Dorothea Brooke is the most important character of Middlemarch because she stands at the heart of its author’s conception. She is the largest character. The wonder is that we do not think the author’s claims for her are inordinate. For in Middlemarch George Eliot seeks to dramatize the manifold wakings of men and women to labor and endurance under the pressure of their own spots of commonness and the constraints of their society. To this novel, Dorothea Brooke is central in a way in which no other character is, not only because of the passion with which she is conceived but also because of the magnitude of the conception. The Prelude to the novel projects her as a belated Saint Theresa who finds no epic life for herself but “only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity.” As a result, her career becomes the exemplar of every other character’s career in the novel, and the one Dorothea of its Prelude becomes the many Dorotheas of its Finale.
Dorothea Brooke is a beautiful but ardent girl who lives with her younger sister Celia under the care of her landowning uncle Arthur Brooke. But she is not at all satisfied with the domestic ease that women of her class of provincial society enjoy. She is an embodiment of what Laurence Lerner has called “the Theresa-complex: a yearning to do good in the world which is so intense that it must answer to some emotional need in the Theresa herself.” Limited by her Puritan upbringing and her pride in being a lady, living in a quiet country-house and practicing a well-bred economy, Dorothea Brooke is conscious of powers yearning for development, and of an intensity that sets her apart from the rest of the household, especially from her younger sister Celia, the conventional young woman, who is half afraid of her superiority and half-amused at her idealistic attitude towards life. In fact, she is so drunk with the intensity of her aspirations that her zeal for self-sacrifice, her lust almost, to serve the highest where she sees it, seems to be spiritual arrogance, the pride of self-righteousness. She wears a plain dress to give herself the look of the Blessed Virgin, regards jewels as symbols of vanity, and wishes to live in a place where there are enough poor people to need her help. She sets going an infant school in her village, plans model cottages for farm-laborers on her uncle’s estate, and speaks in favor of agricultural experiments which would increase crop yield.
Dorothea Brooke is to a degree self-deceived; the intensity of her vision makes her blind to what lies beyond its illumination. She wants to marry an elderly intellectual like the judicious Hooker or the blind Milton in order to participate in his search for spiritual knowledge as a helpmate because she is quite ignorant of the emotional and physical aspects of marriage. She thinks, marriage is ennobling discipleship to a father figure and, therefore, prefers to marry the elderly clergyman Edward Casaubon rather than the blooming baronet Sir James Chettam. Her passion for the ideal transfigures the sterile pedant into a living, and it is the irony of her fate that the truth about him is seen not by her but by comparatively imperceptive characters like Celia, Sir James Chettam, and Mrs. Cadwallader, people of no great expectations or insights but content merely to do their duty according to the positions in which they find themselves. “She says, ” Mrs. Cadwallader remarks, “he is a great soul. A great bladder for dried peas to rattle in!” She is not quite right but nearly so; and Dorothea’s disillusionment, having married Casaubon, is inevitable and bitter. On her honeymoon in Rome, she discovers to her dismay that Casaubon is not only engaged in search of a spurious Key to All Mythologies but also unconcerned with her need for love and care. She returns to Lowick Manor only to find herself without any beneficent work to do. She asks Casaubon to give that part of his property to his dependent cousin Will Ladislaw which he had inherited from his grandmother Julia, but Casaubon not only refuses to do so but also asks Will Ladislaw not to come to his house.
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