(Note: where only page numbers are given as references, all citations are from the 2015 Oxford World's Classics edition of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss.)
One wonders if George Eliot – student and critic of Goethe, cohabiting with Goethe's biographer – initially considered the Bildungsroman (the ‘development novel’) as a model for The Mill on the Floss, found it to be insufficient for a story about the complex, multifarious effects of a community upon the lives of its natives, so adapted instead to illustrating its shortcomings. Perhaps we can regard The Mill on the Floss as a thought experiment, in which “a small mistake of nature” (p. 13), a “too 'cute” (p. 13) girl, is born into a family and a community governed by ancient and exacting codes of interaction, dress, and hierarchy, which obtrude into every detail of life, however trivial, like so many layers of codified hypocrisy. It is a straightforward development from that semi-autobiographical documenting of early life to following an alternative narrative to see what becomes of that proxy-girl as “an over 'cute woman” (p. 13), who cannot help rebelling against the unnatural strictures placed upon her, but ultimately remains too constrained to become a truly self-determining, identity-performative George Eliot. One wonders also what exactly Eliot was weeping for in that quote from George Lewes: “Mrs Lewes is getting her eyes redder and swollener every morning as she lives through her tragic story” (Guardian, 2010). Was she perhaps weeping for her younger self as Maggie, as she directed her mythic tragedy towards what may have been a liberating and cathartic – if painful – closure, as Eliot killed off her younger, more vulnerable proxy, having already disabled her through a series of crippling emotional transactions with all those around her? Is The Mill on the Floss actually a sort of enabling and therapeutic myth of constructed other-memory? What is certain is that Maggie's fatal dramatic arc is almost discernible from the outset, as her character is undermined by pathologically traumatic – often bafflingly trivial – emotional assaults, almost amounting to de facto curses.
Our first encounter with Maggie tells us that “she's twice as 'cute [clever] as Tom” (p. 12), but we are quickly disabused of any notion that cleverness might be an asset, and really she is, “ 'Too 'cute for a woman, I'm afraid' “ (p. 12). So from the outset Maggie's qualities are made worthless, dangerous and undesirable – her currency simply has little value. In short order we learn from her mother that young Maggie is naughty, dirty, and wayward, “like a wild thing that will tumble in the water one day […] half an idiot [...] like a Bedlam creatur' [...] like a mulatter […[ so comical … [and] ... franzy“ (pp. 12-13). Her father – despite his generalised dismissal on the grounds of excessive intelligence – is often more benign and protective with Maggie: “ 'she's a straight, black-eyed wench as anybody need wish to see … [who] … can read almost as well as the parson' ” (p. 12). “ 'But her hair won't curl all I can do with it' ” (p. 13), is Mrs Tulliver's response, on another level entirely, which gives some estimation of the stultified level of debate and censure – as well as the routine dissonance – maddeningly at work in the Tulliver household. Mrs Tulliver's obsessive fault-finding is typical of the community generally, as exemplified by the Tullivers' extended family: the Dodsons, for instance, who “did not shrink from uttering the most disagreeable truths” (p. 43), and whose own complex set of codes and evaluations – comically satirised by Eliot – is enforced rigorously by what resembles a hissing gaggle of merciless, self-appointed, and profoundly hypocritical geese in the form of Maggie's aunts. “ 'Little gells as cut their own hair should be whipped and fed on bread and water' ” (p. 64), pronounces the spiteful and caustic aunt Glegg. " 'Little gells mustn't come to see me if they behave in that way' " (p. 89), says the preening and preposterous aunt Pullet, speaking for the entire clucking collective.
Given such unnavigable and oppressive familial protocols, however we may anachronistically admire Maggie's irrepressible animal spirits, the depressing – perhaps defeatist, perhaps realistic – possibility remains that a better social outcome might have resulted had Mr Tulliver spent his money having Maggie schooled in ladylike comportment and self-restraint. For – to look from the other side – Maggie is an uncontrolled blunderer of slapstick proportions, and from the first she makes herself unpopular by her inability to control herself. Susan Fraiman offers a (truncated) resumé: “Maggie kills rabbits, spills wine, crushes cake, mutilates dolls, drops books, dashes cardhouses, and hangs on Tom in 'a strangling fashion' “ (2003, p. 33), attracting the “general disapprobation” (p. 89) of those present. And Maggie will attract such disapprobation for the rest of her life, albeit that her blundering will elevate itself from slapstick childhood farce to social suicide, perpetrated in various states of consciousness, with her ultimate transgression – her quasi-elopement with Stephen Guest on the river – experienced in an “enchanted haze […] only dimly conscious of the banks […] at all times […] liable to fits of absence” (p. 430). Given this tendency to act (or not act) in apparent fugue states of near-unconsciousness, swept along by the tides of the moment, considering herself safe only in states of asceticism, Tom – as Maggie recognises – utters “a terrible cutting truth” (p. 362) when he says, “I never feel certain about anything with you. At one time you take pleasure in a sort of perverse self-denial, and at another you have not resolution to resist a thing that you know to be wrong” (p. 363). But of course the dynamics here are complex, and Tom's tyranny is only of the benign variety when offered submission: “you think you know best, and will not submit to be guided” (p. 362).
We are also shown tender, poetic images of Tom and Maggie's sad intimacy, and their almost spiritual entanglement: “the brother and sister for whom youth and sorrow had begun together […] gone forth together into their life of sorrow […] the golden gates of their childhood [...] forever closed behind them” (pp. 179-80). It is difficult to relate to this golden childhood, as we only witness brief moments of it, interspersed with protracted periods of Maggie needing Tom's affection, and Tom generally withholding it, offering ridicule and disapproval instead. In fact it is difficult to relate at all to Maggie's almost slavish need for Tom's love; Eliot tells us that “the need of being loved would always subdue her” (p. 362), but while this may be understandable as a generalism, it hardly explains Maggie's devotion to a brother who is so consistently and brutally disapproving and unloving. Of course, there are passages of kindness and love in Maggie's life too – with the rather vapid Lucy; with Bob Jakin; with her constant lover, Philip Wakem; with her rather scheming other lover, Stephen Guest; and occasionally with her parents: “ 'Come, come, my wench' […] father'll take your part' " (p. 65), says Mr Tulliver, protecting Maggie against an onslaught of Dodsons: which “delicious words of tenderness” (p. 65) Maggie “kept in her heart … [thinking] … of them long years afterwards” (p. 65). And even Mrs Tulliver – with her hypercritical Dodson DNA – is described as “getting fond of her tall, brown girl” (p. 273).
The tender and supportive and intellectual Philip Wakem is the lover most championed by critics and readers, with Stephen Guest reduced to, “in simple biological terms […] a better mate” (Haight, in Fraiman, 2003, p. 32). But whatever Philip's kindliness, patience and indulgence – which Tom, naturally, proscribes, on the grounds of Philip's patrimony – it is Stephen who catalyses the primary existential challenge in Maggie's life. And whatever we think about her decision to return rather than marry her ardent and attractive lover, her thought processes are sophisticated, and we inevitably sympathise with her courage, and integrity, even if we regard her reasoning as fundamentally fractured by an overweening sense of self-negating duty. These things are fundamental to Maggie's identity, which, unlike the self-creating identity foregrounded by the Bildungsroman, is intimately connected and responsive to those around her. Maggie is a product of her relationships, and ultimately she cannot bring herself to sacrifice her perceived responsibilities to those relationships, even to those she expects to lose as a result of her transgressive episode with Stephen Guest.
Confronted finally with the stark reality of choosing between her own happiness and her faithfulness to the trust of others, Maggie has to choose the latter: “ 'We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that […] for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives. [...] this belief […] has slipped away from me again and again; but [...] if I let it go forever, I should have no light through the darkness of this life' ” (p. 442). And here we have a key to Maggie's dealings with others throughout: it has been the existential struggle to locate herself between two poles, and – knowing finally that the balance will always elude her, and that she cannot live with choosing her own happiness – she must choose the side of renunciation or no longer be true to herself. The question remains: why could she not choose Philip Wakem – who perhaps understood and loved her better than anyone – and rescue herself? And the answer, no doubt including all of the answers about passion and simple animal attraction, may well be found in this inability to find balance, to position herself on her own spectrum, and perhaps this outcome is already immanent in Maggie from her story's inception.
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