In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank before it, could be hardly less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid. (1.4.59)
Mr. Brooke can't figure women out. But then, he's kind of a doofus. The narrator's tone is just dripping with irony here – just because "Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank" when considering Dorothea's motives doesn't mean that all women are as "complicated" as "the revolutions of an irregular solid." You don't need to know calculus to figure out Dorothea; you just need sympathy.
A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards. (1.9.1)
Here's yet another ironic remark about the position of women in nineteenth-century British society. It was traditional for women to have the last word on all the arrangements that were made before the marriage (the date of the wedding, the guest list, the honeymoon, the color of the wallpaper in the new home, et cetera), but here Eliot makes the cutting assertion that that tradition is meant to give women "an appetite for submission afterwards." After all, it was also assumed that women would always submit to their husband's judgment after they were married. Does Eliot think this is a good system? No, probably not.
She did not look at things from the proper feminine angle. The society of such women was about as relaxing as going from your work to teach the second form, instead of reclining in a paradise with sweet laughs for bird-notes, and blue eyes for a heaven. (1.11.1)
Lydgate is reflecting on the differences between Dorothea Brooke (whom he's just met) and Rosamond Vincy (with whom he's falling in love). Dorothea isn't "feminine" enough – she actually thinks about things for herself instead of deferring to the opinions of whatever man is closest to her. Lydgate can't imagine being married to a woman like Dorothea – going home from work to a woman who would have intelligent things to say to him doesn't sound all that relaxing. Life with Rosamond, on the other hand, he imagines as a kind of "paradise."
henceforth he would take a strictly scientific view of women, entertaining no expectations, but such as were justified beforehand. (2.15.25)
After Lydgate's experience with Laure, the beautiful French actress who murdered her husband because she was tired of him, he resolves that he'll approach women as objectively as he approaches everything else. He'll be truly scientific about it, and will act based on his observations as opposed to his expectations or desires. He, like Mr. Brooke, resolves to think of all women as scientific problems that need to be figured out.
"Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere coloured superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment." (2.19.23)
Will doesn't want his friend, Naumann, to attempt to paint Dorothea. Why? Because painting can't capture a woman's essence. There's something indefinable and ineffable about women that can't be caught in a flat, lifeless painting. Women are always changing! How can you catch that on a canvas? You only paint the surface, and so much of what makes women unique is what's going on below the surface. This, of course, begs the question of whether the same couldn't be true of men. Or is Will just as guilty of idealizing women as Naumann is, although his choice of medium ("language" as opposed to art) is different?
She was not a woman to be spoken of as other women are. (2.22.36)
Will isn't in love with Dorothea yet, but she's already become his ideal woman. She should be set above all other women. Even the words used to describe her should be different from the words used to describe others. Will understands Dorothea better than anyone does, but he still wants to think of her as some superhuman ideal instead of a living, breathing human.
The duties of her married life, contemplated as so great beforehand, seemed to be shrinking with the furniture and the white vapour-walled landscape. (3.28.3)
This passage shows how frustrating married life could be for intelligent women during this period. Even intelligent, capable women like Dorothea were expected to limit themselves to the conventional role of wife and mother. Dorothea is full of passion and energy, but there's nothing for her to do. Her world seems to be "shrinking" around her, turning from a vast landscape of possibilities to a small "white vapour-walled" room filled with Victorian "furniture."
there was the stifling oppression of that gentlewoman's world, where everything was done for her and none asked for her aid – where the sense of connection with a manifold pregnant existence had to be kept up painfully as an inward vision, instead of coming from without in claims that would have shaped her energies. (3.28.4)
Dorothea's position is paralleled with that of all "gentlewomen" during the period. Upper-class women had nothing to do. At least lower-class women had stuff to do around the house, and middle-class women might help with the family business to some extent, but upper-class women like Dorothea had servants to do everything. They were expected to content themselves with doing embroidery, making music, and having tea with their neighbors. That might be fun for a couple of days, but we think it would get boring pretty quickly.
the gentlewoman's oppressive liberty. (3.28.4)
This phrase sums up the position of upper-class women during the period: they were at "liberty" to do whatever they wanted, since all their basic needs were catered to by servants, but it was an "oppressive liberty." They were trapped by social conventions that limited their activities. So even though they were at "liberty," it was a severely limited, "oppressive liberty."
"It is the way with all women." But this power of generalizing which gives men so much the superiority in mistake over the dumb animals, was immediately thwarted by Lydgate's memory of wondering impressions from the behaviour of another woman – from Dorothea's looks and tones of emotion about her husband. (6.58.52)
Lydgate used to think of all women from a purely scientific point of view – he lumped all women together and generalized about them in a condescending way. But he's no longer able to do so – Dorothea is so different from other women that he's known that he's forced to think about her as an individual, instead of as a representative of her entire sex. And the impression of individuality that Dorothea has left on him has forced him to think differently about all women. All women aren't the same? Who knew?
For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. (8.finale.24)
In the final chapter of the novel, the "finale," Eliot once again pulls back from the story to speak more generally about universal human nature. She says that all "creature[s]" are influenced by "what lies outside" of themselves. In other words, everyone is limited by the conditions in which they live. Eliot suggests that anyone who wants to follow in the footsteps of some epic hero or heroine needs to adjust their ambitions to fit with the times. It doesn't matter how passionate you are – your life will be "greatly determined by what lies outside it." Because Eliot uses the generic word "creature" instead of "woman," it seems that she's talking about men and women. Her examples, though, are only of women. She brings up Saint Theresa again and also the Greek tragic heroine, Antigone. So it's not clear whether she wants this claim about the limits our social conditions place on us to apply equally to men.
Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (8.finale.25)
These are the final lines of the novel. Dorothea had a "full nature" – full of passionate energy – but the conditions in which she lived forced her "nature" to be divided into a lot of smaller "channels." In other words, she could have been like a mighty, powerful river, but instead her nature got dammed up and redirected. This could be read as a bad thing – Dorothea wasn't allowed to live up to her full potential. She could have lived an "epic" life, and wasn't able to because of conditions outside of her control. But then again, the narrator says that Dorothea still had an "incalculabl[e]" "effect" on the people around her. Just because her life was "unhistoric" (i.e., she didn't do anything noteworthy enough to be included in history books about the lives of kings and queens) doesn't mean that she didn't have an impact on people.
So are the final lines of the novel suggesting that women should be satisfied with leading lives full of "unhistoric acts"? Maybe. But since the final words are the melancholy "rest in unvisited tombs," perhaps we're supposed to close the book with more sadness about the direction of Dorothea's life. It's ambiguous.