[Tameca Jones originally wrote a version of this essay for Dr. Jesse Airaudi's English 4368, Development of the English Novel in the Nineteenth Century, at Baylor University.]
Dorothea and her sister Celia probably learned about the dodo bird, which became extinct in the seventeenth century, in their early education. Celia probably thought her sister's name had an amusing phonic resemblance to the extinct bird. "Dodo," she thought, "can be my term of endearment for Dorothea." One can only speculate about the origin of Dorothea's nickname in the novel Middlemarch because George Eliot does not provide its history. Fortunately, the history of the dodo bird is well documented, as is Dorothea's fictional life, and comparison of the two produces many intriguing parallels that provide insight into the caged and flightless lives of Victorian women.
The dodo bird lived undisturbed on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean for so long that it lost its need and ability to fly. Most Victorians with money or "unquestionably 'good'" (5) connections are isolated from the limitations and social ills outside their little microcosms, thus islands unto themselves metaphorically speaking. Islanded by her family's respectability and wealth, Dorothea is "educated . . . on plans at once narrow and promiscuous, first in an English family and afterwards in a Swiss family at Lausanne" (6). After completing her education, she lives in "a quiet country-house, and attend[s] a village church hardly larger than a parlour" (5) at Tipton Grange — Dorothea's physical microcosmic island: "Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there" (6). Since Dorothea's uncle, Mr. Brooke "dread[s] so much the sort of superior woman likely to be available" (7) to be a "guide and companion to his nieces," Dorothea "preside[s] over . . . [his] household, and did not at all dislike her new authority, with the homage that belonged to it."
Like most middle-class Victorian women, Dorothea's "homage" was restricted to the domestic sphere. She had no power to effect the changes on her uncle's property which she saw fitting. One such change is the improvement of the "pig-sty cottages" (21) in which her uncle's tenants reside: "'Worth doing! yes, indeed,' said Dorothea . . . 'I think we deserve to be beaten out of our beautiful houses with a scourge of small cords — all of us who let tenants live in such sties as we see round us. Life in cottages might be happier than ours, if they were real houses fit for human beings from whom we expect duties and affections.'" Mr. Brooke apathetically files the poverty of his tenants under political economy while Dorothea looks on helplessly, wishing to spread her unused wings and lift some of the tenants' burdens: "In Mr. Brooke the hereditary strain of Puritan energy [i]s clearly in abeyance; but in his niece Dorothea it glow[s] alike through faults and virtues, turning sometimes into impatience of her uncle's talk or his way of 'letting things be' on his estate" (6). Imprisoned by the cage of her youth, Dorothea settles for drawing architectural plans of new cottages in preparation for the auspicious time "when she would be of age and have some command of money for generous schemes."
Mr. Brooke's unconscious prejudice towards Dorothea's sex and age represents the social limitations that keep most Victorian women forever "thinking of [their] wings and never flying" (176). When she delivers a compassionate and humane response to Sir James Chettam's entreaty, her uncle clips her lofty sentiments with a brusque chauvinistic bullet: "'Young ladies don't understand political economy'" (11). The disjointed points he makes to discredit his niece only prove to support her opinion: "'The fact is, human reason may carry you a little too far — over the hedge, in fact. . . . I have always been in favour [sic] of a little theory: we must have Thought; else we shall be landed back in the dark ages." Dorothea's eloquent insightfulness did not originate from any "theory" or "reason" based on textbooks. Her rectitude and social conscience produce the antithesis of political economy's core principle: "'It is not a sin to make yourself poor in performing experiments for the good of all.'" Mr. Brooke again slights Dorothea when he rejects her proposal to help sort his papers, telling her "young ladies are too flighty" to "meddle with . . . documents" (13). The adjective used to describe young women is pregnant with hypocrisy and irony. If anyone is given to flightiness, it is Mr. Brooke, a man of "acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote" (6). He "was held . . . to have contracted a too rambling habit of mind" with "conclusions [that] were as difficult to predict as the weather." The flightiness he hypocritically accuses his niece of possessing is ironic in respect to Dorothea's nickname (Dodos were flightless birds). As the narrator's psychological analysis of Mr. Brooke's motivation reveals, his remark was totally unconscious, even involuntary: "[T]he remark lay in his mind as lightly as the broken wing of an insect among all the other fragments there, and a chance current had sent it alighting to her" (13). His instinctive response represents that though most women have wings to fly, Victorian society unconsciously places them in sexist cages from the cradle to the grave.
When the Portuguese sailors first arrived on the island of Mauritius, the dodo birds, having no natural predators, had no fear of them or their animals. The sailors hunted the island's avian inhabitants for food and sport, while the dogs and pigs made short work of the birds' eggs. Just as the dodo birds were oblivious to the predatory motives of the new visitors on their island, Dorothea, in her tranquil microcosm without a middle-aged woman to guide her, is oblivious to Sir James's intention to stuff and hang her on his mantelpiece as a trophy wife:
She was open, ardent, and not in the least self-admiring; indeed, it was pretty to see how her imagination adorned her sister Celia with attractions altogether superior to her own, and if any gentleman appeared to come to the Grange from some other motive than that of seeing Mr. Brooke, she concluded he must be in love with Celia: Sir James Chettam for example, whom she constantly considered from Celia's point of view, inwardly debating whether it would be good for Celia to accept him. That he should be regarded as a suitor to herself would have seemed to her a ridiculous irrelevance. 
In Sir James's hunt for a wife to "whom he could say 'What shall we do?' about this or that, who could help her husband with reasons and would also have the property qualifications for doing so" (14), Dorothea falls into his sights: "She was thoroughly charming to him, but of course he theorised [sic] a little about his attachment." He picks Dorothea as if she were live game or a "young woman . . . tied up to be chosen, like poultry at market" (317) and proceeds to track and set traps for his prey — the Brooke sister he feels is "in all respects superior" (15). One such trap Sir James uses is illusory predominance: "In short, he felt himself to be in love in the right place, and was ready to endure a great deal of predominance, which, after all, a man could put down when he liked. Sir James had no idea that he should ever like to put down the predominance of this handsome girl, in whose cleverness he delighted" (14). He coaxes Dorothea out of her nest, closer to the cage of domesticity, by giving her the monetary means to effect "generous schemes" denied by her youth and uncle:
"Do you know, Lovegood was telling me yesterday that you had the best notion in the world of a plan for cottages — quite wonderful for a young lady, he thought. You had a real genus, to use his expression. He said you wanted Mr. Brooke to build a new set of cottages, but he seemed to think it hardly probable that your uncle would consent. Do you know, that is one of the things I wish to do — I mean, on my own estate. I should be so glad to carry out that plan of yours, if you would let me see it. . . . But after all, it is worth doing." [20-21]
Both the predator and the prey are unaware of the other's intentions. Only Dorothea's sister Celia can see that both parties use "preconceptions either confident or distrustful" (14) to misinterpret each other's actions and manners: "Celia was present while the plans were being examined, and observed Sir James's illusion. He thinks that Dodo cares about him, and she only cares about her plans. Yet I am not certain that she would refuse him if she thought he would let her manage everything and carry out all her notions. And how very uncomfortable Sir James would be! I cannot bear notions" (20). After his trophy eludes him, Sir James proves himself better than most Victorian men: "Although Sir James was a sportsman, he had some other feelings towards women than grouse and foxes, and did not regard his future wife in the light of prey, valuable chiefly for the excitements of the chase" (40).
Mistaking their lack of fear for a lack of intelligence, the Portuguese sailors called the avian inhabitants on the newly discovered island of Mauritius "dodo," Portuguese for "doudou," which means "simpleton." When Edward Casaubon first discovers Dorothea, he mistakenly believes that her unworldliness and initial appreciation of a man who "take[s] pains to talk to her, not with absurd compliments, but with an appeal to her understanding" (22) will make her an excellent
helpmate . . . [and] enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, an aid Mr. Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr. Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.) Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with . . . [a] wife, a modest young lady, with the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex . . . sure to think her husband's mind powerful. 
More than a "helpmate," Casaubon wishes Dorothea to be a "housemaid" (167) to "rub" his "pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel . . . [that is] minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions." When directly applied to Edward's life and works, the pier-glass parable illuminates the catacombs of his psychological makeup. His "abundant pen-scratches" (128) are the "minutely and multitudinous" scratches on a pier-glass — the many volumes of his notations that "g[o] everywhere impartially" — which he initially believes Dorothea will "observ[e] . . . with the uncritical awe of an elegant-minded canary bird." His notations are on "amplitude of paper[s]," which is the equivalent of an actual pier-glass. The "egoism" of Casaubon "produces the flattering illusion of concentric arrangement" of "all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world" (16):
[H]e told her how he had undertaken to show (what indeed had been attempted before, but not with that thoroughness, justice of comparison, and effectiveness of arrangement at which Mr. Casaubon aimed) that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments of the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed. Having once mastered the true position and taken a firm footing there, the vast field of mythical constructions became intelligible, nay, luminous with the reflected light of speedy correspondences. But to gather in this great harvest of truth was no light or speedy work. His notes already made a formidable range of volumes, but the crowning task would be to condense these voluminous still-accumulating results and bring them . . . to a fit little shelf. 
The years of toil produce nothing but more pen-scratches and paper and wear his candle to a mere stub. With the winds of death threatening to extinguish his low, flickering flame, Edward needs Dorothea to carry his torch:
But it was clear enough to her that he would expect her to devote herself to sifting those mixed heaps of material, which were to be doubtful illustration of principles still more doubtful. . . . And now she pictured to herself the days, months, and years which she must spend in sorting what might be called shattered mummies, and fragments of tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins — sorting them as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child. . . . She could understand well enough now why her husband had come to cling to her, as possible the only hope left that his labours would ever take a shape in which they could be given to the world. 
Had her husband not betrayed her trust with the codicil of his will, Dorothea would have remained a prisoner in her marital tomb: "[S]he simply felt that she was going to say 'Yes' to her own doom: she was too weak, too full of dread at the thought of inflicting a keen-edged blow on her husband, to do anything but submit completely" (298). Already "paying hidden visits" (265) to her "best soul in prison", Dorothea's altruistic passions would have shared the same fate as the extinct dodo birds had her soul not been pardoned by her husband's treachery.
The parallels between the lives of the dodo birds and Dorothea reveal how life for Victorian women took place in a series of aviaries built by a male-chauvinistic society, which keep them flightless and oppressed. George Eliot shows Dorothea's various cages, which take the form of the frustratingly confining world of her girlhood and the suffocating "virtual tomb" (295) of her marriage, as the movelist tries to save the souls, passions, and talents of women from extinction.
Hornback, Bert G., ed. Middlemarch, a Norton Critical Edition. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Last modified 12 July 2004