To Live Happily Ever After; (Dis)satisfaction in the Ending of Middlemarch

11 May 2018

To Live Happily Ever After; (Dis)satisfaction in the Ending of Middlemarch

I

I certainly felt a great deal of satisfaction upon reaching the final sentence of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, having seen a novel of this length through and achieving some sort of conclusion after observing her characters learn and grow over the course of almost 850 pages. Therefore, I would like to begin this paper with the end. The novel closes with an epilogue or Finale in which the reader discovers that Dorothea and Will get married, have children, and essentially live happily ever after. Several emotions ran through my mind as I processed this final chapter of Dorothea’s story. First, I felt fulfillment that Dorothea’s ending is a happy one. Dorothea and Will marry for love and, other than lack of great wealth, which neither Dorothea nor Will mind, they suffer no harsh consequences because of it. I also felt some amount of surprise at the fact that righteous Dorothea, the very same young woman who, several books previously, was thrilled to marry Casaubon, not for love but because she reveres him for his knowledge, would undergo such a change. Her unconventional story ends quite conventionally, which is jarring for many readers who expected her to lead a different course of life in her own direction. The ending may cause disappointment for some, who were rooting for George Eliot to maintain a more progressive lifestyle for Dorothea. Others still are content with this conclusion, as it is most believable that a young woman like Dorothea gets married, regardless of her deviation from the norm, as this is simply what many women of her time and class did. One cannot deny that, in one form or another, George Eliot’s work is grounded in a refreshing realism. I would first like to discuss how George Eliot intends to keep realism central to her novel, and the effects of this choice. In Part II, I will move on to how idealism is preferred in many readers, especially those with a feminist lens. This tension between realism and idealism is ever present in literature and begs the vast question: what should a novel do? By no means to I intend to answer this question, but through the exploration of Eliot’s characters and several scholarly critiques, perhaps I can shed light on all angles and their validity.

George Eliot is adamant about keeping her novel free of too many obvious literary conventions while remaining true to the realism of the time. Her protagonists are heavily flawed, which creates a much more complex number of intellects and motivations that make for an authentic community of characters. Several characters hold unorthodox views about medical remedies, radical politics, and life aspirations, and she presents the reader with many different perspectives to keep her novel from remaining static and singleminded. However, where George Eliot’s characterization remains unique for Victorian women, it can actually be a bit conventional for women in Victorian literature. One of Dorothea’s greatest aspirations, for example, is that of bettering her community with her architectural skills. A young woman with aspirations outside of marriage is definitely unconventional for a woman of her time, but not for a Victorian protagonist. In her essay “Silly Novels by Lady-Novelists,” George Eliot outlines some of the most common and most ridiculous themes found in virtually every female Victorian writer’s novel.

The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond. Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency, to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues.1

Upon first glance, George Eliot’s characters seem far less contrived than these characters, yet she has indeed adhered to many of the clichés she pokes fun at here. Dorothea is, in fact, of high social standing; she lives just outside of Middlemarch, but has her own inheritance and the prospect of her father’s estate should she marry, essentially making her an heiress. As for the stereotypical lovers lusting over her, Will Ladislaw isn’t so obvious a cliché, but he does love her from afar throughout the novel. However, he is not painted in a very desirable light, having no money and no driving ambition as is more often coveted in a male suitor of the time. Though Dorothea is described as strikingly beautiful, it is almost against her will as she dresses purposefully plainly. The very first sentence of the novel, “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress,”2 depicts this peculiar juxtaposition. Dorothea’s moral compass does align with this fantasy heroine, as she prides herself on superb morals and intelligence, is very religious, and always chooses the path of resistance if it means the chance to act a martyr or show righteous stubbornness. However, Eliot has given Dorothea a certain flair that makes her different from other heroines. Her greatest life aspiration is not to be married and become an obsolete wife, but to gain knowledge and share that in order to better her community. This is quite a unique goal when it comes to 19th century maidens. Dorothea has a mind of her own that is not clouded by the normal or proper desires a young woman of her time should feel. She is driven by strict morals, but ones that she herself sets, rather than society around her. Upon inspection, she is quite a feminist character in this way, unafraid to make decisions based on her own interests and uncaring of what others may think. George Eliot sets a more grounded tone in her novel by eliminating certain aspects of the female protagonist convention in Dorothea. Despite the inclusion of several of these conventions, the balance she achieves keeps her novel from leaning in the fantasy direction those that adhere to the familiar plot lines and characters outlined in “Silly Novels by Lady-Novelists” tend to do.

More proof that George Eliot remains aware of the conventions she attempts to avoid can be found in her treatment of perspective. Her novel features several points of view, but remains most faithful to only a few characters, namely Dorothea and Lydgate, not unlike a typical, slightly omniscient, third person perspective. Yet George Eliot’s readers have grown to rely on her realism because of passages that seem to almost break the fourth wall in their attempts to present a fair representation of perspectives:

One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect.3

This passage questions not just Victorian tropes, but one of the most common literary techniques imaginable — honing in on one character’s point of view rather than remaining an omniscient narrator. George Eliot interrupts her own narrative to almost criticize herself for returning to her protagonist’s point of view as if to ask — why is one character favored over all the others? Other characters’ perspectives and lives might be equally enlightening, but we are somehow drawn back to Dorothea’s. George Eliot insists that her readers remember her other characters’ perspectives as well, not just those of “the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble,” which may mean that though Dorothea’s fresh mindset may be intriguing, it is not the only one worth taking seriously in this context and may only appear to be a reliable source of information. This is one way that George Eliot brings more realism to her writing and remains unique from other Victorian novelists, who are perfectly content to focus on their most interesting characters’ points of view. With this technique, she encourages her readers to be openminded and to remember that everyone has a story. She provides a fresh outlook on the novel, on the work she has written so far within it, with this more rational way of looking at things.

From this lens, Dorothea’s ending can be viewed in two ways. It can feel disappointing since her marriage is a stereotypical way of ending the bolder novel George Eliot sets forth in writing with a wider range of mindsets in her cast of characters. On the other hand, George Eliot strives for realism, and what is more realistic for the time period than a young woman marrying? Despite all of Dorothea’s unorthodox qualities, it might have been most unrealistic of all for her to remain alone all her life and therefore gain nothing due to her lower social status as a woman. There was no chance for her to be successful in her aspirations without a man, as frustrating as that fact may be to hear in the 21st century, so in order to have a somewhat satisfactory ending, Dorothea must marry. The very term “realistic” becomes foggy the more one contemplates George Eliot’s complex novel and her intentions behind the plot she lays out for readers of all opinions. Here, I am defining realism as the opposite of idealism. “While realism in art is often used in the same contexts as naturalism, implying a concern with accurate and objective representation, it also suggests a deliberate rejection of conventionally attractive or appropriate subjects in favour of sincerity and a focus on the unidealized treatment of contemporary life.”4 As this definition states, realism is often viewed in a negative light because idealism can be so “conventionally attractive.” Yet it is these very conventions from which George Eliot attempts to stray in order to achieve a more rounded and impartial view of life.

George Eliot states in Adam Bede that “[i]t is so very rarely that facts hit that nice medium required by our own enlightened opinions and refined taste!”5 That is to say, it is so uncommon that a novel achieves the balance of truth, as in a world not entirely separated into black and white sympathetic and villainous characters, but mundane and complex ones as well. Facts are often open for individual interpretation and it is refreshing for George Eliot to acknowledge this by presenting different characters presenting what is true to them. Her excitement in this passage demonstrates the gratifying sense of achievement when an author makes writing about these gray characters exciting and real. This realism is an approach to writing that hasn’t been present in much Victorian fiction, as George Eliot points out in her essay. She quotes a passage from Laura Gay followed by her own concise commentary: “‘His tall figure, the distinguished simplicity of his air — it was a living Vandyke, a cavalier, one of his noble cavalier ancestors, or one to whom her fancy had always likened him, who long of yore had, with an Umfraville, fought the Paynim far beyond sea. Was this reality?’ Very little like it, certainly.”6 After this grand description of a male character from the perspective of an infatuated female character who places him on a pedestal, George Eliot’s witty following remark seems to paint this fantastic representation of love in a negative light and implies that novels should be more true to life. These notions are the roots of George Eliot’s theory that ground her fiction in a realism that is not always an obvious depiction of “happily ever after.”

II

Many scholars praise George Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans, for her progressive lifestyle and are disappointed by the lack of conviction or determination in her characters. After all, Mary Ann Evans did essentially run away with a married man, George Lewes, which isolated her from everyone she loved at the time. Through a feminist lens, with the knowledge of George Eliot’s personal history, the ending of Middlemarch leaves a lot to be desired. Her relatively progressive novel wherein the female protagonist has life aspirations outside of marriage and motherhood reverts to the stereotypical as it turns out Dorothea’s newfound aspiration is exactly that. For many readers, the life of the author bleeds into a work of fiction and dictates the way a novel should be interpreted. In Roland Barthes’ famous essay “The Death of the Author,” he first wonders what voice is actually telling the story of a novel, but then comments:

It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.7

Barthes believes that instead of holding the characters to the same standard as the author, depending on what sort of life they lead, the reader should take this unique voice for what it is, unrelated to the author or the characters. According to him, a third person omniscient narrator should be the only source from which a reader receives information, with absolutely no influence from historical, personal, or author-related context.

Those that cannot help but associate George Eliot with the character of Dorothea believe that she contradicts her own views or becomes hypocritical with Dorothea’s ending in Middlemarch. She has been criticized, in the words of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for her “feminine anti-feminism.”8 This is described by Kate Flint as “a mode of writing which, although it emphasizes women’s emotions, needs, and frustrations, also contains such disconcerting generalizations … and which refuses, in plot terms, to provide strong, successful women striking out on their own.”9 This is exactly the case with Dorothea, who is presented to us as a uniquely strong-willed female character, but whose plot does not support her lofty aspirations laid out in the beginning. This criticism is aimed at George Eliot herself, not Dorothea, which means the critics largely take George Eliot’s own personal views into account when it comes to her characters. If one were to look at the story from Barthes’ perspective, would they feel as negatively toward Dorothea’s second marriage? I think from this latter vantage point, one might be more satisfied with the ending as a positive milestone in Dorothea’s life.

Lee Edwards is particularly frustrated with George Eliot’s choices with Dorothea in Middlemarch and feels like she gets the reader’s hopes up with an original, feminist figure from the start only to be let down at the end. She writes: “Indeed, it is the force of this last character’s imagination, her questing nature and desire to be both wise and useful, that illuminates the book. This illumination, arising from the rare portrayal of energy and intellectual force conjoined in an admirable female character causes Middlemarch to be a kind of talisman for many young women.”10 Like Flint, Edwards is an advocate for strong female characters that represent role models for readers. She would not support the opinion of those content in the realism of Dorothea’s marriage at the end of the novel and does not revel in her happiness at marrying for love. She instead believes that female characters, especially written by female novelists, should be held to a higher standard and are there to teach their readers. Her high praise for Middlemarch is cut down later in her essay when Edwards explains how she feels that the positively inspiring energy Dorothea exudes is extinguished by the end, to her dismay. She writes: “…while energy illuminates the work, its light seems now neither so clear nor so powerful as I once thought, or hoped, it was. For Middlemarch is finally not an endorsement of this energy but first an examination and finally a condemnation of it.”11 Edwards’ bitter disappointment in the novel is caused by her high expectations of her favorite character, Dorothea, providing a fresh, feminist example for herself and for youth. She believes the energy that Dorothea brings to the narrative without follow through, or action on her part is not enough to sustain her as a strong character. Presenting progressive ideas without seeing them succeed in the end is not only unsatisfactory, it is cruel to the audience which looks for a role model in bold Dorothea. This lens makes the Finale of the novel disheartening as this reader’s expectations are not only unmet, they are crushed.

However, it isn’t as if this ending isn’t satisfactory for Dorothea, or as if she settles for a higher purpose. She truly marries for love, which demonstrates character development, not acquiescence. Dorothea isn’t giving up on a dream, she is actually achieving one, it just happens to be conventional and incongruent with what is expected of her at the beginning of the novel. In the Finale, George Eliot writes: “Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning … it is still the beginning of the home epic — the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.”12 Here I get the impression that George Eliot is defending her decision to conclude the novel with marriage by pointing out its traditional charm. She admits that it is a common destination for novels, but can also be a beginning. This notion reflects her choice to have Dorothea’s first marriage occur toward the beginning of Middlemarch. Perhaps she would like the reader to note that just as Dorothea’s life will change and grow after her first marriage, contrary to the more typical convention of Victorian novels that marriage represents the climax or goal of a woman’s life, her life will continue to grow and change with her second marriage, despite it be situated at the end of the novel. This isn’t to say she will change completely — I believe she still keeps her other ambition for knowledge as well. The difference is that she realizes that a marriage to Will has silently become one of these ambitions along the way. Flint writes:

…it may well be misguided, in addition to being often disappointing, to assess George Eliot by late twentieth-century — or, indeed, by nineteenth century — feminist standards. Her resolute even-handedness on very many issues, coupled with her determination to subordinate the claims of an individual to wider social demands, means that any such attempt continually comes up against contradictions. But what is undeniable is George Eliot’s continual interest in the formation of gender characteristics by community, by expectations, and by ideological pressures. She is alive to the shifting connections of gender and power, as they manifest themselves in both familial and broader contests; and making her readers think about the connections between power, authority, and gender relations is an inseparable part of her literary and critical enterprise.13

In a much more positive view of George Eliot’s uniquely feminist character, Flint suggests that her critics have misguided expectations. Flint believes that George Eliot is not necessarily meant to defy gender norms in Victorian literature with her novel and blaze a trail other lady-novelists can follow; she is simply meant to introduce these topics and make her readers question their expectations of gender and even further contemplate how best to portray them in literature. By presenting a Finale which, of course, is not fully twentieth-century feminist, but isn’t completely submissive to the ethics and standards for women at the time, George Eliot can start a conversation, and has started hundreds of conversations on the subject.

Perhaps one of the most engaging aspects of George Eliot as a novelist is that she doesn’t present just one side of an argument. She presents a nuanced combination of both sides, giving her readers endless angles from which to view her characters and their choices. Her interruption, “Why Dorothea?” is ever present in her work as she continues to raise questions regarding the interweaving perspectives of her characters. Her outline of the stereotypical female character in “Silly Novels by Lady-Novelists” both supports and contradicts her characterization choices in Middlemarch. While she pokes fun at the washed up storyline of a woman’s narrative ending with marriage and babies, she herself writes it as the ending of one of her most progressive characters. She doesn’t shy away from the typical tradition of Victorian novels ending in “settlement chapters,” in the words of Raymond Williams, where all loose ends are tied up neatly and female characters are secure in their marriages for the foreseeable future. In the final chapter of many modern works, the protagonist(s) breaks away from the norm and presents more of a question to be interpreted by the reader at the very end. George Eliot’s Finale is a “settlement chapter,” but the catch is that, though marriage is the simplest of tropes for a novel’s conclusion, it is divergent from what is expected of Dorothea. Therefore, this ending has both a traditional and more modern or surprising conclusion if one considers the growth and development of the character of Dorothea.

George Eliot’s conclusion is intentionally difficult to sit with after engaging with the lengthy novel behind it. The ending is so easy and satisfactory plot-wise that grappling with the tension of its unexpectedness in the context of the rest of the novel could be what makes it so difficult. In the words of George Eliot, “Conclusions are the weak points of most authors, but some of the fault lies in the very nature of the conclusion, which is at best a negation.”14 She treats the custom of the conclusion as a denial of life going on, which no matter what will create an air of inauthenticity. Similarly, in the words of Henry James, “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”15 He recognizes that there is no true end to a well-written story, just as real life goes on and is only broken up, upon reflection, by milestones. I also find his choice of the word “relations” here interesting, because it is indeed the relations of a novel that keep the plot moving forward. The reader imagines the relations of the characters extending both before the premise of the novel and beyond the conclusion. To give a story proper closure, one must end on an event that demonstrates great change in a character’s life or mindset, which, in the case of Dorothea, may not have seemed the genuine course of her life. On the other hand, to end a novel “in medias res,” as so many begin, can be unsuccessful because the readers are so often unsatisfied with the outcomes of the characters they have grown to know. This approach is taken advantage of in many modern novels, as some novelists rely on the discomfort a reader feels at a particularly unfinished or mundane conclusion to prove a point; to be true to life, a novel must not wrap everything up so tightly that it becomes reminiscent of a fairytale. The trick is to find a way in which life will realistically go on in the novel world, but the reader will still find some sort of solace in the framing of the conclusion: a balance of believability and idealism that placates the reader. The convention is to make an ending satisfactory, but not too satisfactory, so that to some extent, the reader is left thinking.

Whether one is satisfied or unsatisfied with Dorothea’s fate in Middlemarch depends on a variety of factors: the lens through which one views the novel, the extent to which one expects George Eliot to put herself into Dorothea, and what level of closure and resolution the reader should expect in a conclusion. How interesting that if Dorothea had not lived happily ever after, the novel would have received higher praise, at least from those in Edwards’ camp. One of the final sentiments of the novel presents Middlemarch’s opinion of Dorothea’s marriage:

…she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a
sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin — young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. Those who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been ‘a nice woman’, else she would not have married either the one or the other.16

It is interesting how George Eliot leaves us with Middlemarch’s opinion last, leaving readers with such a negative perspective on Dorothea’s marriage. The reader has more insight into Dorothea’s life and mind and therefore realizes that this is a positive outcome for Dorothea, so there may be some tension with this more judgmental perspective. I interpret the term “nice woman” here to mean that the townsfolk didn’t think of Dorothea as the sort they wanted to be in social circles with if these marriages represented her behavior. Perhaps George Eliot ended on this note because she did not want to be partial to Dorothea’s ending; after all, she is only one in a large cast of characters. With this passage, George Eliot once again leaves us with the question, “Why Dorothea?”

From a voice that seems more omniscient narrator than subjective to any character, George Eliot writes: “For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it”17 Again, she seems to become protective of Dorothea here, justifying her choice to marry. Even though it seems outside of her stubborn character from the beginning of the novel, she must finally admit that her relations with Will have greatly affected her, for the better, and have caused a new desire for marriage. Or perhaps here George Eliot refers to the pressures and influences of the outside world, more often overpowering a woman of this time period’s own thoughts and desires. Though Dorothea is a unique protagonist, she too struggles with how to navigate society’s constraints on her.

With the multifaceted ambiguity of Dorothea’s “happily ever after,” George Eliot provides a controversial topic in the conclusion of her novel. It sparks debate in areas of feminism, literary realism, author and character relations, and the desired level of resolution in a conclusion because it encourages the reader to determine why they are fond of, bitterly disappointed by, or cannot pinpoint their feelings on the ending. Perhaps Middlemarch’s success lies in the way it is able to present numerous accounts of what a novel can do, only to take unexpected turns, urging the reader to decide what the novel should do.

 

Bibliography

Cregan-Reid, Vybarr. “Present Endings: Rethinking Closure in the Victorian Novel.” In Discovering Gilgamesh: Geology, Narrative and the Historical Sublime in Victorian Culture, 150-88. Manchester University Press, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/ j.ctt18mbdzh.9.

Edwards, Lee R. “Women, Energy, and Middlemarch.” The Massachusetts Review 13, no. 1/2 (1972).

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. London: Penguin Books, (1994.)

Eliot, George. “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books. (1990). 140-163.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede. London: Oxford University Press. (2008).

Flint, Kate. “George Eliot and gender.” In G. Levine (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 159-180). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2001).

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. (1979).

James, Henry. Roderick Hudson. Penguin Classics; Revised ed. (1986).

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “realism,” May 11, 2018, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/158931?redirectedFrom=realism#eid.

  1. Eliot, George. “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books, (1990). 140.
  2. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. London: Penguin Books, (1994.) 7.
  3. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 278.
  4. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “realism,” May 11, 2018, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/158931? redirectedFrom=realism#eid.
  5. Eliot, George. Adam Bede 524.
  6. Eliot, George. “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” 146.
  7. Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Aspen, no. 5–6, 1967. 2.
  8. Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London, Yale University Press: (1979). 466.
  9. Flint, Kate. “George Eliot and gender.” In G. Levine (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 159-180). Cambridge:
    Cambridge University Press. (2001). 160.
  10. Edwards, Lee. “Women, Energy, and Middlemarch.” The Massachusetts Review 13, no. 1/2 (1972). 684.
  11. Edwards, Lee. “Women, Energy, and Middlemarch.” 685.
  12. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 832.
  13. Flint, Kate. “George Eliot and gender.” 163.
  14. Cregan-Reid, Vybarr. “Present Endings: Rethinking Closure in the Victorian Novel.” Discovering Gilgamesh: Geology, Narrative and the Historical Sublime in Victorian Culture, 150-8. Manchester University Press, 2013. 150.
  15. James, Henry. Roderick Hudson. Penguin Classics; Revised ed. (1986).
  16. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 837-838.
  17. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 838.

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