The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 6, Chapters 11–14 : The Great Temptation | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 11: In the Lane

Maggie has been visiting her aunt, Mrs. Moss, when Stephen suddenly shows up and asks Maggie to walk on the lane with him. When they are alone he confesses he is "mad with love" and apologizes again for taking an "unwarrantable liberty." He is ready to lay everything at her feet, and Maggie says she cannot listen to such avowals. She forgives him but asks him to go away, reminding him of Lucy and admitting she considers herself engaged to Philip. He responds, "we should break all these mistaken ties that were made in blindness, and determine to marry each other." When he asks her if she loves someone better, she remains silent. Stephen continues haranguing Maggie to act on their love, but she remains firm in not putting their own feelings ahead of responsibilities toward others. Stephen seems to relent and asks to kiss her before they part, and Maggie consents.

Chapter 12: A Family Party

At the end of the week, Maggie leaves Mrs. Moss to pay a visit to her other aunt, Mrs. Pullet, and a party is planned to discuss and celebrate the good fortune of the Tullivers. The sale of the mill has been concluded, and now Mrs. Tulliver will go back to her old home to keep house for her son. Both Lucy and the rest of the family are cajoling Maggie to stay in St. Ogg's, either with her mother or aunt. Lucy exerts her charm on Tom, explaining how Philip used his influence with his father to help the Tullivers. Moreover, Mr. Wakem has accepted the idea of Maggie as a daughter-in-law. All that remains is for Tom to relent. His response is that he will never sanction the marriage or have any relations with the Wakems, although Maggie can do what she likes, since she has declared her independence.

Chapter 13: Borne Along by the Tide

Maggie returns to the Deanes a week later, and Lucy insists Maggie spend her evenings with the young people. She now finds herself battling strong emotions, with part of her mind thinking she had suffered her whole life, so why shouldn't she now reach out for "love, wealth, ease, and refinement, all that her nature craved ... brought within her reach."

When Maggie concludes her obligatory visits to Mrs. Glegg, Lucy declares they must go out boating every day until she leaves. Philip happens to be visiting, and she asks him to take her and Maggie out on the river the next day, since Stephen has been moody and not so inclined. Philip watches Maggie and his friend Stephen closely that evening, and by the time he gets home he feels sure there is some understanding between them. This realization makes him miserable, and he wants to wait until his "egoistic irritation" passes before seeing Maggie again. For this reason, he asks Stephen to take his place as the boatman. Since Lucy thinks Philip is coming, she contrives to stay out of the way so that he and Maggie can be alone together. When Stephen shows up the next day instead of Philip, Maggie says they can't go, but she relents without much prompting. Once they are on the river, Maggie goes into a kind of trance of passivity, finally realizing they are well past the place they were supposed to stop and walk back. Stephen now proposes they run away and elope. Maggie chides him for taking advantage of her "thoughtlessness" but then agrees to go on after he seemingly manipulates her into considering his suffering. They catch up with a larger vessel bound for Mudport, and the two of them get on, taking the rowboat. The journey will take less than two days, and the Dutch crewmen try to make them as comfortable as possible, especially Maggie. For his part, Stephen is rapturous and continues to feed Maggie with words of love.

Chapter 14: Waking

Maggie has a dream of the Virgin of St. Ogg's, except she is Lucy, and the boatman is first Philip and then her brother, who pass by her without looking. Maggie now feels she has done an "irrevocable wrong that must blot out her life ... she had rent the ties that had given meaning to duty, and had made herself an outlawed soul, with no guide but the wayward choice of her own passion." When the couple gets to Mudport, Maggie says she will go no farther. While Stephen insists they should look toward their own happiness, Maggie gives him a long rebuttal about duty and renouncing one's own desires "for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us." Stephen finally realizes that he cannot sway her and tells her to leave him. Thus Maggie mistakenly takes a coach to York but eventually makes her way home.

Analysis

In the events leading up to the climax of the novel—Maggie's aborted elopement with Stephen—she reenacts with Stephen the same game of cat and mouse she played with Philip, leading him on and then rejecting him, repeating the cycle. More recent critics agree that George Eliot as novelist failed to grasp the implications of Maggie's behavior because she was too closely identified with her fictional character. Nonetheless there are a range of opinions about how the main protagonist of The Mill on the Floss should ultimately be understood. When Stephen makes his avowal of love at Mrs. Moss's farm, Maggie does admit she loves him, something she never actually said to Philip. But she uses her declaration to get Stephen to agree that they cannot act on their love: "I must not, cannot, seek my own happiness by sacrificing others," Maggie says, although Stephen argues it is wrong to pretend love for Lucy and Philip, which will likely create misery for both the parties they deceive as well as themselves. Thus Stephen echoes Philip's protestations against self-mutilation, an impulse stemming from Maggie's misreading of Thomas à Kempis. As critic Barbara Guth suggests, Maggie's renunciation nullifies the need for individual happiness. Yet, the followers of à Kempis would have sought happiness in spiritual transcendence. Maggie can obtain transcendence only through human connection, but she believes her philosophy will not allow it.

Critic Nina Auerbach, who reads The Mill on the Floss as something of a Gothic tale, says à Kempis's doctrine becomes a "fetish" in Maggie's hands "that explodes communities and blights lives." Maggie's behavior toward Stephen is another manifestation of the narcissistic rage never resolved in childhood, according to Peggy Fitzhugh Johnstone. Maggie has returned to St. Ogg's only to be reminded of her low status as the daughter of a failure, and Stephen's attention gives her the opportunity to predominate. But Maggie is infatuated with Stephen and experiences with him a return to the Eden-like wholeness she felt when she and Tom stood beside the Round Pool, says Johnstone. According to Johnstone, Maggie's cruelty toward Stephen is a "repetition-compulsion which causes her to reenact her sense of injury by repeatedly injuring others." This repetition-compulsion can be seen in her rejection of Stephen at Aunt Moss's and then consenting to being kissed by him since they have agreed to part; the continued exchange of glances and snatches of conversation during the evenings at the Deanes, confirming Philip's worst suspicions; her consent to get into the boat with Stephen and then blaming him for taking advantage of her "thoughtlessness" (deliberate passivity); and her agreement to go to Mudport and then declaring she will go no further. Indeed before the elopement, the "demonic" side of Maggie has moments of "cruel selfishness" in which she thinks, "why should not Lucy—why should not Philip suffer? She had had to suffer through many years of life; and who had renounced anything for her? ... Why was she to forgo ... [happiness], that another might have it—another, who perhaps needed it less?" In the end, her decision not to go through with an elopement brings much suffering to Stephen as well.

Eliot, in the guise of the narrator, repeatedly makes excuses for Maggie's behavior, claiming her heart is always in the right place, but this is clearly not true. Maggie's need for love and the mistakes she makes in attempting to get it elicit tremendous sympathy from the reader. But what grates on the reader is the false persona the fictional Maggie creates as an à Kempis-like renouncer. Her attempt to put the doctrine of à Kempis into practice as a way of saving herself in her terrible first grief, after she loses all affection from her family when Mr. Tulliver goes bankrupt, is understandable. But her continued obstinacy (much like her brother and her father) in insisting she can live by what becomes in her hands a bankrupt philosophy—even as she is guided in a different direction by Philip, Lucy, Stephen, and even Tom—cannot be justified. Maggie also overrates her unwillingness to hurt others. This deliberate blindness, a product of narcissism masquerading as selflessness, keeps Maggie in the dark about her own motives and proves to be the undoing of the people she claims to care about.

As critic Barbara Guth points out, it is Philip Wakem who speaks for the wise side of Eliot: he "acquires knowledge from experiencing temptation, succumbing to it, and suffering." Philip and Maggie are twin souls in the sense they are both handicapped outsiders—he by virtue of his humpback and she because of her depth of feeling and enormous need to be loved. Neither fits into the bourgeois society of St. Ogg's, and both value the life of the mind and the heart rather than material possessions. Philip is refined by his suffering and doesn't fall into bitterness, unlike Maggie, who in the final analysis doesn't change in her crucible of sorrow. Philip's strong imagination and ability to empathize with the suffering of others allow him to correctly imagine what has been going on between Stephen and Maggie, and in Chapter 13, he admits to himself he has forced her into a premature commitment. He knows Maggie is in distress and would like to talk with her, but he doesn't trust himself to do so until he feels sure he can put aside his own self-interest. This is why he does not keep the appointment with Lucy and Maggie. The maturity of Philip's love will become even more evident in his response to the aborted elopement in the final chapters of the novel.

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