Feminism in Middlemarch by George Eliot


Marry Anne Evans was one of the renowned novelists of the Victorian era, whose novels depict her own experiences of life. She was one of those women who was living in a male-dominated society. 

From a very early age, she was quite intelligent and thus her father provided her private education which the other females of her time did not usually get. At the age of 16, her mother died and was forced to leave school.

The controversy in her life started when she went to London after her father’s death and started living with George Henry Lewes in a living relationship.

He was already married and could not divorce his wife although they were living separately. Both Marry Evan and Lewes were severely criticised, still, they decided to live with each other.

Being well aware of the fact that her controversial affair with Lewes as well as her gender would become an obstacle to her writing career she started publishing her works with her pen name George Eliot. 

Another reason for using the pseudonym was that she wanted to escape the stereotype women writing that was limited to light-hearted romances.  

Under the guidance of Lewes, she wrote her first novel The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Baiton in 1857 A.D. and thus her literary career began that touches skies when Middlemarch was published.

George Eliot as a Feminist

During the Victorian Age, the females were considered to be inferior to men and thus there existed discrimination regarding the status of women in English society. In every sphere and field there existed domination of men.

There were very limited opportunities for the women of that age. The best profession for women during that age was the wifehood or the service of their husbands.

The ideal lady, Virginia Woolf quotes were “the Angel of the House”. The women education was never taken seriously.

However, George Eliot could be considered to be the one those feminists who challenged the male-domination and norm of patriarchy in her age and upheld the status of woman in the society. 

She renounced her faith and also gave up her belief in God. She broke the social norms by living with a married man namely George Henry Lewes whom she was deeply in love with.

As a feminist, she supported the movement for women education and also donated for the establishment of women college. After the death of her father, she did not remain dependent on anybody. 

Instead, she moved to London and started working as an editor for Westminster Review. Thus one finds that the zeal and zest for women emancipation were in her body and soul that remained both in her literary career as well.

Middlemarch – The Masterpiece of Eliot

George Eliot occupies a distinguished position among the feminist literary critics. Eliot’s life was full of rebellions and insatiable zeal. She struggles between realism and idealism; she desired to compete with the male’s writers. 

In this regard, Middlemarch can be considered as her masterpiece that represents her struggle between idealism and realism.

The novel achieved fame after her death and its popularity ever faded away till today. Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”.

But we also find some negative review of the novel. e.g. “Dorothea in Middlemarch cannot achieve the status of Saint Theresa at the time which Eliot’s characters live is not suitable for them.

Some critics like Zelda Austen go to the extent of saying that “Dorothea is not only less heroic then Saint Theresa and Antigone but also George Eliot herself”.

Another criticism of George Eliot is from Henry James who is of the view that Will Ladislaw is inferior to Dorothea and that he “has not the concentrated fervour essential in the man chosen by so nobly strenuous a heroine”.

However, in response, Ruth Yeazell and Kathleen Blake condemn these critics for “expecting literary pictures of a strong woman succeeding in a period (around 1830) that did not male them likely in life”. 

Hence we find both positive as well as negative reviews of the novel, but it is also true that Novel holds the name position today that it held during its golden period.

Dorothea as the Representative of Woman Emancipation

Dorothea is the product of the novelist’s own life experiences. the struggle between realism and idealism can be found in her character. To make Dorothea a true representative of the struggle for women empowerment, George Eliot has made her very different from other women of her time. I will try to analyse various aspects of her character and nature to vindicate the idea of feminism in the novel.

Her Nature

From the very beginning of the novel, we find that Dorothea’s nature is quite different from that of her sister Celia. She likes to remain in a simple dress and also to adopt simple nature without desires.

She does not like the idea of attaching importance to her attire and hue which was trending during her age. She is beautiful and charming yet she does not prefer to attract males or desire for someone very handsome and rich.

She has no liking for jewellery. When her sister brings the box of ornaments of their mother asking her to choose some of them for herself, Dorothea does not like any of them and chooses only a bracelet.

Celia does not like this attitude of her because the society of her time held that a woman should have taste in decoration, singing, cooing etc. 

But on contrary to this convention she likes to study books, and quest for ideal things that later make her miserable. But Dorothea does not like any of them. She has her own likes and dislikes that are far apart from those of her sister.

Her Passion for Knowledge

During the 18th century, the women were provided limited opportunities for education. There ability and virtue were judged on the basis of their service to their husbands.

Knowledge was thought to be unsuitable for the women. But Dorothea seems to break this convention. Dorothea and Celia lose their parents at a young age. They receive education at boarding schools with the help of their uncle.

Though education is meant for their marriage, yet Dorothea rejects this notion and develops her interest in studying science, theology and particularly those subjects that focus on the betterment of the society.

She is often criticised by her uncle for showing interest in learning. Reading such books, she becomes an appreciator of all those people who quest for knowledge and also struggle for the development and betterment of society.

For the sate of learning, she falls in love with an old chap who has wrinkles of an oldie on her face. It is her ideal love and thirst for knowledge that makes her find beauty in every dull thing of Casaubon, from his wrinkled face to the jail-like house. It is the pursuit of knowledge that makes her life miserable. She acknowledges this fact later on.

Here again we find that she represents independence in the matter of selection both the times; first with Casaubon (for the sake of Knowledge) and after his death, with his cousin (for the sake of love). 

Such independence fro women never existed in English society. Thus Eliot has challenged this notion of society by presenting such an independent character like Dorothea.

Her Quest for Idealism

Dorothea is an idealist girl. Being well educated, she loves books and lives the life in her own way. She chooses her first husband just because of her love for knowledge. 

He is an old chap. But being a lady of ideal thoughts, she finds in him the world of opportunities. From the very day when Casaubon sends her proposal for marriage, she starts dreaming of her life with him.

Her eagerness can be found by the fact that she starts learning Greek just for the sake of helping him. She does this all without any external force and just because of her own will.

Her marriage does not prove to be successful. Both of them expect too much from each other that results in the emergence of a number of conflicts between them.

Ultimately after the death of her husband, she decides to marry Ladislaw because he loves her and cares for her. Thus Time again we find the dominance of idealism in her decision.

Because her first husband had declared that she will lose all of her inherited property if she married Will Ladislaw after his death. But Dorothea does not seem to be a realist in this case as well.

She renounces her property and marries again to Will. This time again she does so by her own will. Thus the author shows her empowerment in terms of the decision.


From the above analysis of the novel, I conclude that Middlemarch is a feminist novel that upholds the desires and the decision of women. By doing this George Eliot tries to bring women to the status of men.

Dorothea holds this ideology. Like George Eliot, she is also an idealist. Like Eliot, she also breaks the convention of marriage. She remains independent in her decisions.

She satiates her desires by marrying twice. Hence George Eliot succeeds in putting forward the ideology of feminism in the novel.