George Eliot's sprawling novel Middlemarch
tells, among its many narrative strands, the story of Dorothea Brooke, an idealistic woman who makes the mistake most likely to ruin a life: She marries the wrong man. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Reverend Edward Casaubon is ambitious and scholarly—and, Dorothea soon learns, cold, distant and self-centered. She had hoped to help him finish his life's work, an important book called The Key to All Mythologies, only to realize he has no interest in her thoughts or even really in the work itself. Conveniently, he dies. Inconveniently, he writes in his will that if Dorothea marries his estranged relation Will Ladislaw, she can't inherit Casaubon's money and property. Conveniently, Dorothea finds the man who actually is right for her, who respects her mind and loves her for who she is. Inconveniently, it happens to be this very same Will Ladislaw. Even more inconveniently, he has no income or land of his own. Here was a society that didn't encourage independence or self-awareness in women at all, and here was a woman who saw the error in her—perfectly respectable, but not right for her—life choices and figured out how to be happy in spite of resistance. We all have our Dorothea-like notions about what we should do, about who we should be. How much courage would it take to actualize what is true about ourselves?