At the beginning of the novel, Elliot does a very thorough job of outlining the childhood of both Tom and Maggie. Through the first half of the novel, the reader is able to paint a very vivid picture of each character in terms of their likes and dislikes, their personal struggles, as well as how these character traits play off one another when compared and contrasted. Tom is presented as a forthright, headstrong young man with a strong sense of justice and affinity toward punishment (when it is deserved) whereas Maggie is portrayed as an impulsive creature of feeling with a strong desire to be loved and held in the high esteem of most people she encounters. As the “bildungsroman” character of the novel, it is easy to see the purpose of Maggie’s early characterization in the novel. Her tendency to be impulsive and strong desire for love and approval are what ultimately land her in the trouble that she experiences in her love life between Stephen and Philip.
We are first introduced to Maggie as an impulsive character very early on in the novel. Quick to emotional outburst and poorly thought out retaliation, Elliot often depicted Maggie acting rashly. Probably the incidence that is most indicative of this quality would be the scene in which Maggie cuts her hair off after experiencing ridicule at the hands of her family. At first “she had thought beforehand chiefly of her own deliverance from her hair and teasing remarks about it” but when she realizes the weight of what has happened “the affair had quite a new aspect” (106). It is clear that Maggie let her impulsivity get the best of her and that she didn’t really think about the consequence. In that same incidence, Maggie’s other defining character trait (a strong desire for love and approval) is also revealed when her father sees her after she has cut the hair. He comforts her and Elliot notes “Delicious words of Tenderness! Maggie never forgot any of these moments with her father” (109). Here, Elliot exemplifies just how important love and affection is to Maggie which is a theme that is highlighted in several other places as she grows up.
When Maggie grows up, she finds herself caught in a love triangle that is chiefly the result of these very same characteristics. Now, her once childish impulsivity and strong desire for affection has transformed into the careless thoughtlessness and easily manipulatable reaction that we see when Stephen falls in love with her. For example, it is very clear that it is a bad idea for Maggie to still go on the boating trip alone with Stephen when Maggie learns that Philip can no longer attend. However, Stephen says “Let us go together” and Maggie goes, seeming to enter a trance-like state where she is not thinking at all. While it may seem kind of like an excuse, it is actually not uncharacteristic at all as we see earlier in the novel that Maggie is prone to doing things without thinking. Then, when Maggie addresses Stephen for purposefully missing their initial stop point, she is angry with Stephen until he starts guilt tripping her at which point she “yields to his suffering” (469). If one does not consider Maggie’s early characterization, it would seem that she is just being unnecessarily weak. However, in the several instances that are portrayed early on in the novel in which all Maggie wishes for is love and affection from Tom or her father when she does something wrong, it makes perfect sense why she is so easily defeated in this way by Stephen. Thus, one must take into account Maggie’s childhood and early characterization to understand why her character falls into this trap.