Moreover, the Victorian middle class reformed the meaning of work. Before industrialization, working for a living was not a respectable occupation. Protestant, middle-class values turned work into a virtue. Working hard and accumulating wealth came to be seen as a sign of God's favor. Thus, the choice of a vocation was a very serious matter. This is the dilemma facing Fred Vincy. He hopes to inherit a large estate and avoid having to earn his living. His disappointment brings him to face the undesirable prospect of the Church as his occupation. However, he feels that he is not meant to be a clergyman. Farebrother became a clergyman because he had to support his female relatives, but he appears to be better suited to natural science. Moreover, he must gamble to support his interest in science. The wrong choice forces him to subvert the office he occupies. He becomes a contradiction in terms: a smoking, gambling clergyman.

Mr. Brooke never chooses any determined occupation. He dabbles in everything. He is continually saying that he has "gone into" a little of everything. Moreover, he tries to run for election on a whim. For him, it is a strictly self-centered, narcissistic impulse. He runs on the Reform platform, but, to him, "reform" is an abstract, fanciful idea, not a matter of improvement of real human lives. It offers him an opportunity to strut and make speeches. The opposition, in keeping with the middle-class value system, is quick to point out the fact that his public image clashes strongly with his private life.

Dorothea attempts to save her uncle from the consequences of the contradiction between his public and private selves. Moreover, her intervention illustrates the much narrower range of choices for women. Dorothea has an intense desire to be a reforming philanthropist. However, as a woman, she can only enact the reforms she plans through men. Her cottage plans come to fruition through Sir James. She attempts to do the same through Brooke. However, she cannot bring her plans to action without a man to help her.