The Politics of Sex and Gender in Middlemarch, “The Goblin Market” and “A Castaway”
By Morgan Pinder
Discourse regarding gender in Victorian literature has its foundation in an entrenched, and for the most part unchallenged binary. Coming out of the Georgian and Regency eras the societal expectations placed upon a woman were very clearly those of subservience and benignity, whereas the man was able to execute a level of agency that, while limited by class restrictions, was far more liberal than that of their wives, mothers and daughters. Men had control over family wealth and power, whereas everything a woman had at her disposal was within her own person, that is her virtue, morality, intelligence and drive to survive or nurture. It would be all too easy to paint men as the oppressors, as the enemy of women, but the Victorian depiction of the relationship and the power dynamic between the genders is often complex. In this essay I will explore the primary texts Middlemarch (Eliot, 2015), “The Goblin Market” (Rossetti, 2017) and “A Castaway” (Webster, 2017) and how each depicts the complex interplay of gender relations and power.
Central to Rosetti’s depiction of femininity is the idea of sisterhood and the relationships between women, particularly, but not exclusively those who are biologically related (Casey, 64). The sisters, Laura and Lizzie, live a very simple existence but derive strength comfort and warmth from their relationship with each other. As there is no mention of any other people in their home lives they seem to lead an isolated, but happy and safe existence (Rossetti, 184-198). It is only through the strength of their bond, and Lizzie’s sacrifice for her sister that they are able to overcome the goblins and their curse. The action Lizzie takes to save her sister from temptation and ruin makes her a Christ like figure in an era when men were commonly the redeemers. Lizzie as the figure of sisterly redemption echoes the notion of sisterhood that was gaining increasing traction, not only through religion but also through the more secular practice of nursing made prominent in the contemporary public consciousness (Casey, 64).
The projected image of masculinity in “The Goblin Market” is presented as a dichotomy of sorts; there are the goblins who would steal the morality and virtue of the sisters, and their eventual husbands with whom they are happily married in the conclusion (Rossetti, 544). The husbands and the situation of being married do not seem oppressive, or destructive as the Goblins did, providing evidence to suggest that Rossetti is not using the masculine as the enemy of the feminine, but rather that men have the potential to operate via trickery and vice can be deployed to enslave young women and girls (Casey, 67). In the end the weakness of the Goblin men is exposed by the redemptive sisterly love that Lizzie exhibits for her sister.
The potential toxicity of masculine is also explored in Webster’s “A Castaway”. Webster also presents us with two visions of masculinity; the men who have cast aside Eulalie and her clients. She asserts that she “hate[s] men” (Webster, 271) when expressing her need for a female redeemer rather than a male. She has fallen victim to a society that only affords men the privilege of education, adventure, and autonomy. As a result of being punished for not abiding by the rules of her preassigned role she has become resentful of the males whom the system directly benefits. She speaks of her brother who was given all the chances she lacked and from whom she has since become estranged. Unlike her brother she has been offered limited ways by which to ensure her survival, many of which are not guaranteed and force her to relinquish her autonomy (Webster, 264-269), whilst men who are more immoral than her are revered (Webster, 86-103).
Eulalie in “A Castaway” problematizes the othering of the fallen woman or prostitute in Victorian society. Unlike the sisterhood of the “Goblin Market”, the wives and other, reputable women stand in judgement of Eulalie treating her as a completely different creature from themselves (Sutphin, 520). She regards their disapproval and condemnation with disdain (Webster, 137-140), and thus this mutual resentment sets up a combative and vicious relationship between women as they scramble to make their way in a world where they are all subservient to men in some way. The othering of Eulalie is particularly difficult as she does not conform to the general image of the prostitute of the time; she is from a good family, she dresses well and does not make a spectacle of herself as other, less privileged and refined women do (Sutphin, 527). She is more like them than the society women and men would like to admit, and if they acknowledged this they would not be able to treat her as they do. The reader however is being forced into acknowledging her problematic status and as a result, Eulalie becomes a sympathetic and confronting figure of Victorian womanhood (Sutphin, 527).
Unlike the men in Eulalie’s story the men of Middlemarch are more nuanced in their good nature and villainy. Many powerful men in the text lose their power through their own machinations. The pious Mr. Casaubon wreaks havoc on his wife Dorethea from beyond the grave, judging her without cause. He not only implies Dorethea has feelings for Will, but his accusation sets in motion the events that he was trying to prevent in the first place (Eliot, 1141-1148). Similarly, Mr. Featherstone’s desire for power over his benefactors leads him to create two wills and then be deprived of the choice of which is executed by the principled Mary Garth who refuses to burn the most recent and vindictive will (Eliot,739-748). In this way the powerless servant girl Mary is suddenly put in a position of tremendous power despite the money and influence of the man who has been, until the final moments of his existence, dominant of her.
Young Fred’s form of weakness on the other hand is one of little thought and obligation. He is silly and frivolous as he has never had to be otherwise as a young man of means. The women around him and those who support him are left to deal with the fallout of his actions. Unlike the pride of Mr. Casaubon and Mr. Featherstone, whose devastation is wreaked when they are deceased, Fred is redeemable and it is through the hardship and forgiveness of Mary and her family that he begins to understand the impact his actions may have (Eliot, 581). The implication of the text seems to be that men of means who are not held accountable can be a destructive force that reverberates throughout their community, whereas a man who is held accountable, whether by others or his own morality and strength of character can be a force for good or at the least benignity.
Women are ultimately reliant on men for survival in Middlemarch but the form their dependent relationship takes varies. Dorethea, Rosamond and Celia are aware of the need for them to marry well in order to be respectable prosperous women. Their beauty and refinement are emphasized as they are the key assets in ensuring they can maintain their luxurious lifestyle (Waddle 19). However, the “dreadful plain” Mary Garth (Eliot, 240) defies this convention, choosing, of her own volition instead to marry Fred who is not the best match available to her (Waddle 22). Dorethea in her marriage is entirely subservient to Mr. Casaubon and Rosamond is completely infantilized, whereas Mary and Fred have a much more equal dynamic as demonstrated by her ability to admonish him without fear and their mutual respect for one another (Waddle, 21). The only power available to many of the women in Middlemarch is wielded through influencing their husbands. The women, often have limited impact outside the domestic sphere and as a result are often confined to it. It is the men of Middlemarch who are the ones who are held in high esteem for their works and are able to avoid obligation should they choose. The contribution of women is less valued and they are heavily restricted by social constructs and domestic obligation.
These texts highlight the degree to which women are often utterly without independent power in Victorian society. Whether she is a woman of means or poor she is able to escape the limitations faced by her within society. Unlike men she has limited established protections and is often unable to defend herself against injustice. However, she is demonstrated as being in every part the equal of a man within her character and if banded together in sisterhood with other women may overcome men that wish to enslave her. She has the potential to save, condemn, manipulate and do great good on the occasion that she is afforded the opportunity. The downfall of the woman is her lack of power within social structures designed to further the ambitions of men and protect them from their own weakness. The men of these texts are diverse but all share reasonable access to power and autonomy. The entirety of the male gender is not painted as monstrous, rather these texts show examples that prove the male gender to be just as corruptible, redeemable, well-meaning and fallible as the female.
• Casey, Janet Galligani. “The Potential of Sisterhood: Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 29, no. 1, 1991, pp. 63–78. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40002055.
• Eliot, G. (2015). Middlemarch. 2nd ed. [ebook] Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/145 [Accessed 1 Sep. 2017].
• Rossetti, Christina. “The Goblin Market” Course Reader, 2017, ENGX314 iLearn site.
• Sutphin, Christine. “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints: Augusta Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and Women’s Sexuality.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 38, no. 4, 2000, pp. 511–532. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40002498.
• Waddle, Keith A. “Mary Garth, The Wollstonecraftian Feminist of ‘Middlemarch.’ “George Eliot – George Henry Lewes Studies, no. 28/29, 1995, pp. 16–29.JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43595509.
• Webster, Augusta. “A Castaway” Course Reader, 2017, ENGX314 iLearn site.