In the literary community, there seems to be quite a debate on whether Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a truly “satisfactory” character. Feminist critics such as Lee R. Edwards have pointed out that Dorothea succumbs to the conservative expectations of society, ultimately becoming no more than a mother and a wife. In some ways, Eliot seems to deny her female protagonist the greater sense of freedom that she claimed in her own life.
My own stance on this is that Dorothea finds her success in the inward struggle that she goes through and the actions she does manage to do to change the lives of others. At the end of the novel, there seems to be an undertone of sarcasm in the final judgement of Dorothea. She is described as a “pity” in the eyes of others, and the most significant advice she gets is ‘you shouldn’t have married Will Ladislaw’. Almost never does Dorothea manage to get approval from society: when she’s a young girl, people criticise her uncle for not employing an older woman as a guiding hand; when she chooses her first husband, no one has any sympathy for her or Mr. Casaubon, and even when she chooses rightly in marrying Will Ladislaw, people view her as a disappointment. It becomes quite clear that no one is willing to really understand Dorothea’s intellectual longings; longings that we are aware of through Dorothea’s stream of consciousness.
However, we also witness some incredibly vivid moments of Dorothea’s agency. A favourite scene in the novel for me is when Dorothea decides to sacrifice her own love for Will Ladislaw in order to help Rosamond Vincy, leaving behind her prejudices. This is quite a motif in the novel – those who are the greatest human beings, such as Mr. Farebrother and Dorothea, are not always the most strictly religious. They strive to do their best despite being trapped by their mistakes and shortcomings – Dorothea, because of her marriage and Mr. Farebrother, because he is older than Fred Vincy and can never take the place of Mary Garth’s childhood sweetheart
It can be easy to be disappointed with the character of Dorothea Brooke in hindsight, after feminism has become such a central issue in society. However, Dorothea makes a lot of progress throughout the book: she goes from quarrelling about jewels and horse-riding to making difficult decisions about how to shape her future. She has the guts to go against society not once, but twice. Her whole idea of what it means to be faithful – in marriage but also in religion – is warped over the course of this novel. I think her enormous strength in going through these realistic obstacles is what makes her an unforgettable character for me, if not a feminist.
Keep reading and readjoicing,
I always had a soft corner for Dorothea–never thought of her as a failure. As you say, she fought her own battles. And becoming a wife and mother doesn’t rule necessarily mean capitulation.