Title: The Mill on the Floss
Author: George Eliot
“I’m cursed with susceptibility in every direction, and effective faculty in none. I care for painting and music; I care for classic literature, and mediæval literature, and modern literature; I flutter all ways, and fly in none.”
“But surely that is a happiness to have so many tastes, – to enjoy so many beautiful things, when they are within your reach… It always seemed to me a sort of clever stupidity only to have one sort of talent, – almost like a carrier-pigeon.”
The Mill on the Floss was originally a recommendation from my penpal across the world (cool, huh?). It’s one of her favorites and I was really looking forward to reading it eventually. With school, though, sometimes reading a novel that thick can be a bit difficult. Fortunately, my Victorian literature professor also recommended that it be one of the novels that we read together, so I’m thrilled to have finished it last week! I’ll write the majority of this reaction without any spoilers and then save discussing the ending for the last couple paragraphs.
This is a character-driven novel, yes. When I began to find it hard to actually connect with any of the characters nearing the end of the novel, it became fairly difficult for me to finish. What did I do when I had about a fifth of the novel left? I looked up the ending. (Annie, if you’re reading this, I apologize!) I just wanted to know what I was working towards! One of my near-fatal flaws as a reader is that I tend to look up endings – rarely, but I do. So when I found out that I was working toward that, it got even harder to continue. However, I had a deadline.
Character-drive. Back to that. Maggie is highly relatable to the modern woman (and even the modern outcast). She aspires to be more than society says she can. It’s easy to draw parallels between Maggie and George Eliot. The Mill on the Floss is, after all, considered semi-autobiographical. So while reading the pages that documented Maggie Tulliver’s life, I felt the hardships that Eliot might have endured at the time. Although it wasn’t uncommon for females to write and publish their works in the late 1800s, there were other trials that both Eliot and Maggie similarly faced – the judgment and persecution of society for stepping outside of the lines of societal normality. In the novel, an event leads Maggie to be placed in a position where many question her morals. In Eliot’s life, her “marriage” to George Henry Lewes, a married man, led to her own alienation in British society. Although infidelity was commonplace in some wealthier and well-known British families of status, the openness of Eliot’s and Lewes’ affair was scandalous. During the discussion with my professor, I learned that Lewes’ wife had actually had a long-standing affair with a different man first, but because Lewes had not called for a divorce immediately and allowed her to continue to live with him, by the time that Eliot came into the picture, he was no longer able to file for divorce. It wasn’t until after Lewes’ death that George Eliot married by the law to another man and reconnected with lost acquaintances/family (i.e. her brother) who had shunned her for her choices.
By placing Maggie in situations in The Mill on the Floss that lead her friends, family, and acquaintances to question her morals while giving the reader insight into Maggie’s good intentions and unblemished conscience (at least in that scene after she makes her decision to leave without allowing temptation to corrupt her), George Eliot allows the audience to view the unfair harshness in the judgment of Maggie’s peers as well as her own who do not understand the circumstances that they presume and accuse her of.
There are so many facets of this novel that will go untouched. I’d love to discuss the Tulliver family vs. the Dodson family and the irony of that comparison! But some things are better read. I could write an entire entry on Philip Wakem alone, but his character, too, is better read in the book than summed up in a reaction.
What I will discuss is the ending, however, because I do have a bit of a controversial opinion that I believe many others actually share. What I will say is that you should read the book. I recommend it! So if you plan to read the novel but have not yet, do not read any further!
In the end of the novel after Maggie had practically been forced to nearly elope with Stephen Guest, her cousin Lucy Deane’s beau, Maggie cannot find any consolation in the town where she’d been raised. Although Lucy had cleared up that she didn’t hate her, they could still not see each other as they had before. Circumstances kept them apart. People in town looked down on Maggie as a fickle girl out to get a man. Even when Dr. Kenn offers her kindness and a bit of work, the people in his parish turn against him and question his judgment and intentions toward Maggie. But no, it’s never the man’s fault. It’s Maggie’s own doing – the girl who tries to steal men’s hearts from inexperienced to freshly-widowed. The views expressed by the community are appalling. Then there’s poor Philip Wakem, the boy who has been in love with Maggie for about ten years. He feels hurt after she ran away with Stephen Guest, his best friend, but he writes to her and says that he understands that she did what she believed was morally right and also right by both Lucy and himself and came back unmarried. It’s almost painful to read his letter! Then comes the letter from Stephen asking her to meet him so they can be together again.
Maggie faces the uncertainty of choosing her love. Both have consequences, whether the loss of her cousin and Philip to the loss of her brother and Stephen. It comes down to her being tempted to accept Stephen just so she won’t be alone and shut out from nearly everyone anymore, but she tears up the letter because she loves Philip. I’ve thought it through in different ways, and I firmly believe that Maggie’s indecision is not meant to be figured out. She didn’t choose between the two of them for a reason, and I don’t think that the reader is meant to know which she would have chosen had she lived. That’s the point of it. She couldn’t choose, so death was a blessing.
I said it. Maggie’s death was a blessing to her. That’s clearly how Eliot had written it, too. She had died saving her brother from the flood up in their old house. They hadn’t spoken in some time because Tom Tulliver had disowned her as a sister and forbid her from entering the house after her almost-elopement with Stephen Guest. (If they’d come back married, things probably would have been different, but the fact that they spent the night together unmarried although nothing happened was her damnation. Really? It’s exhausting.) So then they died together, embracing each other as the flooded water crashed their boat and drowned them.
Yes, I was pissed. I was insanely mad and sad. Even though I knew beforehand that they were going to die together, I didn’t realize that I was going to hate it so much when I got there. Although dying was the most merciful thing that could have happened to Maggie and Tom together, what pissed me off was those they left behind. What of their mother? Stephen Guest marries Lucy Deane after years of visiting Maggie’s grave. But after five years, Philip Wakem continues to go to Maggie’s burial ground alone. Without anyone. No one to love him. No one to take care of him. I didn’t cry because Maggie and Tom died; I bawled my eyes out because Philip Wakem was left alone. Even now! It’s been a full week and I’ve had numerous discussions about the ending with different people, yet I’m still tearing up at the thought of Philip! How much worse could his life have gotten? He’d been born deformed. His father favored him because of that and others avoided him because of it. He was depressed. No one was his mentally equal more than Maggie. And yet Eliot took her from him. No matter how I look at it, I can’t see the mercy in her death from his angle. Even if she had lived and chosen to elope with Stephen Guest, I honestly believe that Philip still would have been happy for her and still wanted to just know that she was alive and well. But this! Leaving him alone in the world after ten years of love and friendship!
Whether Maggie even loved either Stephen or Philip romantically is an entirely different thought that I’d had after finishing the novel. So, if you’ve read it, think about on this. Did she really love either enough to marry one or was she simply lonely and vain and in need of companionship from someone her equal? She’d grown up with her unintelligent brother and her pretty-but-not-brilliant cousin for company. It makes sense that Maggie would have craved the attention, praise, and company of someone who she thought was either her equal or her better.
Any thoughts? Any agreements? Any disagreements?