The Gendered Discourse of “Middlemarch”

In the vibrant world of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, an intimate web of social relations dictates the trajectory of the narrative. Fragmented interpretations of the relationships between men and women pass frequently between the characters of the novel: gossip infuses every margin and gap in the social world of the text. In Theories of Discourse as Theories of Gender, Mary Bucholtz identifies gossip as “a site of political struggle in which ideologies of gender are cross-cut by faultlines based on age, tradition, and political power”(Bucholtz, 60). In accordance with this notion, the fervent circulation of rumors throughout Middlemarch contains a particular gendered significance: in both its overt and allegorical forms, gossip in Middlemarch informs the plot by generating tensions within the romantic lives of the protagonists, and functions as a primary thematic site upon which the impact, merits, and detriments of the Victorian gender hierarchy can be observed. This in turn lends insight into a number of political elements within Eliot’s novel: discourse between the genders in Middlemarch becomes a discourse on gender itself, ultimately exposing the broader feminist ethos of the text.

Relationships between the characters of Middlemarch are distinguished by a convoluted allocation of knowledge: Eliot’s description of the world as “…a huge whispering-gallery” (Eliot, 412) evokes a space wherein information is characterized by the covert or misled nature of its distribution. The men and women of Middlemarch rarely communicate directly with the opposite gender: both parties rely instead on gossip, receiving much of their information secondhand. The concentrated effect of gossip upon the community of Middlemarch is observable in James Chettam’s misguided conviction that Dorothea Brooks will accept his marriage proposal. Upon learning of the rumor, Dorothea denies any romantic inclination towards Chettam and chides her sister for listening to “such gossip” (Eliot, 36). Even so, the damage has been done: in the earliest chapters of the text, the socially ingrained tendency to gossip almost exclusively with members of one’s own sex has already resulted in a serious misunderstanding between Dorothea and Chettam. In this manner, gossip in Middlemarch is portrayed as a detrimental force that convolutes truths and misinterprets the romantic desires of Middlemarch’s inhabitants, resulting in a fractured social discourse between the men and women of the community.

But despite repeatedly emphasizing its tendency to complicate and even impede the romantic interpersonal relationships of Middlemarch, Eliot also identifies the necessity of gossip in maintaining the social fabric of the community. In chapter 71 of the novel, Eliot describes a scene in which “…there was no material object to feed upon, but the eye of reason saw a probability of mental sustenance in the shape of gossip” (Eliot, 715). The language of this passage underscores gossip’s function as a form of “mental sustenance” within Middlemarch, providing nourishment and gratification to the close-knit community. Similarly, although gossip can prove detrimental to romantic relationships in the text, it can also prove vital to their contentment and longevity. For instance, Lydgate’s reluctance to engage fully with the community of Middlemarch, which is necessarily a culture of gossip, draws the ire of both the citizens of Middlemarch and his wife, and ultimately emerges as a primary destructive force in his marriage. Despite its multitude of interpersonal consequences, gossip in Middlemarch remains a socially compulsory act; and in this manner, certain gendered connotations of gossip become apparent as well. The ongoing replication of gender norms within the community of Middlemarch, though stifling and toxic to various romantic pairings throughout the text, remains a necessary part of maintaining a given social structure. In this instance, the culture surrounding gossip functions as an overt reflection of the culture surrounding gender in Middlemarch: in some ways its norms are neither practical nor desirable, but they nevertheless become necessary by virtue of their own incessant repetition.

In addition to its complex and evident thematic presence, gossip is represented in Middlemarch through two primary recurring symbols. The first of these, the notion of echoes, occurs repeatedly throughout the text. In chapter 16, while describing one of the scenes of courtship between Lydgate and Rosamund, Eliot writes, “…And so indeed it was, since souls live on in perpetual echoes, and to all fine expression there goes somewhere an originating activity, if it be only that of an interpreter” (Eliot, 161). In this passage, echoes are represented as forms of sound that become increasingly dissociated from their point of origin; in other words, although an echo may begin as a precise replication of an “originating activity,” an interpreter can distort or obscure its meaning. Eliot’s description of the link between echoes and the human soul draws parallels to the nature of indirect social discourse as it is depicted throughout the text: although reliable pieces of information circulate amidst the rumors and gossip of Middlemarch, their value is most often compromised by the variety of interpretation. The second symbolic manifestation of gossip within Middlemarch, the theme of the web, is the more prolific of the two: in chapter 15 Eliot ruminates, “I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” (Eliot, 141). This metaphor of the web within Middlemarch is multifaceted and profound: in its simplest form, the web of Middlemarch often seems to represent the basic social connections that bind members of the community to each another. But the web, like an echo, later becomes inextricably linked to the romantic engagement of human souls, as Eliot writes,

“Young love-making—that gossamer web! Even the points it clings to—the things whence its subtle interlacings are swung—are scarcely perceptible: momentary touches of fingertips, meetings of rays from blue and dark orbs, unfinished phrases, lightest changes of cheek and lip, faintest tremors. The web itself is made of spontaneous beliefs and indefinable joys, yearnings of one life towards another, visions of completeness, indefinite trust” (Elliot, 346).

Of course, the image of the web contains a multitude of potential interpretations throughout Middlemarch, but its interpersonal connotations in this passage are explicit. Just as echoes symbolize the fractured sense of discourse that resonates through the novel, Eliot’s web becomes a strikingly similar visual allegory for the role of gossip within the text: each time a string is impacted, reverberations move, like echoes in a whispering- gallery, across the web.

Whether or not Middlemarch as a whole constitutes a “feminist text” is, perhaps, too ambitious a question for one essay—as Anne E. Patrick discusses, George Eliot did not necessarily have access to the type of vocabulary through which we might identify a work as “feminist discourse” in contemporary analysis (Patrick, 224). Nevertheless, a feminist reading of Middlemarch is not only possible, but also of considerable merit. In the conception and publication of Middlemarch, Eliot presents a vivid world that is starkly divided along gendered lines. Gossip serves as the primary lens through which Eliot’s treatment of gender can be analyzed; it is therefore unsurprising that the politics of discourse and gossip in Middlemarch would parallel the broader observations upon gender that appear throughout the text. Just as gossip provides vital, informative, and conversational links between the characters of the text, it also proves deeply divisive: impeding efforts to negotiate satisfactory romantic relationships in the lives of multiple characters. Just as echoes can entail precision and connection, they also become distorted as their interpretation strays further from its point of origin. Just as the social web entails the various points of intersection and human intimacy between the inhabitants of Middlemarch, it can also symbolize a terrifying potential for captivity. In other words, in none of her allegories does Eliot discredit the merit of gender in maintaining social order in Victorian communities; nevertheless, she examines the considerable limitations and shortcomings of gendered roles and stereotypes through a deeply critical lens.

Eliot begins the 69th chapter of Middlemarch with the Biblical excerpt: “If thou hast heard a word, let it die with thee” (Eliot, 693). The line itself, in the context of the novel, seems to refer quite explicitly to the town’s culture of gossip and rumor, expressing cautionary opposition to the community’s reckless and misguided distribution of information. Considering gossip’s status as an overt symbol of gender division within Middlemarch, Eliot’s narrative decisions and inclusion of the aforementioned quote can therefore be read not only as a critique of capricious or misguided social opinions, but also as an observation of the manner in which rigid gender stereotypes impede the capacity for intimate relationships and personal fulfillment within a social world. Nowhere is this sentiment more evident than in the final pages of the text, wherein Eliot asserts, “But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know” (Eliot, 838). As the reader nears the final lines of the text, Eliot refers directly to the “daily words,” or strategies of discourse, through which communities such as Middlemarch destroy the potential for romantic and personal fulfillment in women like Dorothea. It stands to reason then, that Eliot’s narrative treatment of gossip, though circumspect, is ultimately an indictment upon a society that willingly partakes in the free and reckless distribution of rumors. Furthermore, considering gossip’s thematic relationship to the broader political notions of gender, Eliot’s Middlemarch can be read as a criticism of the rigid stereotypes and hierarchies between men and women in Victorian England; thereby allowing the novel to function as a feminist text in its critical examination of the relevance of gender within its narrative.

Works Cited

Bucholtz, Mary. “Theories of Discourse as Theories of Gender.” The Handbook of Language and Gender. By Janet Holmes and Miriam Meyerhoff. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 43-68. Web.

Eliot, George, and Rosemary Ashton. Middlemarch. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Patrick, Anne E. “Rosamond Rescued: George Eliot’s Critique of Sexism in “Middlemarch””. The Journal of Religion 67.2 (1987):220–238. Web.

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