A major theme of the novel is punishment, but there is never a clear sense of justice. Maggie begins the narrative by punishing a doll rather than those who wrong her. In the attic, “she kept a Fetish which she punished for all of her misfortunes” (71). One of her main motivations, even as a child, is to avoid punishing others directly. The narrator describes the doll as “a large wooden doll, which once stared with the roundest of eyes above the reddest of cheeks.” While Maggie claims the doll represents her oppressors, the doll seems to represent the societal standard of beauty, which Maggie rejects. Her opposition of beauty creates injustice against her by those like her family, who uphold these standards. The superlative descriptions represent the unattainable nature of the doll’s beauty. Just as Maggie’s family objectifies her by the emphasis on her appearance, Maggie punishes the doll by “nails driven into [its] head” (71). Maggie reveals her suffering through her punishment of the doll. Driving the nails into its head shows the source of her anger, her appearance, specifically her hair. After Maggie puts a nail in the doll’s head for Aunt Glegg, she “reflected that if she drove many nails in, she would not be so well able to fancy that the head was hurt when she knocked it against the wall, nor to comfort it, and make believe to poultice it, when her fury was abated” (72). She wants the doll to suffer her pain for her, but she also wants to be able to heal the doll. She shows an understanding of the need for forgiveness, but only after her anger fades. She does not find justice because her oppressors never change.
As Maggie matures, she rejects her brother’s sense of justice and turns her desire for punishment inward. She finds a book about “self-humiliation” and punishes herself by rejecting her worldly desires in order to find greater happiness without justice (309). The phrase “self-humiliation” alongside “renunciation” shows the deprecatory nature of her punishment. Up to this point, Maggie has been an emotional and impulsive character. Is her decision another impulse or true dedication? The narrator points out that “she had not perceived… that renunciation remains sorrow, though a sorrow borne willingly” (311). Her punishment continues the cycle of suffering. As Phillip states several times, Maggie never achieves happiness through her self-inflicted punishment because it goes against her nature (420). In addition, the punishment, like that of the doll, exhibits externally (314). Her mother, like Aunt Glegg, forces Maggie to accept her standard of beauty, especially through her hair. As part of her punishment, Maggie accepts beauty and becomes a passive doll, but she does not consider forgiving herself. Could she ever find happiness without escaping the standards her family places on her? What then is the author’s stance on happiness or justice through punishment? Is there an appropriate form of punishment in the novel? Is Maggie’s death another self-inflicted punishment? What does she gain from it?