Fate and injustice in three parts

When looking back at the novels we’ve read this semester, I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness welling up from within.  It is possible that this sadness is sparked by a sense of finality in the closing of the semester, but it could also be the progressive downward, depressing spiral that we, as a group, have experienced through these readings.  It is unlikely that this emotional response was the intended result of the order in which these novels were assigned, but the order was indeed intentional.  The obvious comparison that one could draw between the novels we’ve read this semester, is their tragic endings.  These tragic endings come in different shapes and resolve themselves in different ways, but a strong element that runs like a blood red thread throughout is the cruel nature of fate.  For this final blog post, I will look at how this cruelty is made manifest in the endings of Frankenstein, Mill on the Floss and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.


The first novel we read for class was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I struggled assigning blame to a single individual in this novel.  I think Shelley presents all the characters as flawed human beings, or in the case of Victor’s creation, an approximation of a human being.  Focusing on Victor’s creation, we find a being that was brought into a painful, certainly deformed existence without any consideration of how wretched his life would be.  There is no other place that this is more evident than in the quote from Paradise Lost on the title page of Frankenstein. “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”  In this sense, the creation possessed zero free will and was fated for misery.  When he finally takes agency and performs actions driven by his desire, we find that those are, again, simply a response to some external stimuli of which he has no control over.  Victor refuses to provide his creation with basic human needs.  The creation’s only power is that of consequence.  Consequences can only be reactionary responses to actions that are out of our control.  With this, the creation strikes out like a rabid, helpless animal to inflict pain on anyone within striking range.


In George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Maggie’s fatal end is a result of multiple intersecting circumstances of fate conspiring to her and Tom’s death.  Eliot presents this death in peaceful terms, with brother and sister embraced in a final reconciliation.  “In death they were not divided (657).” We can choose to agree with this perspective, or we can look at the suffering of Maggie throughout the novel.  The poor girl, turned woman through the course of the novel, never finds her place in the world.  The apex of this life is a frustrating failed relationship with a fancy boy, Stephen, and the fallout created is the final insult to Maggie.  Her life was filled with a struggle against a forceful patriarchy that beat against her like the flood waters that finally freed her from her suffering.  A force of suffering to which she recognized would be a lifelong affliction.  “I will bear it, and bear it till death… (649)” This force requires Maggie to submit to powers that are greater than her will.  Her fate was to be born in a time and to a family that had certain expectations of her.  A set of expectations that were not like those whom her brother was able to enjoy.  These gifts, we find, were wasted on a man-child, undeserving of such. His development is stunted before we even reach the middle of the novel.  Maggie’s family, which stifled her development, remains a constant force that persistently draws her back, closer to a watery grave.


The final novel, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s tragic end is an almost sweet release from a life ripe with cruel suffering.  She grieves the most under the will of fate – “Tess was now carried along upon the wings of the hours, without the sense of a will (231).”  Her guilt and obligation further disconnect her from autonomy.  Self-denial leaves her unloved and penniless.  Tess’s life filled with suffering and grief caused by a willful violation perpetrated by a representative of fate.  The moment she takes agency, she damns herself to death.  The killing of Alec is met with swift “justice.”  A Justice which is only afforded to those in the good graces of fate.  Tess attempts to enact her own form of justice by murdering Alec.    Alec absolves himself of the sin, but the pain caused is not so easily washed away.


The sense of injustice grows with each novel.  The one thing that truly differentiates Tess of the d’Urbervilles from the other two novels is the sense of hopelessness.  In Frankenstein the characters are all so flawed that we are not blindsided by the tragic ending.  We expect that the people who behave in this way, or flawed creations are bound to end up on the wrong side of providence.  In Mill on the Floss, we feel for Maggie, but her potential was stunted by her parents from the point of her creation.  Her behavior is rash and reactive.  She has agency, but she chooses to rebel in a destructive manner. Her life is a tragedy which presents itself in a slow, protracted, struggle leading to a train wreck of an ending.  Tess of the d’Urbervilles presents a young woman with potential, even if it isn’t real or wouldn’t amount to much by some standards.  However, Tess truly exists in a hostile world.  All people and forces conspire against her and her womanly obligation only serves to rip away any last semblance of free will she may have had.  None of the authors give the reader a sense of hope in the end and there is no justice enjoyed.  Certainly not justice that isn’t the result of someone death.  Justice for Victor’s creation is the death of Elizabeth and Clerval.  Justice for Tess is Alec’s death.  Justice for Alec is Tess’s death.  It is hard to find hope in these works, but realism and naturalism doesn’t always want to give that to the reader.

Tess, Frankenstein, and Mill on the Floss: The Endings 

In modern storytelling, the ending is usually wrapped up in a pretty bow with loose ends being tied, generally leaving a satisfied and happy ending for the reader.  However, in Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Frankenstein, and Mill on the Floss, this is not necessarily the case.  All three authors included the tragic deaths of the main characters, with Tess being the only one who had just one protagonist die and not two of them, like Frankenstein and Mill on the Floss.  All the deaths throughout the three books (Tess, Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s creation, Maggie, and Tom) serve as the reason for the endings to contain themes of grief and injustice, as the main character usually lives to the end and has a happy ending, especially in modern works. 


In Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Tess is executed for stabbing Alec to death in the end of the novel.  This death can initially be viewed as a justified death, but because Tess is the main character of the book and subject of the title, the reader is inclined to observe her death as unjustified.  The author, Thomas Hardy, intentionally makes Tess the character that the reader focuses on to possibly affect this response to the ending specifically.  Her death, although technically justified because she murders Alec, can be seen as injustice because she is the protagonist, and this is essentially her story being told.  Tess herself is “almost glad – yes, glad” to die, which makes the reader feel sympathy for her because she thinks that dying would be an end to her suffering (580).  This might help pull the reader in the direction of Tess’s side of the story because it pulls on the emotion of sympathy from the reader.  This death in the end is the best ending in Tess’s mind, although it may not be the stereotypical happy ending for the protagonist.     


In Frankenstein, both Victor Frankenstein and the creature tragically die in the end, Victor succumbing to illness and the creature committing suicide after the death of Victor.  These untimely deaths serve as the loose ends being tied up in the novel, but this does not instantly mean that the ending is a happy one.  The gothic novel starts and ends with misery and dismal themes, with Victor feeling the “thirst of knowledge”, which resulted in him attempting to create life and then the dread that followed his success (Ch. 2).  This ending may have been created by Mary Shelley to correct the initial wrong done by Victor, creating an unnatural life, by forcing Victor to die a natural death and then killing off the creature to show the reader that it should not have been given life in the first place.  The reader might feel grief and sorrow for the two main characters because Victor is trying to correct the wrong that he made by creating the monster, and because the creature shows true love for his creator in the end by killing himself out of pain. 


Mill on the Floss, written by George Eliot, is similar to Frankenstein in regard to having two of the main characters dying tragic and untimely deaths in the end of the novel.  However, the reader feels the most sympathy for Maggie and Tom, as they die in a horrific flooding accident and were not executed for a crime, like Tess of the d’Ubervilles.  One reason for this ending would be that Maggie and Tom, who had been apart emotionally and physically, would be finally reunited by Maggie attempting to save Tom.  However, this reunion is cut short by the debris crashing into their small rowboat, effectively killing the two.  The reader, not expecting this ending, may be shocked by the deaths but could also take comfort in the possibility that Maggie and Tom “had gone down in an embrace never to be parted” (Ch. 5).  This is the only comfort that the reader can have regarding these deaths because the incident was so sudden and unjustified, and this theme of being together eternally shows that they at least were reunited in the end, both in life and in death.   


Tess of the d’Ubervilles is similar to these two novels, Frankenstein and Mill on the Floss, because all of the deaths were not fully expected by the reader and seemed to be very tragic events.  Tess’s death can be seen as unjustified to the reader because of the use of sympathy because of the rape, much like the deaths of Maggie and Tom pulling on the same emotion because they are finally reunited in order to convey the deaths as unfair.  While Frankenstein’s ending may have been more predictable than the others, all three novels did not explicitly hint at the turn of events at each ending, with both Victor and the creature dying, Tess being executed for the murder of her rapist, and Maggie and Tom being suddenly crushed by flood debris.  Tess is different in the sense that it is a more singular death in the end, even though Alec is killed somewhat close to the end.  The reader may not be inclined to include his death as a tragic one because of the rape and his overall character presentation in the novel.  Overall, the deaths in these three novels are similar in many ways, with a few exceptions.   


The Second Fall: Fallen Women

A key feature of the novel is character development. The typical development is a positive change. The character learns something from his struggle in the plot and improves. The following novels use a downward character progression to examine the character of the fallen woman. In this application, society perceives that a previously innocent woman loses her purity. After this shift, society rejects her. Mill on the Floss, Mary Barton, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles explore the character of the fallen woman. Mill on the Floss depicts Maggie as a fallen woman. When her brother rejects her, she searches for affection in the wrong people. Her brother condemns her, and society upholds his decision. She can only find redemption in the form of forgiveness and affection through death. In Mary Barton, the fallen woman is a side character of the novel. Esther sees herself as a lady. When she falls in love with a soldier, she thinks she will attain that vision, but he does not marry her. Instead, he leaves her behind with an ill child. She turns to prostitution to support herself and her child. Her child dies, and she escapes through alcohol. As a side character, she serves as warning for Mary. Although she saves Mary, she still has to die in order to be reunited with her family. Tess of the D’Urbervilles explores the lack of a woman’s choice in her fate as a fallen woman. Tess’s family puts their future in her hands by expecting her to provide for them through marriage. They send her to live with a woman, whom they believe to be a long-lost relative. The woman’s son, Alec, fails to seduce Tess, so he rapes her. She later has a child who dies. Alec ensures her fate as a fallen woman without any fault of her own.

In Mill on the Floss, Maggie faces the plight of the fallen woman without committing any true sexual misconduct. As a child, “Maggie was always wishing she had done something different” (Eliot 95). Maggie struggles to find the balance between her identity and societal pressures. Throughout the novel, Maggie chooses one over the other, and Tom reprimands her. Either way, she can never live up to his expectations in order to receive his affection. While attaining Tom’s affection remains her goal, she looks for other forms of affection, such as friendship with Philip or romance with Stephen. Both lead Tom to view her as a fallen woman and turn against her. After Tom learns of Maggie’s walks in the woods with Philip, he says, “If your feelings are so much better than mine, let me see you show them in some other way than by conduct that’s likely to disgrace us all – than by ridiculous flights first into one extreme and then into another. Pray, how have you shown your love, that you talk of, either to me or my father? By disobeying and deceiving us” (361). Maggie’s father made his children promise not to be a friend to Philip, and Tom enforced that promise. Maggie’s actions therefore slight Tom on two accounts. She first proves to be disloyal and dishonest by breaking the promise and keeping her actions secret. She furthermore puts the family’s reputation, which Philip’s father puts at risk, in greater danger by being alone with a man in the woods. Tom has worked to redeem that reputation, and he reacts accordingly when he learns she has disregarded it. Together, her deeds ensure that Tom cannot forgive her. Maggie therefore finds unsolicited affection from Stephen, who offers her another form of forbidden love. She unwittingly runs away with Stephen, but she turns away from him without marrying him, which is her greatest sin. When Tom finds out about the affair, he responds, “I loathe your character and your conduct” and goes on to insist that “the world shall know that I feel the difference between right and wrong” (484). Tom believes that Maggie has again done irreparable harm to him and his family through dishonor and deceit. He turns against her for the final time. Society mimics his rejection on a larger scale and ensures Maggie’s demise. She seeks redemption by saving her brother’s life in a flood, but he only forgives her in their death. The last line of the novel is the epitaph on their shared grave, which reads, “In their death they were not divided” (517). As a fallen woman, Maggie had no chance for redemption in the world of the living. It is only through death that she finds forgiveness and affection.

Mary’s Aunt Esther in Mary Barton represents the traditional fallen woman. At the beginning of the novel, Esther thinks of herself as a lady. Her brother-in-law, John Barton, says, “Esther, I see what you’ll end at with your artificial, and your fly-away veils, and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you’ll be a street-walker, Esther, and then, don’t you go to think I’ll have you darken my door, though my wife is your sister” (38). Esther focuses on material and physical desire rather than social propriety. Her goal is to become a lady, not for its status, but for its financial and emotional security. John aptly predicts her fate when he suggests she will become a prostitute for her behavior in achieving those ends. When John later discovers she becomes a prostitute, he physically rejects her and throws her into the street (173). As in Mill on the Floss, it is the rejection by a male family figure that seals Esther’s fate as a fallen woman. She later shares her story with Jem in order to serve as a cautionary tale for Mary. She follows her lover, a military officer who wanted to marry her but had to leave her, and has a child out of wedlock (215). When the child grows ill, she becomes a prostitute to save her daughter, who ultimately dies. When Jem tries to rescue her, she answers, “God bless you, Jem, for the words you have just spoken. Some years ago you might have saved me, as I hope and trust you will yet save Mary. But it is too late now; – too late” (218). She uses her last days to save Mary from sharing her fate. Though she succeeds, she knew that she could not be saved in life. She returns to her home to find her death bed. When she wakes just before her death, “‘Has it been a dream, then?’ asked she, wildly. Then with a habit, which came like instinct even in that awful dying hour, her hand sought for a locket which hung concealed on her bosom, and, finding that, she knew all was true which had befallen her since last she lay an innocent girl on that bed” (481). Edith finds herself significantly changed though in the same place. She cannot imagine that what she has endured was a reality, but her locket confirms her fate as a fallen woman. She lost her innocence, her lover, her child, and ultimately, herself. Like Maggie, she can only rejoin her family in death. After she dies, “[her family] laid her in one grave with John Barton. And there they lie without name, or initial, or date” (481). Their only identification is a Bible verse from Psalm 53:9, “For He will not always chide, neither will He keep His anger forever.” Edith finds family and forgiveness in death. Her unity in the grave with John Barton nonetheless suggests that her crimes equate that of a murderer. She loses her identity in her death, and the only way she can find redemption is when God’s anger subsides. Even her family succumbs to the judgement of the fallen woman.

Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles descends from pure heroine to fallen woman. At the beginning of the book, the narrator states, “Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience” (Hardy 48). Tess is an innocent girl without knowledge of the world. She exists in nature rather than in society. It is only when society infringes upon her that she loses her innocence. When Alec rapes her, the narrator explains, “Why is it that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a course a patter as it was doomed to receive” (104). Unlike the other fallen women, Tess has no choice in her fall. She was asleep when Alec raped her. In addition, Tess’s moment of lost innocence is vague. This vagueness leads even her to question her role in her defilement. Throughout the novel, Tess is a scapegoat for horrific acts, such as the death of the family horse or her rape. Her family relies on her and uses her as a method of support. Her mother sends her to Alec in he hopes that he will marry her, but she does not teach her daughter about the intentions of men. Tess is left on her own to learn “that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing” (105). She loses her innocence through experience because of her lack of knowledge. When she returns home, her mother laments not the loss of her daughter’s innocence, but her loss of income (112). The village is relatively ambivalent toward Tess until the death of her child, which symbolizes a larger judgement of her. Tess leaves the village to seek a new life for herself after tragedy, but she instead finds love. She tries to reject this love from the belief that she is not worthy. When Angel proposes, she tries to tell him her past, but he silences her. After they marry, he tells her of a previous affair, and she reveals her story. Once Angel learns the truth, “he looked upon her as a species of imposter; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one” (243). In their relationship, Angel sees Tess in the context of nature, where she is innocent, rather than in society, where she is guilty. He considers her the ideal woman without consideration for her past struggles. When he learns of her suffering, he condemns her. He does not consider his own sexual impropriety because he only upholds the need for female innocence. In addition, he ignores that her transgressions were inflicted upon her. He shows no mercy and leaves her behind with a suggestion that he might return for her. She is again left to endure her own struggles in an effort to provide for herself and her family. She must ultimately turn back to Alec because she does not know that Angel will come back for her. He finds her too late as she has married Alec, whom society views as her true husband. After she sees Angel, she kills Alec and runs away with Angel. They are safe in nature, but society catches up to them, and Tess must pay for her crimes. The novel ends when the narrator states, “’Justice,’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschlyean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess” (396) Her death is only justice in that it rids society of the fallen woman. Tess’s death is the one death that is not natural; instead, it comes from society. The quotations around justice suggests that the narrator does not view her death as just, which reinforces Tess as a pure woman according to Hardy’s subtitle. Like the other fallen woman, Tess finds redemption in death alone. Through the character of the fallen woman, Hardy explores the contrast between nature and society. It is society that condemns Tess. As a passive character, Tess is a victim to her surroundings. When she leaves nature to endure society, she falls.

Mill on the Floss as a Bildungsroman Novel

     If one were to define the bildungsroman genre as one that contains a story of a character’s growth, then Mill on the Floss by George Eliot could be considered a bildungsroman novel.  This is because the main protagonist, Maggie, grows with the maturity of her emotions in the novel throughout the story in various instances.  Maggie struggles to deal with impulse behaviors as she is attempting to figure out who she is and how she can express her emotions.  In the first book installment, Maggie feels pangs of jealousy as she watches her sibling, Tom, spending time with one of the more feminine characters, Lucy.  She becomes angry, and she is compelled to “push poor little pink-and-white Lucy into the cow-trodden mud” after Tom angrily tells her to leave them alone (Bk I, Ch. X).  Instead of being mature and asking to join them, Maggie is selfish by interrupting their plans and does something extremely immature by pushing Lucy into the mud, indicating that Maggie is emotionally on an immature level in life in the beginning.  Towards the middle of the novel, Maggie realizes that the books that they grew up with are gone and threw herself into a chair, with the big tears ready to roll down her cheeks” (Bk. III, Ch. VI).  While her emotions are still exploding outward as the tears roll, the reader can see some growth of emotions within Maggie because of the reasons why she is crying.  She is not angry or jealous, like in the scene with Tom and Lucy, but she is heartbroken because their childhood books are gone.  Heartbreak is more of a mature emotion because it requires the person to feel a deep sense of love and attachment for the object or person, which Maggie obviously is attached to the memories and sentiment behind the books.  Instead of being violent to others, Maggie simply breaks down in a healthier way of letting her emotions be known.  Her decrease in violence tells the reader that she is growing by learning consequences of violence and learning how to express her emotions in a normal way, like crying.  Toward the end of the story, Maggie felt as if “she was no longer an unheeded person, liable to be chid, from whom attention was continually claimed” after she is introduced to the life of a young lady at St. Ogg’s (Bk. VI, Ch. VI).  Maggie finally feels comfortable in her own emotions as she is starting this new chapter of her life as a young woman.  This shows to the reader character development because Maggie feels content instead of violent or tearful, much like the varying emotions of a child.  This novel is a bildungsroman novel because its protagonist, Maggie, continually grows throughout the story regarding her emotions and how she deals with them, both internally with herself and externally with other characters.  In the beginning, Maggie does not know how to deal with her emotions of jealousy, so she externally releases them by pushing Lucy into the mud.  In the end, Maggie is happy and content with her emotions and herself because she feels as if she is starting her life over at St. Ogg’s.   

Omniscience vs. Intimacy: The Narrator’s Role in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot once said, “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” Although she accomplishes this in several ways throughout her novel The Mill on the Floss, I believe the most interesting way in which she does so is through the use of the narrator.

The characteristic that intrigued me the most about the narrator is her intimate, yet omniscient, presence in the novel. Although we as readers do not have a strong idea who the narrator is – who she is, how she came to know so much about St. Ogg’s, etc. – we are given several clues that the narrator was involved in Maggie and Tom’s lives, which gives her an air of authority over the reader. This is evidenced early on in the first chapter of Book 1 when the narrator first describes one of her memories of Maggie as a child, “Now I can turn my eyes toward the mill again, and watch the unresting wheel sending out its diamond jets of water. That little girl is watching it too; she has been standing on just the same spot at the edge of the water ever since I paused on the bridge.”

In addition to making the narrator more personable, Eliot also appears to have given the narrator an omniscient presence during some points of the novel. The narrator’s omniscience serves as a tool to slow down the reader’s judgment of certain characters, such as Tom, Philip, and Maggie. This allows the narrator to guide the readers toward having compassion for these characters. The narrator best demonstrates this in chapter five of Book 5 when the narrator comments:

“Do not think too hardly of Philip. Ugly and deformed people have great need of unusual    virtues, because they are likely to be extremely uncomfortable without them… Does not the Hunger Tower stand as the type of the utmost trial to what is human in us?”

The narrator’s ability to peer into the lives of the characters makes it difficult for the reader to make quick, easy judgements about them. Additionally, the narrator’s omniscience forces us to apply her insight of the characters to our lives, forcing us to step into the shoes of the character and explore our motivations and desires.

Eliot uses many strategies to successfully foster sympathy in the reader for the main characters. However, I believe the narrator is one of the most effective methods. Her experience with the story makes the story feel that much more real, and her omniscience arms the reader with the necessary tools to feel compassionate toward the main characters.

Struggles Between Family Duty and Personal Desire

Eliot’s Mill on the Floss may not seem like a typical bildungsroman, but it does contain all the necessary elements.  Eliot presents Maggie’s “life course” from childhood, school years, relationships with potential mates, the “fates that life brings”, her “works and deeds” and, of course, her death.  Her development does take place over a lifetime, her lifetime.  Throughout the novel her development stutters and stumbles, as she experiences setbacks that plague her with unrelenting hardship.  She never achieves the success in life that she wishes for, but she does discover what is most important.  Eliot’s novel presents love of family as a core tenet of moral and ethical responsibility. As a reader, I tend to prefer a character’s development to arc positively upward, but the type and trajectory of development may be less important than the result itself.  This posting will focus on several episodes of Maggie’s story that make this novel a bildungsroman.  These represent a lifelong struggle between her personal desire and family duty.

Throughout the novel, Maggie is presented as rebellious and rash, but starves for affirmation.  Her place in society is defined by her gender, class and the stifling expectation of her parents, primarily her mother.  The description of Maggie tends heavy towards her outward appearance.  Her hair is wild and untamed, much to the irritation of her mother. Her impulsive and egocentric behavior blooms, starting with the cutting of her own hair.  Maggie views this act as one of rebellion towards her mother.  Before cutting her hair she imagined the “triumph she should have over her mother and her aunts by this decided course of action.”  The narrator describes the moments following the passionate frenzy of snipping “with a sense of clearness and freedom, as if she had emerged from a wood into the open plain.”  Unfortunately for Maggie, just a child, her act of sudden defiance results in teasing from her brother, Tom.  In this moment we see that for Maggie, the opinions of others are most important, especially those of Tom.

This desire for Tom’s approval has put Maggie at odds with her extended family.  The aunts’ disparagement and refusal to truly help pull them out of dire financial hardship crushes Tom’s spirit.  Maggie experiences his agony, and with “eyes flashing like the eyes of a young lioness,” “bursts out,” scolding her aunts for their dereliction of family duty.  In this moment the sphere of family contracts.  For Maggie, there is realization that dependence can only be sought within her immediate family.  This sphere continues to tighten as we near the end of the novel.

It isn’t until the final moments of the novel that Maggie puts immediate family above her own desires.  As the rain starts to slowly invade, Maggie rejects Stephen’s final plea for her to ask him to “Come!” and is set upon sending him her “last word of parting.”  She struggles with the realization that this rejection will gnaw at her for the rest of her life.  The rushing currents pulled her “away from that life which she had been dreading…”  The water washes away the “artificial vesture” of life, leaving only naked “primitive mortal needs,” family.  When Maggie arrives at her family home, the sphere has constricted Tom and Maggie into a single unit.  Their lives were lost, but “in death they were not divided.”

Eliot chooses to end the novel with their unexpected death.  Family is the thread that traces throughout the novel and the only thing able to survive death.  We see the development of Maggie from a young girl driven by rash behavior, unthinking of the consequences, to a woman driven by rash, selfless love for her family.  In her final moments she realizes that she must put her desire and safety aside for the sake of those she holds most dear.  Her bildungsroman develops in favor of family duty at the cost of personal desire.






Maggie’s Punishment

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?


Maggie and Tom: A Sibling Love Constantly Suffocated

From the very beginning of The Mill on the Floss, I knew the relationship between Maggie and Tom would be of very significant importance to the narrative. I see them as almost being “frenemies,” which is pretty typical of a sibling relationship. Although they do have some sweet moments and ultimately seem to rely on each other and need each other, I see their relationship as being rather toxic. For example, “But Maggie had hardly finished speaking in that chill, defiant manner, before she repented, and felt the dread of alienation from her brother” (Eliot 399). Right after Maggie confronts Tom about taking back his command for her not to see Philip Wakem, she almost seems to subtly regret it. Maggie wants to be independent, and I believe she is. However, she subconsciously seems to need some type of validation from Tom. If he is not happy with her, it affects her more than she would like to admit. In addition to this, “‘Not for myself, dear Tom. Don’t be angry. I shouldn’t have asked it (…) I shall only see him in the presence of other people. There will never be any secret between us again’” (Eliot 400). Right after mentally regretting standing up to her brother, Maggie covers up her bold confrontation with Tom. She takes a step back, and I think this shows some uncertainty and insecurity on her part. Granted, this makes a lot of sense in the culture and time period she grew up in. The fact that she stands up to her brother at all is very impressive and shows her strength and confidence. I think Eliot chose to employ this back-and-forth toxic sibling relationship to bring a sense of raw emotion to the novel as well as to show that gender power struggles were even present in family settings at the time.

Although there is quite the power struggle between these siblings, there is also a sweet display of love and connection. Tom and Maggie seem to gravitate towards each other no matter how much they irritate one another. By book seven, Maggie has endured a lot of shame and is shunned by many people, including Tom. This doesn’t stop her from trying to reconcile with him. “‘Tom,’ she began, faintly, ‘I am come back to you – I am come back home – for refuge – to tell you everything’” (Eliot 483). Tom is always the person Maggie will go to for the hope of safety and comfort, no matter how bad things have gotten between them.

While the relationship between the two siblings is very back and forth, it is ultimately rooted in a mutual love. They know they have each other, no matter how badly one hurts the other. The ending of this novel encompasses their deep love, “…but brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted: living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together” (Eliot 517). The conclusion I draw from this is that Tom and Maggie always had a deep longing for connection with one another. They felt it at times but it was also extremely damaged by their unhealthy interactions. They both longed for a simple loving sibling relationship, but the difficult circumstances in which they lived slowly tore them apart. The way in which Eliot ended the novel with their death shows that despite their many disagreements, they still had unconditional love for each other. I see the central theme of this novel as love and family, and both of those things are summed up in this last sentence.

“Some folks ’ud say”: Narrative Scorn at the Sign of the Rainbow

The narrative structure of Silas Marner seems crafted to draw the reader in and hold the reader at a distance; to create sympathy and to facilitate an alienating sense of otherness, in alternating scenes of rushing suspense and of dispassionate narrative. Reading the novella in light of Hollander’s Narrative Hospitality suggests that these shifts are either reflective of or contributors to changing Victorian philosophies about the Self and the Other, about sympathy and hospitality. Even given that understanding, however, Chapter VI is jarring.

Chapter Six opens in the midst of building tension as Silas discovers his gold has been stolen, then rushes off the to pub to declare his grievance. But then, in a sudden change in tone, the narrative screeches to a halt, the chronological sequence goes into retrogression, and the perspective is wrenched from a singular intense focus on Silas’s distress to a dispersed comic scene among the rustic personages gathered at the Rainbow. The narrator refuses to offer continued narrative drama and chronological continuity just when readers most want them, pursuing an unrelated side-track for nine pages before deftly weaving together the villagers’ stories about ghosts with Silas’s uncanny appearance. However, even though the thematic connection via tales of the supernatural is clear, the chapter-long divergence appears to damage the compelling forward momentum of the story. Might it serve to heighten suspense by postponing the moment of dramatic satisfaction? Might it serve a subtly didactic function, frustrating the readers’ desire to know something on a small scale as a metonym for general epistemological uncertainty?

A closer examination of the passage in question reveals other problematic elements in addition to the postponement of narrative satisfaction. It is not clear what the narrator’s (or the author’s) stance is on these “lower-class” characters. The narrative tone, the phonetic presentation of dialogue, the absurd content of their conversation, and the caricatured portraiture combine to give the impression that the narrator holds them in great scorn. For instance, the conversation begins with an argument ostensibly about a cow, but really about these neighbors’ faith in one another’s word. Mr. Snell, the landlord, opens proceedings by asking: “Some folks ’ud say that was a fine beast you druv in yesterday, Bob?” (40). The spelling, diction, and grammar suggest a working-class dialect quite different from the narrator’s smooth, sophisticated, sometimes facetious prose. This continues in Bob’s answer: “And they wouldn’t be fur wrong, John.” This apparent mockery is not confined to dialogue. The narrative descriptions read like satire. The landlord considers people “beings who were all alike in need of liquor,” and Bob is “not disposed to answer rashly” (pausing a long time to smoke his pipe), and the farrier looks around “with some triumph” after making an inane remark. These techniques leave this reader in some doubt whether the narrator (or Eliot herself) is writing for pure fun, or out of gentle love, or from a sense of social superiority. This ambiguous attitude calls into question the narrator’s hospitality; is s/he Othering these people to the extent that they are outside the readers’ range of sympathy?

The setting is also jarring, causing the reader’s re-orientation to the novella’s spatial and environmental elements. A police station, courtroom, or other official functionary location would seem more suited to Silas’s tale of crime, at least to a 21st-century reader. This shift of setting is also concurrent with—or perhaps the cause of—a change of generic features. Chapter V suggested that the story was becoming a mystery novel, but then Chapter VI suddenly presents a scene of rustic realism in stark contrast. Questions about hospitality remain, as the reader is thrust into the setting and genre that have hitherto been inhospitable to Silas and whose borders he has been unable to cross. But at the same time, the narrator’s troubling inhospitality continues towards the very people whom the reader has hoped would welcome Silas into their community. This is perplexing indeed.

There are several possible solutions to this dilemma about a troubling shift in setting, genre, and narrative perspective. One is to take the suspension of narrative closure in the Rainbow as a foreshadowing of the sixteen-year postponement to come. Just as the reader is frustrated by having to slog through a whole chapter of casual neighborhood chat while chaffing to know how Silas will be received, so the theft of Silas’s money and the mystery of Eppie’s paternity remain unsolved for sixteen years. This narrative frustration mirrors Godfrey’s refusal to let down his boundaries to his father, brother, and Nancy—and both are examples of the failure to fully open up to community and to strangers when the chance is first offered.

A second possible reading considers the weaving together of narrative threads. This is a macrocosmic metaphor of Silas’s microcosmic literal weaving. The story presents first a single-stranded thread: Silas in Lantern Yard. After following this thread for a time, it shifts to a double- or triple-stranded thread: Godfrey’s, Dunstan, and perhaps Molly’s situations. Finally, in the chapter in question, the third many-stranded thread of the whole Raveloe community is braided together with the others. These men in the tavern will be Silas’s friends once Eppie unites him to them. Hospitality is thus enacted in the text as his life is woven together with theirs, raveled together in Raveloe when he thinks his life has unraveled.

However, neither of these readings explains the apparent scorn in the narrator’s tone or what seems to be Eliot’s mockery of lower-class characters. It may be that she did consider herself superior to uneducated villagers, or it may be that she is teasing out the reader’s own prejudices, revealing our unwillingness to spend time in a common pub with these folks, encouraging the reader to open mental doors and welcome these rustic characters in with intellectual and readerly hospitality. Perhaps the very frustration this scene raises is meant to create general epistemological uncertainty—can we ever truly know another human being?

~ Sørina Higgins

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.

The Girl She Should Have Been

The pairing of Maggie and Lucy brings a touch of the gothic into George Eliot’s realist novel The Mill on the Floss. Maggie and Lucy fulfill the gothic trope of doubling and help teach us what to fear and how to avoid it. Lucy represents the good, the normal, the idealized daughter and woman. Maggie’s character is the uncanny double and she fails to fulfill her place in society.

Maggie Tulliver is bright, bold, and ambitious, characteristics which make her “too ‘cute for a woman” (Book 1 Ch. 1). Maggie’s father may prize his daughter’s intelligence, but we see through Mr. Riley’s and Mrs. Tulliver’s perspectives from the very first chapter that this is regarded by most as a shortcoming. In feminine expectations Maggie is “half an idiot,” and is nothing in comparison to Lucy. Where Maggie is “too big a gell, gone nine, and tall of her age to have her hair cut short,” Lucy has “a row o’ curls round her head, an’ not a hair out o’ place” (Book 1 Ch. 1). Lucy succeeds where Maggie fails, and the two are immediately compared as the right and wrong version of a young lady. From a bildungsroman perspective, Lucy represents the finalized version of what Maggie must become to accomplish her personal transformation.

The contrast between the two women becomes a central focus during Maggie’s stay with Lucy in the sixth book. Stephen recognizes Lucy as “accomplished, gentle, affectionate, and not stupid” and thus considers her “a little darling, and exactly the sort of woman he had always most admired” (Book 6 Ch. 1). Maggie is certainly not stupid but her intelligence categorizes her as the sort of “remarkable rarity” (Book 6 Ch. 1) or “peculiarity of character” (Book 6 Ch. 2) which makes a woman threatening and unsuitable for marriage. Stephen’s initial judgements show societal expectations of femininity and courtship.

In addition to doubling, the gothic also often includes some transgression of the characters over a boundary, which leads to punishment. In The Mill on the Floss, this is Stephen’s preference for Maggie over Lucy. His choice flies in the face of what society values in woman and is also a transgression over the boundary of social class. The result is “the flood,–that awful visitation of God” which wipes away the town and Maggie herself (Book 7 Ch. 5).

We are told in the epilogue that “nature repairs her ravishes,” signifying that the flood was an intentional cleansing of some malignancy – perhaps the threat of a woman with a sharp mind and a man willing to upend the hierarchy. Stephen visits Maggie’s grave “with a sweet face beside him,” showing that he has chosen a more suitable mate. After nature’s cleansing, one half of the double has been wiped away, leaving us with who we can only infer is Lucy. Lucy, the woman Stephen should have been with all along, the female upholding submission and tranquility, the girl Maggie should have been.

Tom’s Failure to Achieve a “Bildungsroman”

Tom’s development in The Mill on the Floss indicates that, if he has a bildungsroman, it entails no moral growth. He begins the novel with no concern for the welfare of his sister. For example, his apathy allows young Maggie to run away from the family. So he ignores where she went; “‘I don’t know,’ said Tom; his eagerness for justice on Maggie had diminished since he had seen clearly that it could hardly be brought about without injustice of some blame on his own conduct” (142). Tom only cares because he will get blamed for losing her and thus have a worse reputation.

As Tom ages, he takes on the responsibility of providing for his family. While this might signify moral growth, his motives indicate that he does so primarily to protect his future, not to care for his family: “He would provide for his mother and sister, and make every one say that he was a man of high character” (252). He wants to be recognized for taking care of them which would boost his sense of self-worth and his social standing. His actions are motivated by concern for self and ensuring he has a promising future. As far as Society is concerned, he is growing into an accomplished young man. Morally, however, he is questionable.

When Tom owns the mill, he refuses to house Maggie after her shameful return from her boat trip with Stephen. Tom interprets Maggie as a threat to the welfare of his mother and himself because her tarnished reputation could damage theirs. As a result, he willingly sacrifices his familial bond with Maggie to protect the family’s interest by spurning an undesirable. Even Aunt Glegg is willing to house Maggie. She accuses Tom of not upholding the value of family: “If you were not to stand by your ‘kin’ as long as there was a shred of honour attributable to them, pray what were you to stand by?” (496). Aunt Glegg argues that even the harsh judgment of society should not violate the integrity of the familial bond. In order to protect his future as a wealthy, connected young man, he spurs his sister. In doing so, he foregoes an opportunity for moral growth.

While he ultimately reconciles with Maggie, it only occurs as they face death: “brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted” (517). This seems like moral growth but Tom has previously done this in the face of trauma. When their father died, Maggie reconciled with Tom: “‘let us always love each other;’ and they clung and wept together” (372). Years later, Tom turned her away. Tom’s sudden reversal at the end of the novel does not seem like a true moral transformation. All Tom has displayed is hard work and a consciousness for his reputation. With only these characteristics to show for him, we can only call his story a bildungsroman if we require that he has wealth and a spotless reputation.