The Motifs of Furniture and Yoke in George Eliot's Middlemarch
"'You have not made my life pleasant to me of late'-'the hardships which our marriage has brought on me'-these words were stinging his imagination as a pain makes an exaggerated dream (667)."
On the list of life's complexities, marriage, perhaps, reigns at the top. George Eliot's Middlemarch exhumes many of the complicated facets of marriage from a Victorian England milieu. Although the character spectrum in Middlemarch includes diversity in social class, the bulk of players are members of the aristocracy. Despite financial wealth, married women were bound to their husbands-Eliot employs the metaphor of the yoke to convey strict bondage to the spouse and domesticity. On the other hand, an aristocratic married couple was likely bound to material possessions; in the instance of Middlemarch, furniture serves as a complex motif. An analysis on the themes of yoke and furniture in Eliot's novel prompts several questions. What does the definition of yoke imply about the metaphor? Who bears the yoke in marriage? Who is concerned with furniture? What roles does furniture portray in Middlemarch? Finally, a comparative discussion on the ties between the yoke and furniture as burdens in marital relationships will conclude the argument.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the primary definition of "yoke" as:
A contrivance, used from ancient times, by which two animals, esp. oxen, are coupled together for drawing a plough or vehicle; usually consisting of a somewhat curved or hollowed piece of wood fitted with 'bows' or hoops at the end which are passed round the animals' necks, and having a ring or hooks attached to the middle to which is fastened a chain or trace extending backward by which the plough or vehicle is drawn (1989).
This definition is applicable to interpreting the novel's yoke motif in a literal sense; the image of how oxen are bound to the plow is conducive to envisioning two married people bound to industry. Middlemarch typically exemplifies women as the submissive animals of marriage, although there are references to men as well.
The fact that yoke, by definition, is associated with two bound oxen, leads to a figurative meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary "of connexion, co-operation, labour, etc.; in reference to marriage, combining the ideas of union or co-operation and subjection or restraint (1989)." Although the dictionary does not mention it, women were most often restrained. English law at the time gave married men full ownership of their wife's property, and divorces were nearly impossible to attain (and usually only granted on the side of wealthy men with connections in Parliament).
Eliot's astute use of yoke as metaphor is symbolic at many levels. First, it places the submissive wife in the position of the ox-lowly, dim-witted, replaceable, and of little value. Even Dorothea, young and beautiful, wealthy and intelligent, cannot escape the...