Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Mill on the Floss - a brief character study of Maggie Tulliver

The more I read of George Eliot the more I love her tendency to be a very intrusive author. An intrusive author is often perceived as a staple of Victorian literature and is, as Thackeray once commented, a ‘sort of confidential talk between writer and reader’. The writer can manipulate the reactions of the reader, give some sort of moral instruction and portray themselves as a paternal, or maternal, protector. Eliot’s sympathy for Maggie, as the character in all her novels she perhaps feels most affinity to, is powerfully voiced on regular occasions to elicit an emotional response from the reader. I cannot help but oblige. I think Maggie is perhaps the character in all that I have read that I feel the most for, the one I can most identify with, and this is most likely how Eliot intended it.

Maggie seems very isolated indeed in the society in which she exists, perhaps more so because modern readers are very aware of the emergence of Darwinism at the time of writing. Human life is perceived to be a ‘narrow, ugly, grovelling existence’ and, like Hardy, Eliot paints a portrait of a very hostile universe – if you stand out against the world, you will be crushed. Maggie is a force of nature, she cannot help but stand out, and it seems consequently, she is doomed. She is fiercely intelligent, more than may have been considered proper for a young lady, and keenly aware of her environment. A blessing and a curse:

‘Everybody in the world seemed so hard and unkind to Maggie; there was no indulgence, no fondness… in books there were people who were always agreeable or tender… the world outside the books was not a happy one… if life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie?’

This is one of those moments where Eliot’s thoughts spill onto the page: ‘There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth, when the soul is made up of wants…’ These invaluable nuggets of thought and wisdom seep through in all of her books. It is hard to believe that Eliot is not with us, a voice in our ear, writing at this very minute, recognising the plight of humanity. Yet Maggie’s passionate nature cannot accept this state of affairs, she ‘could make dream worlds of her own but no dream world would satisfy her now. She wanted some explanation of this hard; real life… the need of some tender demonstrative love’. If someone would but care for her, she may find it easier to reconcile herself to the world around her but she is ‘as lonely in her trouble as if every girl besides herself had been cherished and watched over by an elder mind, not forgetful of their own early time when need was keen and impulse strong.’ Here we see Eliot’s philosophy filtering onto the page, her unwavering belief in the human potential for compassion, the need to draw together.

Instead Maggie seeks a way of coping and ends up denying her own nature, denying herself so that she may better serve others, but, as Philip Wakem points out: ‘you are not resigned, you are only trying to stupefy yourself’. Philip encourages her not to deny the elements that set her apart, her strength of feeling and desire, protesting that ‘I can’t give up wishing… it seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive.’ To feel something is always better than feeling nothing. But for Maggie ‘every affection, every delight the poor child had had was like an aching nerve to her’. She feels nothing in moderation, rather she invests her whole self in her urges. As a result there is an inevitable ‘conflict between the inward impulse and outward fact which is the lot of every imaginative and passionate nature’. The more she is herself, the more isolated she becomes. Her love for Tom, her brother, is immense and unconditional, but she ‘often wished he cared more about her loving him’ – the people around her seem incapable of matching her strength of feeling, and returning it, she receives no ‘answer to her little caresses’. As such she is left full of ‘unsatisfied, beseeching affection’.

The ending, although tragic, also seems oddly fitting. Maggie, caught in an embrace with Tom, - what she’s felt for him has been constant throughout the novel. Some kind of comfort can be drawn from that. Maggie is liberated from the confines and judgement of the real world, and embarks on a journey with the one person she’d have chosen. She ends as she began, in a state of pure innocence.

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