How Is the “Woman Question” Reflected in Middle March?

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  • Topic: George Eliot, Middlemarch, Woman
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How is the “Woman Question” reflected in Middle March?
The Woman Question is a phrase usually used in connection with a social change in the latter half of the nineteenth century which questioned the fundamental roles of women in countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, and Russia. Issues of women's suffrage, reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, property rights, legal rights, medical rights and marriage dominated cultural discussions in newspapers and intellectual circles. While many women were supportive of these changing roles, they did not agree unanimously. Often issues of marriage and sexual freedom were most divisive. By the way, The works of women are symbolical, We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir To put on when you’re weary… Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean And sleep, and dream of something we are not But would be for your sake. Alas, Alas! (Aurora Leigh: Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

In 1855 she wrote a sympathetic essay ‘Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft’ that anticipates the concerns she takes up in ‘Middlemarch’: women’s natures, their need for work, men’s presumption of superiority and its destructive consequences. Eliot says of Fuller, “some of the best things she says are on the folly of absolute definitions of woman's nature and absolute demarcations of woman's mission”. She quotes Fuller: “I think women need, especially at this juncture, a much greater range of occupation than they have, to rouse their latent powers” if they are to avoid “the ennui that haunts grown women.” George Eliot sets her novel nearly 40 years before the period in which it is written. This period in which she grew to adulthood was one that saw an increasing number of studies of the condition of women, some of which had outcome in action. The state of legislation, about property rights and about divorce, held women in a state of dependency. This was completed by their lack of education, which leads to their economic dependence on the home either of husband or father. In ‘Felix Holt’, and even more in ‘Daniel Deronda’, she continuously explores the condition of women, apparently at ease, living privileged lives, and yet atrophied by their condition of slavery. Mrs. Transome, Mrs. Glasher and Gwendolen all share this imagery. Thus she is able to explore a series of connections and analogies between present and past. In one sense, the whole period of growth of the women’s movement is excluded from the novel. In another, as narrative discourse and as reader’s retrospect, it becomes the matter of the novel’s irony and of melancholy idealism. ‘Middlemarch’ begins and ends with Dorothea. Even in its revised state the ‘Finale’ still completes the theme launched in the ‘Prelude’. That theme concerns what may be called the “Saint Theresa syndrome”, the state of a soul that aspires to epic life but finds no channel for “far-resonant action”, and so achieves only a blundering life, its aspirations “dispersed among hindrances”. This fate is specifically feminine. The ‘Prelude’ concerns itself with “the natures of women”. The ardor that appears extravagant because its object is so vague alternates with the “common yearning of womanhood”. If she tries to take her stand anywhere but at the level that defines her by sex, which Eliot hardly recommends, calling it a ‘lapse’, a woman's character becomes liable to the odd condition of “indefiniteness”. Upper-middle and upper class Victorian women were expected to “marry money”, stay home to raise the family, and be responsible for the management of domestic affairs. On the other hand, Dorothea Brooke is an intelligent and independent young woman; she yearns to be more than her society would allow her to be. While other Victorian ladies worried about fashion and marriage, she concerns herself with issues of philosophy, spirituality, and service. Eliot points out Dorothea's genuine beauty while...
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