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middlemarchvpride and prejudice: women in the novels
Middlemarch clearly defines the expectations and functions of middle and upper class women in nineteenth century England. It becomes immediately obvious that the woman is inferior in every way to the man and that the function of the wife is that described in the words of the marriage ceremony; “to love, honour and obey”, with emphasis on obedience. “A woman dictates before marriage in order that she might have an appetite for submission afterwards”. The woman’s role was to serve her husband, to entertain him, to adorn his house much like a bunch of flowers or a painting. Lydgate sought in his wife “that distinctive womanhood which must be classed with flowers and music”. Sir James insisted that his wife become a perfect horsewoman, not for the skill or pleasure that it might give her but so “that she may accompany her husband”. Should the husband fall ill, it was her duty to nurse him. As Mr Trumbull remarks, “a man whose life is of any value should think of his wife as a nurse”. Mr Causabon married so as to secure “the solace of female tendance for his declining years”. As with his work, causabon is disillusioned about his marriage. He had married Dorothea hoping for a quiet docile companion who could also function as his secretary. Instead, he finds a person who makes intellectual demands on him that he is unable to fulfil. His marriage can be added to his long list of failures of which he is aware but which he is unable to acknowledge fully. Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice we are immediately introduced to the idea that women are thought of as a possession or an aid to man, as opposed to a fellow human being. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, suggests that women or a wife completes a ‘man’. Thus, they are given an understated importance in contrast to the unappreciative attitude shown towards women in Middlemarch.
The theme of illusion in Middlemarch is most clearly expressed in the marriages of Causabon and Dorothea, and Rosamond and Lydgate. All four marry not for love but for selfish reasons, each believing the partner to be other than he or she is. All four come to regret their decisions and end up suffering under the force of marriage. Yet in contrast Fred’s love for Mary is genuine and Mary’s honesty and generosity is contrasted sharply with Rosamond’s hypocrisy and selfishness. In Pride and Prejudice Wickham’s blind sighted marriage to Lydia is an example of the theme of illusion. Their marriage is farcical in the sense that Lydia marries to gain a handsome husband, as well as to slight her elder sisters, by marrying first. Wickham too had married selfishly, for the insubstantial wealth that the marriage brought to him, as well as to raise his own social status. Wickham’s marriage to Lydia is in direct contrast to the marriage of Jane and Mr Bingley, which like Fred and Mary’s is based on genuine affection. Jane’s kind hearted and unselfish nature is contrasted to Lydia’s unthoughtful and loutish behaviour.
Pride and Prejudice presents an objective view of the limited options opens to women, for example Charlotte Lucas. The author makes an implicit statement by disregarding certain structures of her era that may not be obvious to modern readers. For example, most of Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, does not have anyone in which she can confide, or whose advice she can rely on about delicate matters. Thus she must make her own decision, independently, for example Elizabeth does not reveal to Jane, her sister, her changed emotions towards Darcy until he has actually proposed again, and she has accepted. Such ‘moral autonomy’ on the part of the young woman would by no means have been universally approved of in Jane Austen’s day. This reflects the prominent mode of isolation suffered by women in the novel.
In Jane Austen’s time there was no real way for young women of the ‘genteel’ classes to strike out on their own and be independent. Therefore, most ‘genteel’ women were unable to finance themselves, thus wealth could only be captured by marriage or by inheritance. Unmarried women also had to live with their families, or with family approved protectors, in Pride and Prejudice, this dilemma is expressed most clearly by the character of Charlotte Lucas. In addition to the reasons why the women themselves wished to be married, family pressure may have arisen for them to marry. For example, when Charlotte marries Mr Collins at the age of twenty- seven, her brothers are “relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte dying an old maid.”
In Middlemarch Dorothea and Celia lived with Mr Brooke as their parents had died. A woman who did not marry could only look forward to living with her relations as a ‘dependant’, thus marriage was the only way of getting out from the parental roof. Dorothea believes that she has gained her liberty through marriage with Causabon, however the marriage is a device by which she is further oppressed.
George Eliot parallels Dorothea’s situation with the landscape and the house she shares with Causabon. “The narrowed landscape, the shrunken furniture, the never read books” tell us that Dorothea becomes aware of the true nature of her situation and begins to realise that instead of gaining her freedom in marriage, she has become trapped in a “still white enclosure”. The images also function as symbols of the pretentious nature of Casaubon’s studies, the narrowness of his world and the ‘dried up nature of the man’. The death like aspects of the images reflects the relationship between Dorothea and Causabon, and prepares us for his illness.
Elizabeth is greatly depicted in the outdoors, reflecting her emancipated nature. Dorothea is also pictured in gardens amongst flowers, yet gardens are confined capacities as opposed to the rambling wilderness in which Elizabeth wanders. It can be argued to an extent that the character of Elizabeth is less constrained than the character of Dorothea in Middlemarch, despite the progressive era in which Middlemarch is set.
Jane Austen portrays Elizabeth Bennet as a strong and intelligent woman, yet bewitching in a completely feminine way, arming her with attributes such as strength of character, moral integrity, and intelligence. Jane Austen often juxtaposes her with characters lacking her attributes to heighten our appreciation of her. Similarly, Eliot’s portrayal of Dorothea is so that we may see her hunger for knowledge. She is luminous, whilst the farcical Causabon is dull and overcast. We appreciate her goodness, and empathise with her hopeless situation, when married to causabon.
An important theme George Eliot discusses in Middlemarch is the dilemma of one possessed “of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity” These words refer to Dorothea. Dorothea stands out from the rest of the women in her society, she is the cygnet “reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond”. She refuses to bow to fashion whether it is in hairstyle or manner of dress. She possesses a social conscience and longs to be free from the “gentlewoman’s” oppressive liberty. Dorothea asks the question, “what shall I do?” she longs to be active but because of her sex, is unable to pursue her quest; the constraints of society demand that it remains an inward vision.
In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy finds Elizabeth so bewitching because she too is different from other women. No doubt, many women knew that he coveted the wealth and status that would come of being his wife; thus they flattered and agreed with him all the time, hoping to gain his favour. Elizabeth’s character is different. She wants to marry for love, and is unimpressed by Darcy’s material wealth and social status, daring to disagree with him. Therefore, their union at the end of the novel can be seen as an earnest attempt of a marriage based on love.
There is, to an extent, rebellion on part of both Dorothea and Elizabeth in regards to the social hierarchy. For example, in Rosings the Lucas’ and the Collins’ are submissive to Lady Catherine, with Maria being “frightened almost out of her senses” and it was probable that society as a whole behaved likewise. However, it can be argued, that Elizabeth is the “first creature who had ever dared to trifle with such dignified impertinence.” She is presented as a rebel of class when Lady Catherine pays a visit to her to ensure that she does not marry Darcy, and Elizabeth refuses to accept the idea that Pemberly will be polluted by her presence. Elizabeth also expresses her rebellion against society by taking little trouble to become skilled at playing the piano, and has not learnt drawing at all. In the case of Dorothea, her rebellion is her marriage to Will Ladislaw at the end of the novel. No one expects her to marry someone who is so beneath her own social position. “Mrs Cadwallader said you might as well marry an Italian with white mice”, nonetheless, she defies the rules and expectations of the society that has reared her to move to a world that is less exclusive. The freedom extended to do as both Dorothea and Elizabeth wish reproves male authority, a keystone for the foundations of society portrayed in each of the novels to an extent is based.
It is in the Lydgate and Rosamond relationship that we are able to see most clearly the “fallacy of male superiority” exposed. It can be argued that Lydgate’s pride was a flaw in his nature that that led to his downfall, so too was his ignorance of the true nature of women. Despite his intelligence and willingness to adapt to new methods in medicine. He displays the classic male attitude towards the woman. His rejection of Dorothea is because she “did not look at things from a proper feminine angle”, and he found it troublesome to talk to her because she was a woman “always wanting reasons yet too ignorant to understand the merits of any question”. Rosamond was a much more suitable partner because she “had just the kind of intelligence one would desire in a woman- polished, refined, docile”. He believed in the superiority of the male to the female and “the innate submissiveness of the goose to the strength of the gander”.
There is little doubt that Lydgate was naive about women, but his expectations of what his wife should be were of his generation and of generation both before and after him, “his tendency was not toward extreme opinions he walked by hereditary habit.” Even Rosamond conforms to the pattern of her particular social group, in seeking a husband from a higher social stratum. For example, Mr Vincy’s as well as much of the industrial middle class that had begun to move up the social ladder “it’s a good British feeling to try and raise your family a little”.
Whilst Rosamond’s main interests are clothes and social position, Dorothea’s loving self sacrifice, devotion and genuine concern for mankind are exactly the opposite. Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingly’s lavish and prominent figure in society is sharply contrasted to Elizabeth’s natural goodness. Each heroine makes a personal sacrifice at the end of the novel so that she may achieve happiness. In the case of Dorothea, it is the sacrifice of her social standing, and Causabon’s materialistic legacy, which leads her to find happiness through marriage with Will Ladislaw. The novels are different in that Will Ladislaw is not embedded in social structures like Darcy. Unlike Darcy, he does not have the wealth or assumed social position, which has the power to influence or dictate his way of life.