The Living Stream: History, Agency, and the Woman Question in Middlemarch
George Eliot's Middlemarch names itself as an "experiment of Time," and stands as one of the most sophisticated Victorian discussions of history and historiography. In this thesis, I connect Eliot's theorization of history and historiography to the problem of women's agency as it appears in both Victorian ideology and in contemporary Victorian studies. I show how gender, agency, and history are conceptually linked in Eliot's Middlemarch, and ultimately argue that Eliot's theory of history both critiques the dominant conception of women's agency and makes possible new representations of women--and men--as historical actors.In each section of my thesis, I configure history, agency, and gender in a different way, focusing each analysis on a single metaphor. In the first section, I consider women's agency at the historical moment of Middlemarch's composition. By considering the dual meaning of the "will" in Middlemarch, I connect the material conditions of women to philosophical conceptions of agency, and examine how the novel addresses the Woman Question as it was raised in two major contemporary historical events, the enactment of the Married Women's Property Act of 1870 and John Stuart Mill's publication of The Subjection of Women in 1869. I connect Victorian representations of women's agency to theorizations of women's agency in Victorian studies of the last twenty years, particularly those of Mary Poovey and Amanda Anderson. Ultimately I find that neither Poovey's nor Anderson's models of agency are sufficient to understand Middlemarch's representation of women's agency. In the second section of this thesis, I propose an alternative model, a theorization of what I call attenuated agency. Comparing instantiations of the metaphor of history as a river in Thomas Carlyle and Eliot, I illustrate how Eliot conceives of a partially determined, partially determining agent who defies the dominant understanding of either men or women as agents in Victorian discourse. In the third section of this thesis, I trace the metaphor of the web to explore the implications that a model of attenuated agency has on the historiographer, on Lukácsian and deconstructive readings of the novel and the narrator, and on Victorian progressivism.
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