined condition, see Fred in a healthier though perhaps naïve light. It is suggested to us that Fred is led by his ebullient desires which give rise to an imaginative appraisal of situations. This sets the scene for what follows, and carefully makes sense of why Fred acts in such an apparently foolish a way. Each twist and turn of Fred’s responses and reasonings are carefully followed in the text.

He felt sure that if he did not come to a bargain with the farmer, Bambridge would; for the stress of circumstances, Fred felt, was sharpening his acuteness and endowing him with all the constructive power of suspicion. Bambridge had run down Diamond in a way that he never would have done (the horse being a friend’s) if he had not thought of buying it; every one who looked at the animal–even Horrock–was evidently impressed with its merit.[viii]

In this passage, although it is the narrator speaking, the internal focus of the text makes us feel we are with Fred in his very thought processes. This is achieved by telling us that ‘Fred Felt’ and ‘He felt’. Lord Acton, on the news of George Eliot’s death, wrote about this extraordinary talent to Gladstone’s daughter:

George Eliot seemed to me capable not only of reading the diverse hearts of men, but of creeping into their skin, watching the world through their eyes, feeling their latent background of conviction, discerning theory and habit, influences of thought and knowledge, of life and descent, and having obtained this experience, recovering her independence, stripping off the borrowed shell, and exposing scientifically and indifferently the soul of a Vestal, a Crusader, an Anabaptist, an Inquisitor, a Dervish, a Nihilist, or a Cavalier without attraction, preference, or caricature.[ix]

Does she take such care, use such painstaking art, to portray gender issues? Yes, of course. The art is diffuse throughout the novel. Because it is diffuse however, the insights she gives are connected with whatever she touches. However, looking through the text, there is no sign at all of preaching or lecturing. Despite Eliot being an agnostic for all of her life as a writer, in the text she does not attempt to belittle or skimp on her descriptions of characters religious feelings. Neither is there any sign of making such beliefs pretty, or other than they are for those characters. The same applies to the description of political or social views. Taken as a whole, this quality of discernement, conditioned as it is by the times, is nevertheless an attempt at presenting an integrated picture of the world and of people’s part in it. If this is the case it is amazing that Eltiot did not attempt to press people into her world view. For myself I find this a real insight into what art really is. Carroll says of this:

In these works George Eliot can be seen continually returning to the central question: how do people make sense of the world? What is the relationship between the individual and the community? The story of her writing career is that of an increasingly complex vision of the relation of part and whole, and the acknowledgement in both social and psychological terms that each can only be understood in terms of the other. Middlemarch is the novel in which the need to make sense of the world and the difficulty of doing so achieve a fine equilibrium at all levels of the narrative.[x]

I realise this is but a cursory glance at this huge work. Nevertheless a glance is enough to impress. So in response to the questions pursued, although Eliot apparently sets out to make this novel a work depicting the potential of aspiring women in face of lack in opportunity, it is much more. It is a subtle and varied portrayal of both sexes, with their limitations, their emerging strengths and disappointments. It is a commentary on ambition, religion, foolishness and greed. It portrays an immense insight into human nature and what motivates people in the most subtle of ways. Into words and plot it breathes a magnificently wide view of human life.


George Eliot. Middlemarch. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1986. ISBN: 0-19-281760-4

George Eliot. Middlemarch. Chatto and Windus. London. 1950. ISBN: 0-7011-1245-X

Infopedia UK ’96. Hutchinsons New Century Enc


[i] Infopedia UK ’96. Hutchinsons New Century Encyclopaedia. CD ROM edition. Entry ‘gender differences’.

[ii] Teresa, St te.rize [1515-1582] Spanish mystic who founded an order of nuns 1562. She was subject to fainting fits, during which she saw visions. She wrote The Way to Perfection 1583 and an autobiography, Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus , 1611. In 1622 she was canonized, and in 1970 was made the first female Doctor of the Church. She was born in Avila. Infopedia UK ’96. Hutchinsons New Century Encyclopaedia. CD ROM edition. Entry = Avila or Teresa.

[iii] George Eliot. Middlemarch. OUP ed. Page 3.

[iv] George Eliot. Middlemarch. OUP ed. Page 3.

[v] The unique structure of Middlemarch was not simply the result of a creative experiment by George Eliot; it was greatly influenced by the unusual way the novel came into existence, and by the realities of Victorian publishing. Originally, this study of provincial life was to have focused primarily upon the Vincy and Featherstone families, tracing the impact of the interloper Lydgate upon this Middlemarch community. The writing proved difficult, however, and ‘Middlemarch’ was aban­doned. In December 1870 George Eliot began experimenting with a story called ‘Miss Brooke’ which made rapid progress: ten chapters were written in two months, and the material was expanding. Early in 1871 the decision was made to combine the two narratives, presumably because the novelist saw significant links between the two major relationships of Rosamond and Lydgate, and Dorothea and Casaubon. This merging enabled the study of provincial life to be enlarged in scope, and also accommodated the developments of her new story. In the event, the first ten chapters of ‘Miss Brooke’ became substantially the first ten chapters of Middlemarch, and the next six (xi-xvi) were revised and reordered from the ‘Middlemarch’ narrative which had been abandoned in November 1870.

Quoted from the Introduction to the World’s Classics edition of Middlemarch. The Introduction and Notes were written by David Carroll.

[vi] George Eliot. Middlemarch. OUP ed. Page 194.

[vii] George Eliot. Middlemarch. OUP ed. Page 194.

[viii] George Eliot. Middlemarch. OUP ed. Page

[ix] George Eliot. Middlemarch. OUP ed. Quoted from the Introduction by David Carroll. Page vii.

[x] George Eliot. Middlemarch. OUP ed. Quoted from the Introduction by David Carroll. Page ix.


-sarjitroy 2012-01-28 20:06:08

use les words

    -Tony Crisp 2012-01-30 12:21:47

    Sarjitroy – Thanks for the input. It was written as part of an exam paper and had to be a certain word length – in Oxford university..

    It is, even so, good to give an example of shortening it and making sense.


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