There are a lot of major characters in Middlemarch, and even more minor ones, but it's pretty obvious that Dorothea's the heroine. After all, the novel's Prelude and Finale (first and final chapters) are about Dorothea, and she certainly gets more face time than any of the other major characters. But that's not the only reason we consider her the heroine: Dorothea is also the moral center of the novel.
Sure, Dorothea makes mistakes, and we aren't always 100% behind her decisions; yet we trust her moral sense, even if it occasionally leads her to do stupid things (like marry Mr. Casaubon). How can we trust her moral compass if her moral compass leads her to marry a selfish old man who slurps his soup? Dorothea's religious feeling is complicated and certainly needs exploring. But speaking of her spirituality, what about all the characters who call her a "saint," or "angel," or the "Virgin Mary"? Isn't she just a regular woman? Is there a paradox here? Or is Dorothea just too complex a character to wrap our heads around without a little more effort? We're going to have to dig a little deeper…
How does Eliot do it?
George Eliot was famous for creating complex characters that have a lot of psychological depth. In other words, you can imagine that there's a whole lot of personality below the surface of what's being shown by the narrator or by the character's actions. For example, the narrator tells us that many of Dorothea's choices are a result of the "devotedness which was so necessary a part of her mental life" (2.20.6). Eliot isn't just telling us, "Dorothea was devoted to her lofty ideals." Instead, the narrator tells us that this "devotedness" is part of Dorothea's "mental life." The assertion that Dorothea has a mental life beyond what we see on the page contributes to the sense that she's a real, thinking, feeling person, and not just a collection of words and descriptions created by George Eliot.
Eliot's descriptions of Dorothea often sneak in suggestions like this one that there's a lot more going on under the surface. Great – so Dorothea isn't just a beautiful and elegant woman: she's got hidden depths. Then why do descriptions of her so often compare her to works of art, which are, by definition, all surface and no depth?
The Painted Lady
When Dorothea is visiting Rome with Mr. Casaubon on their honeymoon, Will Ladislaw and his artist friend, Naumann, see her in the Vatican among a lot of famous classical statues (2.19.3). Dorothea is simply dressed in gray (as usual), and is frozen in thought when the men first see her – she looks like one of the statues.
This is strange: why would the narrator want us to associate her with statues, which are made out of stone and have no "mental life" of their own? There are a few possible reasons. First, maybe it's because Eliot doesn't want us to get carried away with thinking of Dorothea as a real person. She is, after all, just a fictional character in a book, created by Eliot, just as the statues at the Vatican were created by sculptors. Another possible reason is that Eliot wants to show us how other characters, like Naumann, see Dorothea. Naumann doesn't care about anything except for the surface.
Naumann is immediately attracted to Dorothea as a piece of art. He wants to capture her beauty on canvas, and starts planning a way to persuade her husband, Mr. Casaubon, to commission a portrait of his young wife. He has no thought of Dorothea's "mental life," as the narrator describes it, but only thinks of her "form" and the way it is "animated by Christian sentiment" (2.19.14). Naumann thinks of Dorothea as an ideal, rather than as a real person.
Will Ladislaw, however, can't stand the thought of trying to capture something as complex as Dorothea in a painting: "As if a woman were a mere coloured superficies! […] they change from moment to moment" (2.19.23). Will realizes that there are hidden depths to Dorothea – and to all women – that can't be captured in a painting or a statue that depicts only the surface.
Naumann isn't exactly a character to be trusted. He cares more about his art than anything else, so his impression of Dorothea as simply a piece of art should be taken with a grain of salt. We, like Will Ladislaw, know better.
But even the narrator occasionally associates Dorothea with works of art. For example, in a chapter describing Dorothea at a dinner party, the narrator says, "Sometimes when Dorothea was in company, there seemed to be as complete an air of repose about her as if she had been a picture of Santa Barbara" (1.10.12). When Dorothea is calm, she looks like a picture of a saint. What could that imply? Pictures of saints are meant to be revered – they are objects of devotion. They also represent an ideal, rather than a reality. So even the narrator, it seems, occasionally falls into the trap of thinking of Dorothea as an ideal art object – one that should be worshipped, even – rather than as a real person.
This brings up another important aspect to Dorothea's character – her spirituality and religious fervor. It's no accident that so many characters associate her with angels, saints, or the Virgin Mary. Even the narrator occasionally does it, as we saw in the passage above about the "picture of Santa Barbara." Mr. Farebrother says that she "has a heart large enough for the Virgin Mary" (8.76.49); Naumann wishes to paint her as a "nun" (2.19.4) but later decides to paint her as Santa Clara (2.22.31); Will Ladislaw feels "inclin[ed] to fall at the Saint's feet" and considers Naumann's interference to be "desecration" (2.22.32), and even the narrator describes the effect of her white bonnet as looking like "a sort of halo" (2.19.3) around her head. And of course there's the Prelude and Finale chapters, in which Dorothea is compared to Saint Theresa, a medieval saint who yearned to do great work in the world, but had to settle for less than she had originally dreamed because of the practical realities of her everyday life (See the "What's Up with the Epigraph?" section for more on the Prelude). Dorothea is even associated with the divine or the sacred through her name: in Greek, Dorothea means "gift of the gods."
So everyone – other characters, the narrator, and most readers – consider Dorothea to be somehow more than human. But Eliot wants to reassure us that Dorothea's intense spirituality is only "one aspect" of her nature, which, overall, is "ardent, theoretic, and intellectua[l]" (1.3.13). In other words, her spirituality and intensely religious feelings aren't all there is to her.
But that spirituality does have a strong influence over her. We're told that it even "exercise[s]" a "coercion […] over her life" (1.3.13). Her spirituality is so strong that it is actually the guiding force of her life. This might not sound like a terrible thing, but Eliot uses the word "coercion," which suggests that her spirituality has too much influence over her actions, and forces her to do things that her sense or intellect might not approve of. Why would this be? Why would her "religious disposition" force her to do things with which her intellect might not agree?
It's because she's so passionate about everything. Her religious feelings "struggl[e] in the hands of a narrow teaching, hemmed in by a social life which seemed nothing but a labyrinth of petty courses, a walled-in maze of small paths that led no whither" (1.3.13). In other words, the education available to her makes her feel like life will always be ruled by "petty," mundane, everyday concerns, and she feels like she's made for something greater.
So why doesn't she go to college? Become a lawyer? Work for social justice? Oh right, because those career options weren't open to women in the 1830s. In fact, the only career option available to middle or upper-class women who didn't marry was teaching (as Mary Garth plans to do before her father gets his new job). So Dorothea has all this pent up emotional and intellectual energy, and her intense spirituality is the only real outlet she has for it.
Is she only human, after all?
Dorothea's intense spirituality and her position as a woman, then, seem to be linked. But then, most aspects of Dorothea's character come back to her femininity. People want to idealize her as a work of art because she's a beautiful woman, and they want to associate her with saints or the Virgin Mary because she's a good woman. Even Will Ladislaw, who leaps to her defense when Naumann wants to paint her, says that it's because women "change from moment to moment" (2.19.23). It's not that he has a problem with art in general, it's the attempt to capture something as changeable or complicated as a woman in art that he has a problem with. Will understands Dorothea better than anyone, but he's still tempted to idealize her, rather than think of her as a unique individual. He finds himself "divided between the inclination to fall at the Saint's feet and kiss her robe, and the temptation to knock Naumann down while he was adjusting her arm" (2.22.32). In other words, Will feels that there's a contradiction between Dorothea's human, physical femininity, and her saintly otherworldliness.
Sinner or Saint?
So Dorothea's complexity comes in part from the narrator's assertions that she has a "mental life" beneath the surface – something that even the narrator can't fully access – in part from the tension between Dorothea's physical femininity and her spirituality. This tension gets played out in the way other characters view her, too. Many characters idealize her either as a saint or as a work of art (or both), and have trouble thinking of her as a real person, rather than as a spiritual ideal.
Naumann thinks that the contrast of the living, breathing Dorothea and the marble statues is beautiful: he calls it a "fine bit of antithesis" (2.19.4). Of course, he's talking about the contrast between beauty in marble and Dorothea's living beauty, but we could also think of the "antithesis" between Dorothea's beautiful exterior and her complex, beautiful interior. Or the antithesis between the beauty of her idealism (that her marriage to Casaubon would somehow enable her to understand life, the universe, and everything) and the sad reality of her life (Casaubon doesn't care about anything besides his research). In fact, Dorothea's character is full of these antitheses, or little paradoxes. Each one of these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions adds to the complexity of her character and, therefore, to its realism and psychological depth.