George Eliot: feminism and women's vocations
Hess, Virginia Flynn
Master of Arts
The purpose of this thesis is to determine George Eliot's concepts of women's opportunities for self-dedication, as demonstrated in the novels, and to show how these concepts are modified by contemporary feminist issues. Chapter one attempts to define feminism in its various phases. George Eliot usually supported those feminist issues which called for a reform of the existing system. She was especially concerned in the novels with the lady as a unique product of nineteenth century industrialization. A man's wife was considered a purely ornamental creature, an index of his success in the new middle classes. The housework was done by cheap domestic labor, and intelligent women were forced to look outside the home for objects of self-dedication. The question "What am I to do with myself?" is an increasingly important concern for Victorian women, and for George Eliot's heroines. George Eliot feels that men and women are basically unequal, in that woman has the greater emotional capacity, while man has a greater reasoning ability. Chapter two deals with the Positivist philosophy as a source of the marital ideal which George Eliot would promote for women. The positivist ideal of woman's role is one in which woman is the moral standard of the family and community. In this George Eliot concurs. She also agrees with John Stuart Mill, however, in recognizing that the Victorian reality is a far cry from the Positivist ideal. Chapter three is an examination of the early novels as proposing marriage as the solution to woman's ardent nature. Her first novel, Adam Bede, comes close to embodying a Positivist ideal in the character of Dinah. In The mill on the Floss, George Eliot is concerned with depicting the rise of the middle-class lady, and the narrowing and closing of her function in society. In Felix Holt, George Eliot uses the character of Mrs. Transome to expose the Victorian concept of the perfect lady for the horror that it really was. Middlemarch is the final novel in which George Eliot affirms the marriage ideal. Daniel Deronda is treated in chapter four as a departure from George Eliot's previous ideals for women. Gwendolen Harleth is not fit for marriage, and is forced into it by economic and social pressure. Her fortunate release from the marriage is an individual's fate, and does not soften George Eliot's critique of the society that has produced the major characters of the novel. marriage as an existing social institution is strongly criticized, if not condemned.