Middlemarch is a highly unusual novel. Although it is primarily a Victorian novel, it has many characteristics typical to modern novels. Critical reaction to Eliot's masterpiece work was mixed. A common accusation leveled against it was its morbid, depressing tone. Many critics did not like Eliot's habit of scattering obscure literary and scientific allusions throughout the book. In their opinion a woman writer should not be so intellectual. Eliot hated the "silly, women novelists." In the Victorian era, women writers were generally confined to writing the stereotypical fantasies of the conventional romance fiction. Not only did Eliot dislike the constraints imposed on women's writing, she disliked the stories they were expected to produce. Her disdain for the tropes of conventional romance is apparent in her treatment of marriage between Rosamond and Lydgate. Both and Rosamond and Lydgate think of courtship and romance in terms of ideals taken directly from conventional romance. Another problem with such fiction is that marriage marks the end of the novel. Eliot goes through great effort to depict the realities of marriage.
Moreover, Eliot's many critics found Middlemarch to be too depressing for a woman writer. Eliot refused to bow to the conventions of a happy ending. An ill-advised marriage between two people who are inherently incompatible never becomes completely harmonious. In fact, it becomes a yoke. Such is the case in the marriages of Lydgate and Dorothea. Dorothea was saved from living with her mistake for her whole life because her elderly husband dies of a heart attack. Lydgate and Rosamond, on the other hand, married young.
Two major life choices govern the narrative of Middlemarch. One is marriage and the other is vocation. Eliot takes both choices very seriously. Short, romantic courtships lead to trouble, because both parties entertain unrealistic ideals of each other. They marry without getting to know one another. Marriages based on compatibility work better. Moreover, marriages in which women have a greater say also work better, such as the marriage between Fred and Mary. She tells him she will not marry if he becomes a clergyman. Her condition saves Fred from an unhappy entrapment in an occupation he doesn't like. Dorothea and Casaubon struggle continually because Casaubon attempts to make her submit to his control. The same applies in the marriage between Lydgate and Rosamond.
The choice of an occupation by which one earns a living is also an important element in the book. Eliot illustrates the consequences of making the wrong choice. She also details at great length the consequences of confining women to the domestic sphere alone. Dorothea's passionate ambition for social reform is never realized. She ends with a happy marriage, but there is some sense that her end as merely a wife and mother is a waste. Rosamond's shrewd capabilities degenerate into vanity and manipulation. She is restless within the domestic sphere, and her stifled ambitions only result in unhappiness for herself and her husband.
Eliot's refusal to conform to happy endings demonstrates the fact that Middlemarch is not meant to be entertainment. She wants to deal with real-life issues, not the fantasy world to which women writers were often confined. Her ambition was to create a portrait of the complexity of ordinary human life: quiet tragedies, petty character failings, small triumphs, and quiet moments of dignity. The complexity of her portrait of provincial society is reflected in the complexity of individual characters. The contradictions in the character of the individual person are evident in the shifting sympathies of the reader. One moment, we pity Casaubon, the next we judge him critically.
Middlemarch stubbornly refuses to behave like a typical novel. The novel is a collection of relationships between several major players in the drama, but no single one person occupies the center of the action. No one person can represent provincial life. It is necessary to include multiple people. Eliot's book is fairly experimental for its time in form and content, particularly because she was a woman writer.
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