Estella’s Surprising Bildungsroman

When most people think of the great bildungsroman of “Great Expectations,” they think of Pip and his topsy-turvy journey. After all he struggles to deal with with social class, convicts and friendship. But the person who grows the most in “Great Expectations,” is in fact Estella, Pip’s love interest.

We meet Estella through Pip’s fond description below:

“Though she called me ‘boy’ so often, and with a carelessness that was far from complimentary, she was of about my own age. She seemed much older than I, of course, being a girl, and beautiful and self-possessed, and she was as scornful of me as if she had been one-and-twenty, and a queen,” (Dickens 52).

And honestly we should immediately hate her. She refers to Pip affectionately (cough, cough) as “boy” even though they are about the same age. She is “scornful” to Pip as if he were a child and she a noble lady. Dickens even likens her snobbery to the level of a “queen.” Not to mention that she was also beautiful. And who doesn’t love to hate the pretty snobby girl who has everything in a story?

When we first meet Estella she is set in her ways after having been brought up by a woman who is so jilted that she wears her wedding dress everyday, but by the end of the novel Estella has grown up (Thank goodness.) She has been through hardship, lost Miss Havisham and a husband. She has lost her childhood home, but she has gained some perspective.

This growth is evident in the passage below:

“There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth. But, since my duty has not been incompatible with the admission of that remembrance I have given it a place in my heart,” (459).

Here we see that Estella can look back and see what had value in her life and what didn’t. She realizes how a friendship (relationship) with Pip should not have been “thrown away” but rather cultivated. Hindsight is 20/20.

This shows exponential growth on Estella’s part. At the end of the book she is no longer the snobby, self-aggrandizing girl she once was. She does not look down on Pip and his career (459). She admires that he works for a living. Estella has shown more surprising growth than any other character in the novel because she showed the least capacity for growth. For this reason her bildungsroman is the most prevalent in the novel.


Image result for guilt

Great Expectations is a novel in which many characters are or become subjects of sympathy.  Mainly, Charles Dickens uses characters’ guilt and suffering to inflict this feeling of sympathy in between characters and readers. Pip, the protagonist in the novel has many instances of guilt and suffering, which ultimately leads to him accepting his place in life and society

From his early childhood days, we could feel pity for Pip and his lousy relationship with Joe, and the consistent torment that takes place between them. Mrs. Joe makes Pip feel like he is wasting lives, just by living his and doing things that a child of his age would see as normal.  “I tell you what, young fellow,’ said she, ‘I didn’t bring you up by hand to badger people’s lives out.”” Her intent from this was to keep him well-behaved and out of trouble, but perhaps it could have been said in a way that didn’t make Pip feel like he was a nuisance to society and those living around him.

As he ages, the concept of Pip’s benefactor is a huge factor in the novel. Who is it? Why is Pip the recipient? Who the benefactor is, is important because it establishes more guilt for Pip and sympathy for Pip from readers. When Pip finds out that the benefactor is Magwitch, the convict, he says, “all the truth of my position came flashing on me; and its DISSAPPOINTMENTS, DANGERS, DISGRACES, CONSEQUENCES of all kinds, rushed in in such a multitude that I was borne down by them and had to struggle for every breath I drew.” (345) This strong reaction has the effect to cause sympathy between readers and Pip because he feels guilty about receiving this money from a convict. It’s like the money is tainted because of who it comes from. Also, since the benefactor was not Mrs. Havisham, like Pip had hoped, and many readers had expected up to this point, he realizes the money won’t help him achieve Estella and that his place in society will always be lower.

All together Pip is a dynamic character. However, this sense of guilt he carries with him from the early part of the novel to the end could cause him to be seen as static. He does change throughout the novel, but the sense of guilt, that he eventually comes to see as his situation in life, stays with him and stays apart of his character causing sympathy for Pip in the novel’s entirety.



Guilt from the Graveyard

The opening scene of Great Expectations is one of the most iconic moments of the novel. It is a moment which Pip himself calls “my first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things,” showing us that it is this moment which shapes his character throughout the text.

We are first introduced to our little narrator as he huddles around the gravestones of his family, surrounded by the “dark flat wilderness” of the graveyard (Ch. 1). Strangely, Pip’s “childish” innocence protects him from the solemnity of the situation and he seems to be at home amongst the tombstones (Ch. 1). The introduction of the convict, “a fearful man,” into the scene ushers in a tone of oppressive “helplessness and danger” (Ch. 1). Pip is confronted at once by both threats of violence and the very first of his great expectations, the promise to return with sustenance for the convict (Ch. 1).

Pip’s response to this request is pivotal. Logistically, it catalyzes the events of plot. But it also shows us much about Pip’s character. He perceives the convict as his superior, and he therefore acts with immediate acceptance, responding with many a deferential “There, sir” and “Yes sir,” (Ch. 1). We see echoes of this in Pip’s interactions with Miss Havisham and Estella. He sees the women as above him, Estella even as that of “a queen” (Ch. 8). Subsequently, he accepts their values and behaviors similarly without question, demonstrated in his quick switch from jacks to knaves in cards. Almost instantly he believes jacks “ought to be called knaves” (Ch. 8).

In agreeing to steal food for the convict, Pip’s life is marred by “the dreadful pledge… to commit a larceny” (Ch. 2). He thereafter characterizes himself as “larcenous” (Ch. 2) and is cursed with “a guilty mind” (Ch. 3). The theme of guilt carries him throughout the novel. Even as a successful gentleman, Pip cannot shake the grime of his crimes. This guilt, never explicitly stated after these initial childhood scenes, often shows glimpses of itself in Pip’s feelings of inadequacy or of not belonging. In deciding so easily to obey the convict, Pip examines himself for the first time and finds “mortal terror of [himself]” (Ch. 2). Guilt and fear are inextricably tied together in Great Expectations, glued together by this initial scene in the graveyard.

Pip: Held by his Ankles in a Graveyard

Great Expectations is certainly a novel with many important settings. The marshes, Satis House, and the Castle all stick out as memorable and vivid locations. Despite these notable settings, in my reading of Great Expectations, the graveyard stuck out as particularly interesting and important. The graveyard is the first place the audience meets Pip, and Pip is given an interesting characterization there as an innocent orphan. Additionally, the graveyard is the location where Pip earns his expectations, and therefore serves as a sort of petri dish, or launch pad, for the plot.

Dicken’s novel traces the growth of an orphan who comes into manhood and realizes his true place in society. In the beginning of  the novel, in the graveyard, we meet Pip as a young boy who has effectively named himself in lieu of parents (Dickens 39). Pip knows nothing of his parents, save what he can glean from the font on their gravestone. This detail serves to illustrate Pip as a character who knows nothing of his own background or place in society. This characterization of Pip is a core aspect of Great Expectations, since throughout the novel, much of Pip’s distress stems from his insecure social standing. In his early life, Pip takes an apprenticeship with Joe, and plans on following in Joe’s footsteps. After receiving his expectations from Jaggers, Pip begins to see himself as a true gentleman (175). In the end of the novel, Pip is secure and “doing well” as a clerk (503). These different stages in Pips life might be traced back to the first scene in the novel, where we find Pip to be a boy without a place, and with an uncertain future.

The graveyard scene also serves as a starting point for the plot of Great Expectations. When Pip meets his mysterious benefactor, Magwitch says that Pip’s kindness in the graveyard was the cause of his newly bestowed wealth. Although Pip mistakenly believes he earned his expectations in Satis House, it is in the graveyard where his life begins its strange trajectory. Although this fact is hidden to readers of Great Expectations for most of the novel, Pip’s older and wiser narrator builds the graveyard as an important site by constantly referring to Pip’s jarring memories there. The graveyard scene haunts Pip throughout his young life in the same way his expectations do.

The graveyard establishes Pip as a character at the mercy of others. Pip feels helpless in the graveyard when the convict holds him by the ankles, and Pip continues to feel helpless,  and  at the mercy of others, throughout the novel. In the last pages of Great Expectations, Pip takes Pip Jr. to the graveyard, and in this ending scene, the audience gets to see the Pip’s maturity in full effect as Pip has become a man who finally knows his place in life.

Realistic (and other) Elements of Great Expectations

Great Expectations is overall a realist novel. It focuses on the internal state of Pip and shows moral ambiguity throughout the novel. However, it also contains gothic descriptions and sensational elements.

One of the biggest characteristics that defines Great Expectations as a realist novel is the exploration of the character’s internal states, specifically Pip. We see Pip struggle internally throughout the novel. Pip feels guilt throughout the novel. From the beginning, he wants more from life and more than what he has. He feels guilty that he is ashamed of his home: “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home” (v. 1 ch. 14). He even knows that the working life he was born into may be better, and it “had nothing to be ashamed of, but offered me sufficient means of self-respect and happiness” (v. 1 ch. 17). However, we see him change once he has the opportunity for more and to become a gentlemen, He notes, “As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me” (v. 2 ch. 15). Pip’s internal struggle of how gaining expectations has changed him throughout the novel demonstrates the realistic characteristic.

Another major factor is the complicated and ambiguous nature of this novel. Instead of categorizing elements as black and white or good and evil, certain elements of this story are ambiguous and hard to determine. For instance, Pip’s secret benefactor turns out to be a convict. While it may seem that this is bad and Pip should no longer have anything to do with him, it’s more complicated than that. Pip is shocked and repulsed when he finds out who his benefactor is. However, he Pip feels like he owes Magwitch, so Pip helps him try to run and hide. By the end, Pip tries his hardest to appeal Magwitch’s sentence when Magwitch is ill an a prisoner, and Pip visits him everyday. If this novel were addressing things as black and white, Magwitch would be a bad guy and Pip would not care for him. When he dies, Pip, says, “O Lord, be merciful to him, a sinner!” As it is, the reader, and Pip, sympathizes with Magwitch the convict, thus showing that the situation is ambiguous and complicated.

While this novel is largely a realist novel, it does depart from the realism tradition and contain some gothic and sensationalism elements. We have some dark and gloomy scenes and settings, which is a gothic characteristic. Miss Havasham and the Satis house are very gloomy and eerie. The outside is dreary and there are chains on the door. There is no daylight inside. Miss Havisham herself is very gloomy: she is dressed in a wedding dress from long ago: “I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its luster…I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, and had shrunk to skin and bone.” Everything about this setting, person, and situation is very gloomy, which reflects gothic elements.

We also see some sensational elements in this story. While most of the novel focuses on the ordinary (Pip is a very ordinary boy in the beginning), there are some parts that emphasize the strange. The fact that Pip’s benefactor is a convict is shocking and not ordinary–most realist novels don’t deal with convicts. The mystery of who is Pip’s benefactor is also a sensational element.

Blood Moon Rising

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, while not exactly a Gothic novel, does contain many pointedly Gothic elements as far as setting goes, especially as it pertains to the sky. Because the narrator very clearly takes the time to describe certain settings more so than others, especially the darker, Gothic moments, the reader can read into them a clear foreshadowing of future trouble for our protagonist, Pip. Chapter 53 contains the best example of this concept, where the atmosphere that is depicted does in fact indicate approaching conflict.

The first two paragraphs of this particular chapter waste no time in laying out the dismal setting of the marshes in which Pip enters to meet the anonymous writer of the mysterious letter of “invitation.” Above him, “the red large moon” looms, in no unclear way promising less than pleasant events to soon occur. While the old maritime adage proclaims a red sky at night to be a sailor’s delight, J.R.R. Tolkien has his character of Legolas in The Lord of the Rings claim that a red sun means that blood has been spilled, which is generally the connotative case. Not too far off from a red sun, a red moon, or more commonly called a blood moon, is most often paired with apocalyptic or supernatural beliefs, and as such, is usually linked to bad tidings. To be sure, it perfectly fits the bill for Gothic elements in literature, and, when coupled with the “melancholy wind” and the all-around “dismal” air in the marshes, it does precede the kind of trouble that fits the implications (in Kindle: page 247).

Said trouble is this: in almost no time at all, a noose is thrown over Pip’s head, and a great revelation follows, in that Orlick is “the bad guy.” If this were a Scooby-Doo episode, Orlick would be the man behind the mask. Pip’s ensuing emotions after this unveiling fit the Gothic surroundings perfectly. In other words, the external darkness of the Gothic marshes matches the internal darkness in both Pip (his fear and confusion) and Orlick (his anger and malevolence). The sky does not mirror the Gothic elements in only this scene, either, although here seems to be the most obvious, what with the red moon and all. However, earlier in the novel, in chapter 39 to be precise, the reader does see mention of a dark sky tormented by rain, which aligns with all of the turmoil Pip feels concerning his convict being his benefactor. Earlier still is the gloomy setting in which the novel opens, one almost exactly reflective of that in chapter 53, and both are incredibly paramount to indicating the kind of troubles that lie ahead for poor Pip.

Calling the entire novel Gothic would be a stretch, but to deny that there are Gothic elements swimming amongst the realistic ones would be folly, and to ignore their effect upon the events that befall Pip, even if said effect is a passive consequence rather than an active causation, would be unwise. The Gothic elements of certain scenes in Great Expectations certainly give the reader cause to expect something not-so-great.


Cain and Abel

Our first introduction paragraph to Orlick compares him to the Biblical Cain (Vol 1, Ch 15), and this is the only time Cain is mentioned in the novel. This might not have been a noteworthy comparison (the quick mention merely serves to emphasize Orlick’s general skeeziness) if there hadn’t been a character named Abel that was also in the story. The story of Cain and Abel is a well-known story of murder and brotherhood, and involves the first humans born to a sinful and broken world. Cain might have only been referenced once, but Orlick exists throughout the novel, just as Abel does. Both have their important roles to play in this ‘modern’ (19th century) adaptation of the Cain and Abel story, and they do it well, in the background of Pip’s narrative.

Both Abel Magwitch and Orlick are born to the same broken world, fully represented by the unforgiving streets of Britain. We know Magwitch was raised poor, and while we don’t know Orlick’s backstory, he definitely had no prospects of his own. Magwitch definitely had the worse end of it, though. His first memory was him “a-thieving turnips for [his] living” (Vol 3, Ch 3), meaning he was born hungry and at the bottom of the ladder, if he was even on it at all. He committed various petty crimes while Britain’s streets raised him to a man. He tried to work, as people in society should, but no one was “over-ready” to give him a chance (Vol 3, Ch 3). People looked at him as untrustworthy, or maybe even just unworthy of having a place among them.

Orlick is viewed the same way, despite his slightly higher station in life (and wider breadth of opportunities) compared to Magwitch. Orlick has a good, stable job – has actually had it for so long he’s called a journeyman blacksmith. He’s a part of society the way Magwitch was often denied. But Orlick “slouches” into work like it’s a “mere accident” (Vol 1, Ch 15), and is jealous of Pip in all things. He’s an unpleasant fellow to be around, and he and Joe actually get into a fight (and Joe never fights with anyone). Our narrator never liked him, never felt comfortable around him, and his unease is proved correct at the end when Orlick tries to murder him and reveals that he was the one to hurt Pip’s sister (Vol 3, Ch 14). We very clearly should not like or sympathize with Orlick.

Magwitch had to steal to survive, and he was always in and out of jail, and we are very clearly meant to sympathize with him. Our narrator even felt “great pity” for him back when he was ashamed of him (Vol 3, Ch 3), and the feeling is only stronger at the end, when Pip stays by him the whole time, and saw him “only as a man,” not a criminal (Vol 3, Ch 15). Magwitch was a convict, and has pretty much always been, but society forced him to be. Even after that, he was still a good, simple person, which is why it’s easy for us to sympathize with him. He did his best to help Pip raise in station and life out of gratitude for Pip’s kindness (probably other motivations, too), doing everything “for him” (Vol 2, Ch 20). Even back at the beginning he tried to keep Pip out of trouble by saying he stole the food himself (Vol 1, Ch 5).

This adaptation of Cain and Abel has both looked upon with disgust by society as a whole, but while Orlick’s reception was because of his actual character, Magwitch’s was for circumstances beyond his control. Orlick was just as jealous of Pip as Cain was of Abel, and refused to take any responsibility for his own shortcomings, blaming Pip for Biddy’s disgust and even his attack on Mrs. Gargery (Vol 3, Ch 14), and this is why he tried to murder him. Our narrator showed us that Magwitch was just as good as his namesake, and felt nothing but affection and generosity towards Pip (Vol 3, Ch 15). And just like their counterparts, Orlick lives on, in jail but likely to get out eventually and continue to wreak his awful havoc, and Magwitch dies, sentenced to death by society.

Maybe that’s Dickens’ whole point – not just that Orlick was Cain, though he offered a nice foil to Magwitch by the comparison. But it was society that sentenced this Abel to death, not Orlick (though Orlick wanted it, since it would hurt Pip). Society is Cain, too – society failed Abel, by forcing him into criminal activities and refusing to take responsibility for the social dissonance that came from his existence. Society looked at him and said ‘Am I his keeper?’ Magwitch was murdered, and in this comparison Dickens is saying yes, society is his keeper, and their failure is murder. Good people are dying, and suffering, and they’re pushed into it, just like Abel was led out into the field. When the people’s jury looked at Magwitch and compared him to Compeyson, they made the wrong comparisons, and approved of the wrong man (Vol 3, Ch 3). England prided itself on its great civilization, but as our narrator notes, when you get down to it it’s just “ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty” (Vol 2, Ch 1). We are all Cains, is Dickens message here, and we are killing the good people of the world.

The Bildungsroman of Miss Havisham

Miss Havisham has the clearest and most convincing bildungsroman of the characters in Great Expectations because she comes to recognize her malice-fueled mistakes, repents of them, and tries to do good to others. At the beginning of the novel, she acts horribly to those around her out of her feelings of despair and anger. For example, she grooms Estella to break the hearts of men as a twisted revenge against Compeyson who left her at the altar. That way men (though not Compeyson himself) would feel the same emotional pain she endured. She encourages Pip to fall for Estella so he would be heartbroken by her: “‘Love her, love her, love her! How does she use you?’” (269). She revels in Pip’s love of Estella knowing it will lead to emotional anguish.

Miss Havisham also leads Pip, Sarah Pocket, Georgiana, and Camilla to believe that she is Pip’s patron. This causes Pip to (painfully) misinterpret her intentions about Estella and himself while also misleading the women as to their financial expectations. When Pip asks her about the kindness of this deception, she responds “‘who am I, for God’s sake, that I should be kind!’” (383). She does not think any imperative of kindness to others applies to her because of how much she has suffered.

However, after so many pages of bitterness, anger, and pain, Miss Havisham finally recognizes she made a mistake in how she raised Estella when Estella’s cold heart turns against her; “’Estella, Estella, Estella, to be proud and hard to me!’” (332). She sees that Estella became vindictive and emotionally unaware woman which is cold to everyone, not just men. Yet it is not until Estella marries Drummle that Miss Havisham demonstrates remorse; “‘What have I done! What have I done!’ She wrung her hands, and crushed her white hair, and returned to this cry over and over again” (421). She ultimately recognizes the evil that she has caused, leaving her to deal with guilt and remorse.

Finally, Miss Havisham seeks reconciliation by doing good for others, particularly men, against whom she had acted so harshly. She agrees to help Pip’s friend Herbert by funding his business proposal. Yet she wants to do even more for Pip, trying to make up for her past mistakes: “‘Can I only serve you, Pip, by serving your friend? Regarding that as done, is there nothing I can do for you yourself?’” (419). Her gift helps Herbert and Pip start their business which provides them with a living for years to come, demonstrating genuine generosity. Upon her death, she also provides Estella with Satis House as an apology for her misguided upbringing and gives four thousand pounds to the upright Matthew Pocket, on Pip’s advice. Her final act is an attempt to reconcile with Estella and reward Matthew Pocket for his selflessness. The emotional growth she undergoes through guilt, repentance, and generosity clearly delineate a moral growth that categorizes a bildungsroman.

Pip’s Bildungsroman

While multiple characters in Great Expectations experience a Bildungsroman, Pip’s is perhaps the most convincing. If the definition of a Bildungsroman is a young person’s development to maturity, Pip goes through not one but two Bildungsromans—one regarding his class, and the other his human empathy.

The first layer of Pip’s Bildungsroman is the obvious—he moves from the lower middle class to gentility with the help of his anonymous benefactor. As a result, he learns how to be a gentleman through a combination of the people in his life: Miss Havisham and Estella at Satis House and Herbert, for example. However, in the process of becoming a gentleman, Pip does not appear to experience much in the way of a change in morals, as seen when he’s embarrassed of Joe after his first visit to Satis House.

The second layer of Pip’s Bildungsroman—perhaps his “real” Bildungsroman—is exposed as the first is pulled away: when he discovers his anonymous benefactor is Abel Magwitch, his convict. Immediately, Pip’s rise through class is shattered, and he loses essentially everything he has worked for as a result. In doing so, he looks back upon the mistakes he made and how he had treated Joe earlier: “I had never been struck at so keenly, for my thanklessness to Joe;” “my heart was deeply and most deservedly humbled” (Vol. 3, Chapter 13). Pip not only recognizes the way he’d treated Joe was wrong—which he had done earlier, to some degree—but here he also appears to regret it deeply.

Additionally, when he first learns that Magwitch is his benefactor, Pip uses words like “abhorrent,” “dread,” and “repugnance” (Book 2, Chapter 20), all based on Magwitch’s appearance and the fact that Pip knows it means he’ll lose everything. Nonetheless, when it becomes clear that Magwitch needs help, Pip starts to feel sympathetic toward him: “Looking back at him, I thought of the first night of his return . . . and when I little supposed my heart could ever be as heavy and anxious at parting from him as it was now” (Vol. 3, Chapter 7).

In this way, it seems like Dickens’ view on Bildungsroman and maturity is closely tied to empathy. Pip’s first Bildungsroman is a false lead, as it eventually falls away; however, his ability to learn to empathize with Joe and Magwitch, both of whom he’d previously considered beneath him, demonstrates his growth as a person and as a gentleman. Manners and class, then, appear to have less to do with maturity than does genuine human empathy.

Pip’s Bildungsroman

There are many characters in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations who undergo a drastic development over the course of the novel. Miss Havisham’s bitterness and desires for vengeance are eventually softened by her sympathies towards the love-sick Pip. Estella also arguably grows out of her deceptive treatment of men into a better understanding of Pip’s feelings towards her. However, none develop more so than the central character Pip. His bildungsroman is measured specifically in the quality of his relationships with both Joe and Magwitch, and in how these relationships come to settle his great expectations.

Once Pip establishes himself at Satis House, an awareness in him is sparked regarding the poverty of his best friend Joe. He refers to Joe as “aggravating” (133) when he first takes him to meet Miss Havisham. Through his interactions at Satis House, specifically from the judgement he receives from Estella, Pip becomes aware of this societal distance between himself and the gentleman he wants to be. He sees Joe as holding him back. “I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society” (142). When Pip does miraculously come into the gentleman class he so desperately has desired, he discards Joe without a second thought. “O dear good Joe, whom I was so ready to leave and so unthankful to” (173).

Ironically, Pip probably looks even more downward upon the man who gave him the money that pulled him out of the poverty class. When Magwitch reveals himself to Pip as his benefactor, Pip is absolutely abhorred. “With my heart beating like a heavy hammer of disordered action… all the truth of my position came flashing on me; and its disappointments, dangers, disgraces” (345). Pip thinks even worse of his benefactor than he does of the poverty class. There is nothing worse to him than this realization of where his money has come from.

Yet by novel’s end, both of these relationships are mended by the humility that Pip finds over the course of his journey. He comes to understand the true loyalty that Joe embodied towards him. “I had never been struck at so keenly, for my thanklessness to Joe… my heart was deeply and most deservedly humbled” (442). This newfound humility then spills over in his relationship to his benefactor. When Magwitch is ultimately taken away in chains, Pip tells him, “I will never stir from your side… Please God, I will be as true to you, as you have been to me!” (468). The loyalty Pip learns from Joe, ultimately spills over in his affections towards Magwitch.

This humility instilled in Pip ultimately heals him of the expectations that have consistently misled him through life. These expectations caused him to be ignorant of all Joe meant to him. They also deceived him of the identity of his true benefactor, and thus caused him to create a fantasy in his mind of the romance awaiting him. Humility is the great moral that Pip learns in his story. His bildungsroman is fully realized in the contented state in which he accepts an honest job rather than being a beneficiary, as well as his contentment in bachelorhood (until Estella conveniently shows up in the garden at the end and reveals that her husband died, but that’s another matter).

The Unforgivable Death of the Girl on the Floss

I understand the love one can have for a sibling. I have two, an older brother and a younger sister. So I feel, to some extent, that I can understand Maggie’s love for Tom and vice versa. I can understand her braving the flooding Floss to try and save her brother from the mill (Eliot 515). I would do anything for my siblings. I can’t imagine what type of life threatening risks that I would take for them.

What I can’t understand, and can’t forgive, is how Eliot could end her novel like this, with the death of Tom and Maggie (517).

Sure you can say that Maggie died in love or with love, which is what she was seeking throughout the novel. If you force yourself to view it that way, you might find the ending pleasing. I however, feel that it was a cop out.

To me, it seems as though Eliot could not decide which man Maggie would end up with. We know Maggie was thinking of becoming a martyr and spending her life alone after running away with Stephen (511). But I think there was a choice Eliot was hesitant to make, it would be a hard choice, and so she killed Maggie.

Also in the conclusion, it appears that Philip continued to spend his life alone after Maggie’s death while Stephen did get back together with Lucy. This just seems cruel.

Eliot makes sure we know that it is not as if Maggie never existed by using powerful imagery of nature after the flood. “Nature repairs her ravages-but not all,” (517). This paragraph goes on to discuss the scars left by uprooted trees and such. This imagery is used to show that Maggie touched Philip, Lucy and Stephen’s lives. That she made a difference and that it wasn’t as if she never existed.

But if she hadn’t existed the other characters would’ve likely ended up the same way they did after she died. I’m not sure if this is commentary on the fate of individuals, maybe humans are always approaching a homeostasis, or if it is just an easy ending to write.

I am all for a tragic ending. As long as it has purpose. The ending of The Mill on the Floss does not seem purposeful to me. It is tragic; the main character dies after all. But, it only frustrated me by the author’s lack of choosing in the end.

Tug O War


The concept of love between Philip and Maggie in Eliot’s, Mill on the Floss, is something that can be described a war like. There is inner conflict between the two about this concept through much of the novel. Other characters, like Maggie’s brother Tom, even pick up on Maggie’s deliberation and questions if her feelings about Philip are genuine and for the right reasons. All three characters are involved in these “love scenes”, as the chapter titles call them.

In book 5 chapter 3, Philip desperately tries to justify his/her actions to Maggie. He wants her to listen to his reasoning and afterwards just let him know what will continue on forward for the two of them. Philip begins by saying that “clear reasoning and firm conviction” will eventually “bring [them] the defeat that [they] love better than victory”. (342) When Maggie is not totally convinced even after this long “speech”, if you will, he finally just straightforwardly says, “If we only look far enough off for the consequences of our actions, we can always find some point in the combination of results by which those actions can be justified.” (343) These words seem to work on Maggie and her conscience. She saw “a surplus of passion in him”, and “it was in this way that Philip justified his subtle efforts to overcome [her] true prompting against a concealment that would introduce doubleness in her own mind..” (343)

Tom on the other hand, did not buy that Maggie’s actions and feelings were genuine toward Philip necessarily. He is brash when he is telling Maggie that he feels this way. It’s in a clever way that he tries to convict Maggie with his wording. “If your conduct, and Philip Wakem’s conduct, has been right, why are you ashamed of its being known?” (360) Maggie’s response is interesting because the first thing she says is that, “I don’t want to defend myself.” (360) However, then she goes on to defend herself! What?!


The inner conflict between all 3 parties about Philip and Maggie’s love are all very interesting to look at because they are all three so different, and have different agendas behind each one.


The Eyes have it

Commonly is it said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. With an exception for those truly disciplined in the art of Stoicism, any given human being’s eyes generally reflect their innermost thoughts and emotions. Maggie Tulliver, heroine of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, is not only not an exception, but is almost a poster-child for this concept. In a book so concerned with the idea of conventional society conduct, especially that of women, our protagonist, Maggie, who does not conform to the idea of the mild, domestic woman, uses her eyes as an outlet for the wild emotion that time has taught her she should not express.

Immediately at her introduction into the novel, Maggie is describe as having “gleaming black eyes,” and that very description is given to the readers multiple times throughout the novel (book 1, chapter 2). This description is key to our introduction to Maggie. Most people do not have what would be called black eyes, so right away, Maggie is set apart from the norm, and with her pale skin, her eyes are all the more noticeable and striking. That her eyes should gleam indicates the kind of mischief and uniqueness that promise to later ensure that her life should be spicier than the lives of the women around her, like mild Lucy Deane. “Bright,” “gleaming,” “shining,” – these are only a few of the words associated with light that Eliot uses to characterize Maggie’s eyes, which is ironic given the fact that it is emphasized that her eyes are dark in color. This dichotomy in description mirrors the dichotomy in Maggie’s character, especially her constant inner struggle between being her own woman and adhering to the wishes of those around her (namely Tom). She is a conflicted girl, and her eyes express this.

Many people remark on Maggie’s eyes, but few do so in a positive light, and no one hit the nail on the head so accurately as Philip. In responding to Maggie’s question of why he likes her eyes, he tells her that they are unlike “any other eyes,” in the same way that Maggie is unlike any other girl, and follows this immediately by saying that her eyes seem as though they are trying to speak (book 2, chapter 6). This furthers the idea that Maggie uses her eyes to express the kinds of emotions and desires that the larger society would prefer her to repress, especially as such emotions are so frank and honest, and not necessarily proper.

Maggie Tulliver is a heroine stuck within the confines of society’s constraints on women and their ability to express themselves with candor. Women like Lucy Deane, who are submissive, gentle, warm, and content to do needlework, are preferred, whereas women like Maggie, with eyes that are simultaneously bright and dark, that speak of her innermost desires, that will not be downcast in the face of pressure to conform, are not. Perhaps the author herself, who writes underneath a male pseudonym, sees herself reflected in the same unwillingness to let a male-driven society tell her what she can and cannot do.

The Change in Maggie

Whether or not you think Maggie grows throughout the novel of The Mill on the Floss entirely depends on your definition of grow. Maggie changes, certainly, but does she change for the better?

Throughout the novel, Maggie becomes more and more dispirited with the world and more sorrowful. As a child, Maggie is a clever, spunky little girl. She’s not like other girls, and “she didn’t want her hair to look pretty–that was out of the question–she only wanted people to think her a clever little girl, and not to find fault with her.” One her family loses everything, she becomes more despondent. It is even mentioned that, “She was too dispirited even to like answering questions about Bob’s present of books,”–books and learning being one things she enjoyed (306).

She never regains an optimistic view of the world by the end of the book. In fact, she, who has always given her pity to the unfortunate, begins to envy and resent those more fortunate. In her most selfish moments, she wonders, “why should not Lucy–why should not Philip suffer? She had had to suffer through many years of her life; and who had renounced anything for her?” (462). When she has to deal with the repercussions of her actions with Stephen, she is not sure she can deal with the sad, lonely, purposeless life that she must now live. She notes, “But how long will it be before death comes! I am so young, so healthy. How shall I have patience and strength?” (511). She becomes so discouraged with the world that she’s not sure how she will have the strength to live the rest of her life.

One of Maggie’s biggest struggles is controlling her outward and inward self. Inside, Maggie desires for a purpose in life and affection. She desires to do something in the world: “a blind, unconscious yearning for something that would link together the wonderful impressions of this mysterious life, and give her soul a sense of home in it” (262). However, she is limited on what she can do on the outside because of her family, position in society, and the fact that she is a girl. Because she is so passionate and desires more, h”as the struggle of conflict between the inward impulse and outward fact, which is the lot of every imaginative and passionate nature” (297). Over the course of the novel, Maggie doesn’t learn to manage this conflict. She doesn’t learn to overcome the constant struggle between her inner and outer self.  She even loses faith that she will overcome this struggle, wondering, “Was her life to be always like this?–always bringing some new source of inward strife?” She doesn’t learn to control her inward strife.

Maggie certainly changes–she becomes more dispirited with the world. However, she doesn’t necessarily grow. She doesn’t find a place in the world, doesn’t learn to accept and control her inner self and desires, and she is despondent.

Suffering and Love and Abuse, for Maggie in Mill on the Floss

Maggie had a terribly awful, emotionally abusive childhood. Her mother implies that she would rather have “that pretty child” Lucy as her daughter (57), and literally tells Maggie “don’t make yourself so ugly” (125). Maggie’s aunts, especially her vocal Aunt Glegg, also talk often about how queer and naughty a girl she is. Both her mother and her brother also threaten to ‘not love her anymore’ if she doesn’t act as she should (71; 79). Any validation she does receive is usually from her father, who always qualifies his praise of her with “it’s bad – it’s bad…a woman’s no business wi’ being clever” (61). In an unhealthy environment such as this, it’s no wonder that Maggie treats her dolls as she does, hating them one moment and “lavishing” them with affection the next (63). She has an inner conflict between self-hate and a desperate need for affection. She would have actually starved herself that night in the attic if she wasn’t already so starved for affection that she needed people (82). Maggie swings back and forth between two extremes – a belief that she should suffer, and a longing for love.

Then poor Maggie is given a book with the teachings of St. Thomas of Kempis, and she gleams the wrong message. She thinks she shouldn’t have any wants or desires – that her self-value lies in denying herself and sacrificing for others. She begins to persuade herself that she is content with the “hardness” of those around her (313), and that she doesn’t really need anything, even their love. This is wrong of her, for two major reasons. First, St. Thomas’ message was one of accepting sorrow, and enduring it willingly, not of denying it’s existence. This is the core of Catholicism, which, of course, is the denomination St. Thomas belongs to, but there’s no one in Anglican England to teach her this. Second, what she attempts is actually impossible, which is why she fails so awfully at it. No one can deny a basic want like love and claim that they’re fine without it – it’s a performance, one of “willfulness…[and] pride” (313), and it can only create resentment (462), not contentment. Poor Maggie’s new philosophy only builds on her internal abuse – she now has constant reason to call herself a selfish, naughty girl, for wanting things like affection and books and friendship (341). She needs her suffering to be valid, to mean something beyond the apparent message that she is unworthy of love, because if her suffering doesn’t mean anything, then does she? She takes solace in the idea that suffering is strength, but in doing so she pushes her inner self further and further away. If she has any concept of self-love it is that it’s a bad, selfish thing.

Then Lucy reenters the story. She listens to Maggie’s secret about Philip, and the Red Deeps talks, and her lost friendship. Maggie “had never before known the relief of such an outpouring” (396) – she’d never had a friend and peer who she told her sorrows to. She never even owned her sorrows to Philip, because she was still in her self-denial stage. But here with Lucy she is tired, and so, so just wants to matter. And Lucy listens, and in doing so tells Maggie that yes, her suffering meant something. Lucy knows that Maggie matters as simply as she breathes, because Lucy has a rare quality, in that she loves and cares for “other women” (380), as if they were people.

When Maggie comes back to St. Ogg’s without so much as a “trousseau” (488), she is scorned by her town and society. But here in this last book, Maggie also has others who listen to her, and validate her, and tell her she is loved. Her mother, who never understood her and never tried to, willingly goes into exile with her (she “[has] a mother” where she no longer has a brother (484)). Bob Jakin, who has never been anything but kind and respectful towards her, takes her in, and so do his wife and mother (he names his child after her (486) – there’s no greater proof of love, not to me). Aunt Glegg, who was always the worst, and loudest, of her aunts, refuses to blame her, and is more than willing to verbally slay anyone who says Maggie’s at fault (496). Finally, when Maggie saves Tom, in that moment both brother and sister realize Maggie’s worth (I believe Newton makes this argument, too). Maggie spent so much of her life conflicted and suffering, but that suffering meant something because she meant something. She was loved, even if it took time for people to show it.