George Eliot remains a conundrum for feminists because her wish for female equality is selective rather than inclusive. Certain aspects of the reigning patriarchal stereotype of pure and passive womanhood are abhorrent to her, such as the powerlessness of women to act in the world (Gwendolen's complaint that "we women can't go in search of adventures. . . . We must stay where we grow, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dun without complaining," 120, might be the complaint of Maggie or Dorothea as well). In the area of sexual relationships, however, Eliot endorses the stereotype of the docile and submissive female whose participation in the erotic is confined to passivity. The man acts and the woman reacts; Eliot's female characters are not even permitted to perceive the desire of the male characters in her novels until it is pointed out to them. Certainly they are never permitted to initiate the look or the language of desire, even in the most intimate of male-female encounters. Nor do they want to: when Catherine Arrowpoint is forced to confess her love for Klesmer, "to her the effort was something like the leap of a woman from the deck into the lifeboat" (226). Submission and renunciation remain part of the womanly ideal throughout Eliot's career, even though her heroines become progressively more spirited and independent. The horrors of the domination/submission hierarchy are openly acknowledged in her last two novels, yet her heroines (with the possible exception of Dorothea) still long to submit to superior males. Unlike Charlotte Brontë's heroines, George Eliot's female characters do not chafe against the unfairness of the beauty ideal or rail against the unwritten sanctions that prevent them from expressing erotic desire. Nor do they seek the comfort and mother-love that Brontë's heroines ultimately find with the males in her novels. Eliot's females are beautiful, and they are pursued; their task is to choose wisely among their admirers.
In short, Eliot's valorization of the patriarchal principle of transcendence--which devalues the sexuality that "woman" has been made to represent--causes her likewise to endorse the patriarchal solution of banishing female desire from the womanly ideal. The good woman stimulates male desire (through her beauty) and then responds to it, evincing none of her own. In every other area Eliot's female characters long for autonomy, a fact that underlines her Victorian discomfort in the area of erotic relations. A true product of her age and a brilliant novelist, George Eliot is a complex and contradictory daughter of the fathers. Based on a fine balance among powerful and unstated oppositions, her novels are a rich source of speculation for the feminist critic.