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Realism In Middlemarch And Great Expectations

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Realism is an imperative theme across Middlemarch and Great Expectations. “The primary aim of realism is to represent real life for the time it is written, and it is the job of the author to create a number of different techniques in order to do so” There is a substantial variety surrounding the number of truth claims used throughout George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ and Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations”. These truth claims represent reality in their own ways. In this essay, I will be discussing how the truth claims of marriage, gender, and social class represent realism across both novels and how they can also contrastingly be discredited.

The first truth claim made in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is the difficulties and hardships in marriage, particularly on women. The Victorian time period is known to be the era of Romanticism but there were also a lot of very unhappy marriages during this time. The ideology of marriage across Middlemarch differs over Great Expectations, as the women in Middlemarch primarily conformed to their conventional roles as women, whereas the majority of female characters in Great Expectations did not, with the exception of Biddy. Across Middlemarch, we are portrayed with the realities of marriage. Whilst many Victorian novels consider marriage as the ultimate source of happiness, Eliot portrays it to be the contrary. Marriages in the Victorian era were acclaimed by society to be more of a business transaction than an actual act of love. Victorian women needed to find husbands in order to gain financial and social stability and as Philippa Levine puts it, “for the women who did not marry, whether by choice or by chance, spinsterhood marked her as one of society’s unfortunates”. In the case of Middlemarch, Dorothea marries Casaubon because she naively believes he will help her achieve her highest potential as she says, “marriage is a state of higher duties” (38). Casaubon further demonstrates the unromantic portrayal of marriage as he writes in his proposal letter that “for the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need”. This sentiment resonances as if he is completing a business contract as opposed to romantically attempting to court Dorothea.

Throughout the start of the novel, the female protagonist Dorothea is ambitious with her dreams: she dreams of building cottages for farmers and enjoys horse riding – she is described to be “enamored of intensity and greatness”. When Dorothea decides to marry Casaubon, we, as readers, can see her character slowly start to suppress her own nature as she believes she can access the same “intensity and greatness” she craves through her husband. Dorothea claims she wants a husband that can be a father figure to her and teach her about things, even if she is a strong-willed woman herself because a woman living in her time period only had the option of living vicariously through her husband.

Dorothea’s reality of her marriage is exposed in Chapter 81 when she confronts Rosamond about her affair with Ladislaw: “I mean, marriage drinks up all of our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort love. I know it may be very dear, but it murders our marriage”. In this quote, Dorothea is expressing how marriage and love have no correlation and in fact, love can ruin a marriage ultimately. George Eliot further evaluates this when she says “but we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorothea’s, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know”: Eliot presents the consequences of accepting the role of the conventional role of a woman in the Victorian society can lead to women accepting their suffering from their marriages and further reinstates the historical facts that women had very few rights indeed.

Marriage in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations additionally portrays a similar truth claim about the unhappiness that comes with love and marriage. As a social reformer, Charles Dickens was very critical of Victorian society and only had wishes to improve it. Through his narrative of Great Expectations, the theme of injustice is a truth claim to how the majority of Victorians felt during the time. Dicken’s aim was to collect these social truth’s into showcasing the realities of the Victorian time period. The first marriage to prove the truth claim of marriage wrong in the 19th century is Mrs. Joe. She is immediately portrayed to be a violent woman and even unconventionally oppresses Joe and Pip in the house. She is described to have gained a “reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had bought me (Pip) up by hand” suggesting she is violent towards her son in her disciplinary methods. Surprisingly enough, she is also the same with her husband, Joe, as Dicken’s describes on page 39 of the novel: “she pounced on Joe, and, taking him by the two whiskers, knocked his head for a little against the wall behind him” – this quote in the novel strongly demonstrates her rough character, as she is not described to be the stereotypical ‘angel of the house’ of the Victorian period. ‘Angels of the house’ were described to be gentle, loving, obedient mothers and wives’ and Dicken’s proves Mrs. Joe is the polar opposite. Moreover, she is not feminine and does not have the trait of a proper housewife or wife to her husband. Michael Slater also finds in his critical analysis of the female characters in Dicken’s novel, that “Dickens sees women only as they have been typecast by men – as angelic ministers of grace and inspiration, as tormenting characters, as threats of male liberty”. Considering the fact Charles Dickens was anti-feminist, it is served as a warning when he portrays the majority of the women in Great Expectations to be rebellious and un-womanly. His book serves as a reminder to women to not break social laws and orders as he creates characters like Mrs. Joe, Estella, and Mrs. Havisham and essentially ruins their lives in the novel.

Additionally, another truth claim made by Middlemarch is the role of women and general gender roles. During the early 19th century, there was a very hostile environment in England surrounding typical gender roles that were very strictly enforced within society. George Eliot demonstrates how the expectations that were held on women were particularly suffocating and restrictive in contrast to men. George Eliot’s real name is Mary Anne Evans but used the male pen name of George Eliot as she had full knowledge that she would be taken more seriously if the public knew she was a male writer, showcasing how society viewed women in the early 19th century. In Middlemarch, readers are similarly continuously presented with the stark contrast between the male and female characters and their roles within the novel. From the very beginning of the novel, Eliot highlights these realities on what the male characters really think of women. “I don’t pretend to argue with a lady on politics, your sex is not thinkers, you know”. This quote strongly demonstrates the realities behind not just what the male protagonists think in Middlemarch but the general idea that women knew nothing of politics and were deemed to be uneducated is a truth claim from the Victorian era as a whole. The novel itself has received much criticism from female writers as its protagonist, Dorothea is presented to be a woman with an intelligent mind and a noble soul and it is disheartening when at the end of the novel, she does not break free from societal pressures of her gender role as a woman in the 19th century.

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Furthermore, the truth claims of gender and the role of women are surprisingly deflated as demonstrated in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. In the 19th century, women were considered to be physically and mentally inferior to men and were more suited towards a more domestic and motherly role, the ‘angel of the house. In Great Expectations, the female characters are portrayed in opposition to their confined roles as women in this century. Great Expectations as a whole, lacks female characters that fully conform to the ‘angel of the house’ duty that they were placed into, all except for the character of Biddy. Mrs. Joe is manipulative, Estella is seductive, and Ms. Havisham is a misandrist. However, whenever readers were introduced to a female character, they are in their homes with the exception of Estella, who travels from Satis House to London. Contrastingly, the men, such as Pip, are introduced to be in the privacy of his own home or roaming the streets of London and the same goes for Joe Gargery who has a social presence at the local tavern. Michael Slater says that “Dickens is subscribed to the bourgeois construction of femininity and domesticity” and that he, like the majority of Victorians, had an idea that men and women had dissimilar natures but came together eventually. However, for some of the novel, both male and female characters maintain their gender identities subject to the Victorian time period and live with the appropriate social space for each sex to an extent. Dickens writes Estella to be the polar opposite of a 19th-century ideal woman. Estella is raised by Mrs. Havisham to torment men and to “break their hearts”. This demonstrates the determination the female characters had to break out of their spheres in society and as their conventional roles as women and to also break out of the truth claim that women were delicate and sensitive.

Social class is also another truth claim that portrays Middlemarch to be a realistic novel. The novel's subtitle “A Study of Provincial Life” demonstrates that Eliot has purposed to provide the reader with an insight as to how “provincial life” during an era where the systematic element of class is an important element in structuring society. The “provincial life” Eliot mentions is defined by the fact that all of her characters are somehow intertwined with one another in a complicated professional web and this then results in an intense social hierarchy throughout the majority of the novel.

Class apprehension is a theme that runs through the novel but also through the Victorian period itself, it is a true claim that many people had the same ideas of class and the system was not particularly liked by the working class as no matter how hard they worked if they were not born into wealth, it was increasingly difficult to get there. According to Dale H, common laborers, a common job of the working-class, was 3 shillings for a 10 hour day across 6 days of the week.

In Middlemarch, family reputation is an obsession led by class nervousness, leading to obsessive behavior as to who the women in the novel marry. The only way to rise up the social ladder was through marriage, which is why the characters in the novel hold it to such a serious extent.

In Chapter 12 of the novel, we are given a glimpse into how Rosamond and Lydgate bond over their shared distaste of the provincial way of living in the town of Middlemarch. Rosamond, for example, is eager to marry Lydgate strictly due to the fact he comes from an honorable family as Eliot describes “Lydgate had a profession and was clever, as well as sufficiently handsome; but the piquant fact about Lydgate was his good birth, which distinguished him from all Middlemarch admirers and presented marriage as a prospect of rising in rank”. In the novel, Rosamond is so fixated and obsessed with her social standing that she does not realize that Lydgate in fact does not have any money, and it ultimately becomes one of the key factors that destroy their marriage. Eventually, the obsession with social class in the small town of Middlemarch showcases that its community is stuck in a self-deprecated and prejudicial way of living and the truth claims about social class and money further reinforce the realism in Middlemarch.

These ideologies are also demonstrated in Great Expectations. With the novel being set near the end of the Industrial Revolution, there became a time period where the dramatic improvement in manufacturing thus created new job opportunities for those born into lower and poorer classes, in order to move up to wealthier classes. Generally, the lower classes were looked down upon by the upper classes. In Great Expectations, characters were treated differently dependant on their class, showcasing how much social class really mattered. There is a section of chapter 4 of the novel where Mrs. Joe attempts to impress her guests by showcasing the most lavish part of the house, presenting her family's wealth to be more luxurious than it actually is. Although Mrs. Joe is worried for her reputation and feels ashamed of her class, Pip and Joe are less interested in appearing refined and wealthy and appear to be more comfortable when they arrive in their “punishingly stiff Sunday clothes”. Further on in the novel, class is further represented when Pip and Joe attend one of Victorian England’s working-class schools run by Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt where it is portrayed that although Joe is complimented on his intelligence, it is then discovered that he cannot actually read. Further on in the chapter, Pip is asked to play at the wealthy Miss Havisham’s house, to which Mrs. Joe is incredibly excited, merely due to the fact that her being middle class and Miss Havisham being upper class, they fantasize about the idea that associating with her somehow will bring them social graces in society and get the financial gain. Toward the end of the novel, Joe comes to see Pip in chapter 27, he treats Joe differently due to his social class and there is an awkward tension between the two characters. Pip describes Joe’s arrival as “not with pleasure, I had the sharpest sensitiveness as to being seen by Drummle” – portraying that Pip felt awkward and embarrassed that Drummle would see him differently for associating himself with a lower-class person such as Joe. The encounter becomes increasingly tenser between the two classes when Joe calls Pip” sir” and the strain on their once friendship is appearing strained. When Joe leaves early, he leaves Pip with “Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one mans a blacksmith, and ones a whitesmith, and ones a common blacksmith and ones a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come”. This quote suggests to readers that Joe is acknowledging that he is a common blacksmith and Pip is a goldsmith, and the differences in their social class have now bought about the end of their friendship and their separation.

To conclude, there are numerous truth claims used by the novels Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Middlemarch by George Eliot. These truth claims were true in some retro respects but further proved to be false in others. The truth claims of marriage, gender, and class were all used by both novels in their best efforts to represent reality. As both novels were written in the Victorian time period, the general consensus on marriage was that the wife had towed for financial and social security and follow the ‘angel of the house role’ in being the best wife to her husband. Middlemarch showcases the realities of how unhappy women were in this position as they were expected to live in a domesticated sphere whilst their husbands could do whatever they wanted. Great Expectations showcases the opposite as all of the women with the exception of Biddy, are fearless and disobedient and Dicken portrays in his novel the terrible consequences of women that act this way. Furthermore, the presentations of gender and class are also truth claims made in the early 19th century as women again, had zero rights. Class in both novels showcases how difficult life was for working-class people and society's viewpoints on them. Both novels use these points to showcase truth claims that were made in society at the time the novels were written, and it is these points that help demonstrate Great Expectations and Middlemarch to be ‘realistic’.

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Realism In Middlemarch And Great Expectations. (2021, September 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
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