UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Treatment of women in the novels of George Eliot Petrie, Anne Grant


A mid-nineteenth century feminist anxious to enlist the support of the illustrious George Eliot in her cause would have found in the novelist a curious blend of progressive and conservative responses to the "woman question." Marian Evans' own struggle for a literary career coupled with the materialistic world view which she adopted from Ludwig Feuer-bach gave her an acute understanding of the oppression women endured under a patriarchal system. But at the same time she felt that women had a distinctive psychological makeup which meant they could exercise a special beneficent moral influence in social life. She would not admit woman's full equality with man because she felt that the complete emancipation of her sex might coarsen the feminine nature. George Eliot's contradictory attitudes to the position of women are reflected in her fictional writing, often marring the unity of her presentation of female characters. In The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda brilliant analysis of the effects of male supremacy turns into blind worship of the Victorian vision of woman as "the angel in the house." My argument is not with the traditional view of woman per se; but that in George Eliot's work it is in direct opposition to a stronger and more aesthetically satisfying radical interpretation. The presence of stereotyped images of women in otherwise brilliant novels reduces complexity to artifice, realism to idealism and hard-edged irony to facile sentiment. In The Mill Maggie Tulliver is clearly struggling for some personal identity other than the strictly "feminine" one her brother Tom insists on. However, by the end of the novel Maggie has apparently found fulfilment in passive submission to Tom's male superiority. Similarly In Middlemarch Dorothea's quest for some greater meaning in her life than the cloistered position of a gentlewoman usually allows for is answered first with an idealized marriage to Will Ladislaw, and second with Vague references to her goddess-like perfection. One of Eliot's greatest achievements as a novelist is her determination to take the bitch seriously. With both Rosamond Vincy and Gwendolen Harleth she probes the usual stereotype of the evil woman to show that these two are as much victims of a repressive patriarchal society as are the more attractive characters such as Dorothea and Maggie. But she does not carry through her sympathetic understanding of the bitch character. Rosamond is finally declared to be the unregenerate evil woman who "flourishes wonderfully on a murdered man's brains." Gwendolen does change but as is implied by the comparison to Mirah Lapidoth, it is only to be removed from one role, the bitch and placed immediately in another, the good woman. This pattern is repeated in Felix Holt the Radical by measuring Mrs. Transome against Esther Lyon. The ambiguous treatment of the female personality does not arise in George Eliot's other novels because none of the women characters is ever lifted far enough above stereotype for there to be any question of a departure from realism. However Adam Bede, Silas Marner and Romola are briefly discussed with Felix Holt in Chapter IV. Although this thesis dwells largely on certain aesthetic weaknesses in the fictional writing of George Eliot, I am not suggesting that her reversion to traditional images of the feminine character destroys the novels. On the contrary recognizing and exploring these obvious areas of failure dramatically points up the brilliance of the initial feminist perspective (i.e. the recognition that much of what is called the female character is in fact a response to patriarchal values) which George Eliot takes in introducing her women characters.

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