Literary Criticism on George Eliot Novels

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      Stephen is certainly more honest about his love than Maggie, who is deeply committed to Philip and for less candid with herself and others in acknowledging it. There is no premeditation in his first offense at the ball. Instead of dancing, he walks with Maggie into the conservatory, gazing at her, but silent. “The hovering thought that they must and would renounce each other made this moment of mute confession more intense in its rapture.” As she reached for a flower, Stephen in ‘a mad impulse’ kissed her arm. The violence of her resentment in an index to the depth of her passion for him; for regret came, not from the affront to herself, but from “the sin of allowing a moment’s happiness that was’ treachery to Lucy, to Philip — to her own better soul”. Her mild interview with Philip the next morning, looking down into his gray eyes, comforts her with a deluding sense that her ‘better soul’ has regained its mastery. Yet four days later in the lane at Basset, when she could have freed herself at once from Stephen’s importunity by saying that her whole heart was Philip’s, “her hips would not utter that, and she was silent”. In putting “pity and faithfulness and memory” before love, she can only illogically beg Stephen, to ‘‘help me, because I love you” The evidence, fairly weighted, makes it clear that Maggie was compromised, not by any dishonorable deception of Stephen’s, but by her own divided nature. She was defeated by a power too strong for argument. As Thomas Hardy put it a generation later in Tess of the d’Urbervilles; “that tremendous force which sways all humanity to its purpose as the tide sways the helpless weed, was not to be controlled by vague lucubrations over the social rubric”. The difficulty lies, not in believing that Maggie was ‘borne along by the tide, but that she could have turned back when she did.


      The chief defect—indeed, the only serious one—in The Mill on the Floss is its conclusion. Such a conclusion is in itself assuredly not illegitimate, and there is nothing in the fact of the fact, to my knowledge, essentially unnatural; what I object to is its relation to the preceding part of the story. The story is told as if it were destined to have, if not a strictly happy termination, at least one within ordinary probabilities. As it stands, the denouement shocks the reader most painfully. Nothing has prepared, him for it; the story does not move towards it; it casts no shadow before it. Did such a denouement lie within the author’s intentions from the first or was it a tardy expedient for the solution of Maggie’s difficulties. This question the reader asks himself but of course he asks it in vain.
For my part, although, as, long as humanity is subject to floods and earthquakes, I have no objection to see them made use of in novels. I would in this particular case have infinitely preferred that Maggie should have been left to her own devices. I understand the author’s scruples, and to a certain degree I respect, them. A lonely spinsterhood seemed but a dismal consumption of her generous life; and yet, as the author conceives, it was unlikely that she would return to Stephen Guest. I respect Maggie profoundly;' but nevertheless I ask, was this after all so unlikely? I will not try to answer the question. I have shown enough courage in asking it. But one thing is certain; a denouement by which Maggie should have called Stephen back would, have been extremely interesting, and would have had far more in its favor than can be put to confusion by a mere exclamation of horror. — Gordon S.H


      The fresh directness of a child’s vision that we have in the autobiographical part of The Mill in the Floss is something very, different from the afternoon light of reminiscence. This recaptured, early vision, in its combination of charity with rich significance, is ... enchanting; but it does not idealize, or soften with a haze of sentiment. The intensity of Maggie’s native vision is rendered with the native truth of genius. Although the supremely mature, mind of Middlemarch is not yet manifested in The Mill on the Floss, the creative powers at work here owe their successes as much to a very fine intelligence as to powers of focusing and remembering. But of course the most striking quality of The Mill on the Floss, is that which goes with the strong autobiographical element. We feel an urgency, a resonance, a personal vibration, indicating the poignantly immediate presence of the author. The emotional quality represents something—a need or hunger in George Eliot, that shows itself to be insidious company for her intelligence—not to supplant it and take command. The acknowledged weaknesses and faults of The Mill on the Floss, in fact, are of a more interesting kind than the accepted view recognizes. — F.K. Leavis


      The epic breadth of the first two volumes is warranted by the completeness with which we come to understand the pressure of her surroundings, on Maggie’s developing personality which will, in turn, condition the central drama. We are brought to a full realization of these surroundings because, in a series of scenes, each with its ‘own’ intrinsic value as social comedy, or dramas, we grow familiar with a number of households and their way of life, which is both individual and representative. There is, for instance, the financially precarious home life of the Tullivers themselves; Mr. Tulliver speculative, perplexed and, compared with his wife, adventurous, and Mrs. Tulliver, foolish, and faithful, torn between loyalty to her own family and to the proud conventions of the Dodson upbringing. Then there are the prosperous middle-class homes of her sisters; Mrs. Glegg’s home at St. Ogg’s, and the elegant home of Mrs. Pullet; and we are shown the well-conducted home life of Tom's ambitious clerical tutor, or, in contrast to all these the home life of Mr. Tulliver’s sister, aunt Moss, who struggles to feed and clothe a large family on the proceeds of a farm starved of capital, since she has committed the indiscretion of marrying solely for love. — F.R. Lewis


      Her second long novel...was the book in which she drew most directly on her own early life. Maggie Tulliver, the sensitive, passionate child in a stolid family, craving for her brother’s love, the ardent girl growing up in a narrow world with a thirst for life, beauty, knowledge, is the young Mary Ann Evans herself, transmuted into fiction. Maggie repeats her author’s childish troubles for she is often in disgrace, considered plain and tiresome, compared unfavorably with her pretty docile cousin Lucy, as Mary Ann had been with Chrissey. With Maggie as with her creator the strongest need is the need of being loved, the second the need of more scope than her surroundings provide. Somewhere in herself she finds possibilities that might be realized in a world of less rigid conventions and narrow judgments, she knows instinctively that there must be somewhere a world of different values in which her, qualities would not be despised, and when she runs away to the gypsies, it is in the hope of finding such a world, less cramping to the fullness of her own instinctive life.

      The Mill on the Floss has both the strength and the weakness of an autobiographical novel. There is no more vivid picture in English fiction of the sorrows and sufferings of a child. The world of those early chapters is the world as seen through the eyes of a child. George Eliot used, of course, with some’ adaptation, the surroundings of her own home and visitors to the house at Griff can still see the mill, and the Red Deeps where Maggie had the stolen interviews with Philip. By the time that George Eliot wrote The Mill on the Floss, she had abandoned her childish belief that happiness was wrong, and renunciation good for its own sake. Her very life as a writer had depended on her being able to abandon it, but in her portrait of the young Maggie, she allows no mature nor objective judgment to qualify the identification. The portrait gains in freshness and intensifies what it loses in proportion. — Lettice Cooper


      George Eliot’s ‘love of the childhood scenes’ is not likely to have carried her to such lengthy description as we have in the early books, had she not felt those scenes were important both intrinsically and for the development of the novel as a whole.

      They are in fact a demonstration of the idea which she found confirmed in Comte, of whom she said that “no one has more clearly seen the truth, that the past rules the present, lives in it, and that we are but the growth and outcome of the past.” The focus of family in the first book relates directly to the Comtean notion that the family is the primary means by which man can transcend his egoism and animated. These early scenes establish that the characters are, in Feuerbach’s terms, in a ‘natural’ state, beneath the level of full humanity. It is no accident, for example, that the novels’ first speech by an important character—Mr. Tulliver should begin, ‘What I want,’ nor that George Eliot should pointedly repeat the clause. ‘The oppressive narrowness’ of the Dodsons and Tullivers creates a tension for both readers and characters. On the one hind, it is what must be transcended by Maggie if she it is to rise above ‘the mental level of the generation before or. On the other, she, is tied to that generation ‘by the strongest fibers of her heart. In the onward tendency of human things’, the Dodsons and Tullivers must go, but they cannot be ignored and they must, indeed, be loved. — George Levine


      The, Dodsons and the Tullivers, of course, are the dramatic embodiments of the town’s essential nature, and they confirm the notion that for George Eliot determinism is both dangerous, and morally essential. She saw with Feuerbach that society included not merely rigid conventions but also the slowly, painfully earned developments in man’s intelligence and sensibility. Maggie, then, must learn what other characters suffer by not learning—that everything must be judged on its unique merits, that no laws, habits, or traditions can apply indiscriminately to all situations. On the other hand, much of what she does learn in this way turns out to be a ‘relearning’ of the values already implicit in social conventions, The trouble with the Dodson and the Tullivers is that they fail to establish an adequate relation to their own traditions and are, therefore, unable to understand their own motives derived from myriad causes out of the past. Neither they nor Maggie quite attains the objectivity Feuerbauch requires, the ability, that is, to see the real relation of things. They cannot achieve that ‘right understanding’ of the unchangeable order of the world which Comte says is the principal object of our actions.” — George Levine


      If, however, the conclusion of the book is a subjective fantasy solution which strikes a false note, the creative achievement of the whole stands firm. George Eliot made no secret of the fact that the figure of Maggie was autobiographical. Not literally so, of course, though she herself was brought up in the country and later in a country town. But the character of Maggie is her own and through roost of the book, she is presented with a remarkable double vision which is both subjective and objective at the same time. We live through all the immediate intensity of feelings of the child, and adolescent, but it is all seen from a mature, adult perspective, from an overall view of tolerant sympathetic irony. — Elizabeth Drew


      George Eliot knows, too, all the social currents and stress operating between the various hierarchies: the Miss Guests shuddering at the thought of any connection by marriage with such People as the Gleggs and the Pullets: the pitying scorn of the Glegs
and the Pullests for the incompetent, struggling Mosses; the exasperation of Mr. Deane, who has worked himself up to a partnership in the firm in which he started as warehouse and, for Tom Tulliver’s useless gentleman’s education, the snobbery of the rascally lawyer Wakem, “who always knew the stepping stones that would carry him through very muddy bits of practice,” but who thinks it would degrade his son to marry Maggie. She knows all their various turns of speech, their maxims and their mores. More particularly she both dissects and dramatizes the characteristics of the pastoral Tullivers and the urban Dodsons, contrasting the serene background of the mill and the ancient history of the town of St. Ogg’s with the quality of their present inhabitants. The, opening paragraph of the book evokes a picture of the harmony between nature and the works of man the river flowing among the rich pastures and cornfields and carrying the ships laden with the produce of the land to the city and thence across the seas. Against “its rich plain where the great river flows for eyer onward” and what George Eliot calls the poetry of peasant life,’ she sets Mr. Tulliver, the present owner of the mill. He has much kindly warmth, but he is self-complacent, narrow, improvident, ignorant and bitterly vindictive. - Elizabeth Drew


      St. Ogg’s itself is one of those old, old towns which impress one as a continuation and outgrowth of nature, with a history dating from the Roman occupation of Britain. St. Ogg, its patron saint, was a simple ferryman who heeded the place of a woman with a child to cross the river at night in bad weather, saying; “I will ferry thee across, it is enough that thy heart needs it”. His passenger miraculously turned into the Virgin Mary. We are told, however, that the minds of the present inhabitants had no eyes for the spirits that walked the streets. “Against her romantic history and Christen vision of earlier ages, George Eliot puts the creed that governs the substantial lower-middle class as represented by the Dodson elan. While admitting its solid unimaginative virtues of rigid honesty, thoroughness of work and loyalty to its customs and its kin she analyzes every cranny of its smallness of mind, its obsession with money and respectability, its insensitivity to any spontaneous feeling, its prejudice and its hypocrisy. More important from the point of view of the novelist’s art, George Eliot gives us scene after scene where all these people reveal themselves in concrete dramatic terms: the childhood scenes of family life; the aunts and uncles gathered to discuss Tom’s education, and best of all the tragicomedy when Mr. Tulliver has lost his case about the water rights and is declared bankrupt. The contents of the mill must be sold, and the family gathers to put into practice the core of the creed —the right thing must be done toward kindred: “Never to deny them bread, but only require them to eat it with bitter herbs”. They will buy the bare necessities to furnish the mill, but Mr. Tulliver has disgraced the family and, “must be made to feel that he could never humble himself enough”. — Elizabeth Drew


      The pattern is established in childhood. Maggie is not in the least ill-treated at home. She has an adoring father and a kind though quite uncomprehending mother. She suffers because she is dreamy and forgetful, thoughtless and impulsive, because she is oversensitive and mentally precocious, and because her brother, whom she adores, is none of these things. He is reliable, unimaginative, with all the oversimplified moral doctrines of the Dodsons: “He was particularly clear and positive on one point — namely that he would punish everybody who deserved it. In the first episode Maggie, who has been living for the day of Tom’s return from school, has to confess that his rabbits have died because she forgot to feed them. Tom punishes her by refusing to take her fishing and Maggie rushes sobbing to the attic, where she keeps her fotish, an old wooden doll, which she punishes for her own misfortunes, driving nails into its head and then comforting and cosseting it when her mood has changed. On this occasion, since childish quarrels end in reconciliation, she and Tom are soon friends again. But their characters are already established; Maggie passionate, loving, but always doing the wrong thing; Tom commonplace, sell-righteous, trustworthy, never tempted to any excess, quite uncomplicated by any emotions at all. Maggie never stops to think of the results of her, actions before she acts. Driven to frenzy, by her aunt’s comments: on her shaggy black hair, she rushes upstairs and cuts it off; taunted about her brown skin, and wildly jealous of her neat little blond cousin, she pushes Lucy into the mud; the outcry about that makes her run off to the gypsies. And she is desperately lonely, because no one around her has the least interest in her love of reading, or can share in her longings to enlarge her life and develop the faculties she knows she possesses. — Elizabeth Drew


      George Eliot is quite sound here on the point she is making the possibility of Maggie being overwhelmed by an attraction to a man who was as good as engaged to her much-beloved cousin Lucy, and of this attraction overriding her loyalty not only to Lucy but to Philip. When the novelist made Philip tell Maggie that, the suppression of her natural instincts would mean that they would, later assault her like a savage appetite’, she prepared us to expect that Maggie’s next conflict would involve sex as well as moral sensibility. But George Eliot does not meet the criticism of the character of Stephen Guest himself.

      Is it possible that Maggie could be attracted to the figure of Stephen as represented at the opening of the sixth book; this young man “whose diamond, ring, attar of roses, and air of nonchalant leisure, at twelve o’clock in the day, are the graceful and odoriferous result of the largest oil-mill and the most extensive wharf in St. Ogg’s?” The reader winces at the picture of this bejeweled and perfumed young spark, and everything that follows is unfortunately tainted with that introductory image. This is a pity, for I think a close reading of the text makes it clear that George Eliot’s intention which she did not have room to develop fully, was that Stephen’s new experience of deep feeling in his relations with Maggie should open his eyes to his former self-complacency and triviality, and that this development in him would make her response emotionally acceptable. — Elizabeth Drew


      The final symbolism by which she drifts into an irrevocable situation, through the drifting of the boat on the river, is skilfully managed. There is irony again in the fact that the river expedition had been planned with Philip, and Maggie looks forward to it, “for perhaps it would bring her some strength and calmness to be alone with Philip again”. But Philip is sick, and Stephen lakes his place, and the lovers are turned by the tide and ‘the dreamy gliding of the boat,’ until, when Maggie realizes their position, it is too late for any decision of her to save pain to others. Her final resolution that she can’t go forward to marriage with Stephen, so that he too must be sacrificed as a sop to her conscience, and her whole family also involved in the scandal associated with her flight, makes it difficult for the reader to sympathize with her fully, It is here that we question George Eliot’s artistic objectivity. Maggie’s awakening, too late to the result of her own actions is’ characteristic, so is her instinct of self-sacrifice and renunciation; but where as in earlier episodes George Eliot has always presented from a perspective that can criticize her as well as sympathize with her, that now seems lost. Now it appears that we ace to take Maggie’s estimate of her own course of action as the only possible one, consistent with fine ethical standards. When we pass on to her martyrdom by the tongues of the St. Ogg’s gossip, to Tom’s repudiation of her, and to her final supreme sacrifice, we feel that the overflow of subjective sentiment is altogether too strong for her creator and that she too is lost in the flood. — Elizabeth Drew


      In simple biological terms, Stephen is a better mate for her than the sickly Philip or the silly redheaded young Tory with his preposterous eyeglass, the only other males that the environment of St. Ogg’s can offer. Compared with the studious Philip, Stephen seems rather flippant in his intellectual interests, though he has good taste in music and like Maggie has done some serious reading. When they are alone together they have surprisingly little conversation; the bantering chatter is heard only when Lucy and Philip are with them. The attraction they feel for each other is almost entirely instinctive, conveyed by long, mute looks rather than words. Stephen too is tall. He has long legs; strong, firm hands, a large head “with a square forehead, short dark-brown hair standing erect with a slight wave at the end like a thick crop of corn, and a hall-ardent, half-sarcastic glance from under his well-marked horizontal eyebrows.” His first glance at Maggie produces the wholly normal masculine inference, “An alarming amount of devil there,” an observation we recall when, after her disgrace, the gossips of St. Ogg’s declare that “there had always been something in Miss Tulliver’s very physique that a refined instinct felt to be prophetic of harm”. George Eliot conveys Stephen’s effect on Maggie by the old susceptibility of sound. When Philip the ‘fine tenor voice’ she had often heard in the Red Deeps, Maggie is ‘touched, not thrilled’. But Stephen’s full-toned bass, rolling out ‘Shall I, wasting in despair?’ seemed to “make all the air in the room alive with a new influence....and Maggie, in spite of her resistance to the spirit of the song and to the singer, was taken hold of and shaken by the invisible influence was borne along by a wave too strong for her. ‘Against her will the music draws her to Stephen by what Wordsworth calls’ the cozenage of sense.” — G.S. Haight


      Humour plays a diminishing part in the conversations in Eliot's later novels. Even the irony already noted in Daniel Deronda, is held in check by her continual effort to convey the thought of persons consciously engaged in clarifying their ideas and developing a consistent view of life and conduct for their own behoof her three earliest, novels contain the best of her humour, that humour which is the stamp of idiosyncrasy. Here most of the people betray themselves, completely the moment they open their lips. It colors the dialogue, and is in other ways a source of admirable comedy. There is no deed to cite further examples. But George Eliot’s finest
humour is that, of her great aphorists. Very solemn and superior, people would fain identity humour with folly and buffoonery, whereas on close examination it turns out to be near akin, if not the same, thing as wisdom. The gnomic wisdom, of Mrs. Poyser is of course George Eliot’s put in the raciest and most vivacious form. — E.A. Baker


      George Eliot humor is less affected by her intellectual approach. For since her humor is satiric, a comment on facts, it is necessarily modified by the point of view from which she regards facts. Thackeray and Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell satirized from the point of view of the sensible man in the street; Mrs. Gibson, Mrs. Proudie, Jos Siedley, are ridiculous because they act in a manner inconsistent with commonsense. George Eliot, regarding the world from the point of view of the serious thinker, satisfied people in the light of more philosophic values. Her fools are ridiculous because ‘they act in’ away inconsistent with the absolute standard of right ‘living as she conceives them. She does not say ‘look at Mrs. Gibson, how ironically absurd her vanity and silliness make her appear when compared with the pleasant youthful wife and mother every sensiblewom an wants to be, but look at Miss. Rebecca Linnet, how ironically absurd her fussy petty poetry looks when compared with the ideal spiritual life. For this reason George Eliot’s satire is at once milder and more serious than that of her predecessors; she shows us human beings as smaller and as more pathetic. — David Cecil


      George Eliot realism was conscious and systematic; all the gifts of her intellectual culture contributed to it, while in it the influence of science which she had thoroughly imbibed is everywhere: manifest. She had made a study of history, she was acquainted with the psychology of the Utilitarians, and had accepted the doctrine of evolution as soon as it was first explained. As an inevitable result of the mental discipline of her youth, she felt the need of precision and objectivity, and dwelt upon the idea that any object of study, no matter what it be, has its own infinite value. The construction of her novels, the substance of her analyses, and much of her imagery, recall this scientific schooling of her thought. But realism to her is much more than a mere method or even an intellectual necessity; it is an emotion and a creed, and this she has explained with perfect clearness. All the modest virtues and vices of humble folks, however mediocre or ill-favored they may be, become attractively interesting to her and the source of this interest is love. Her words ring with the supreme appeal of a common brotherhood arid common sufferings; and whatever stress she may lay on the solidarity between men which nature enforces and which intelligence comes to recognize, her ethical beliefs spring from that spontaneous gift of the heart—sympathy. — Cazamian


      George Eliot sought to do in her novels what Browning attempted in his poetry; that is, to represent the inner struggle of a soul, and to reveal the motives, impulses, and hereditary influence which govern human action. Browning generally stops when he tells his story and either lets you draw your own conclusion or else gives you his in a few striking lines. But George Eliot is not content, until she has minutely explained the motives of her characters and the moral lesson to be learned from them. Moreover, it is the development of a soul, the slow growth or decline of moral power, which chiefly interest her. Her heroes and heroines differ radically from those of Dickens and Thackeray in this respect that when we meet the men and women of the later novelists their characters are already formed, and we are reasonably sure what they, will do under given circumstances. In George Eliot’s novels, the characters develop gradually as we come to know them. They go from weakness to strength, or from strength to weakness according to the works that they do and the thoughts that they cherish. — W.J. Long. 


      The value of the philosophy imparted in the deliberate teaching of George Eliot’s novels, and the literary intentions which she enunciates most openly, have and will retain their particular merit even if we prefer to find in other parts of her work its most precious assets, and its most vital interests. In Adam Beds she expounds the doctrine granting each of us the initiative which works out our moral and religious destiny. The Mill on the Floss is devoted to a study of the collaboration of character with circumstances in the fulfillment of fate; Silas Mamer treats of all the hidden forces which shape man’s personality through the contact of his fellows the subject of Felix Holt is the prominent part played by the educating of the individual in any matter dealing with social reform, etc. Such are the main themes of her novels; but there are others which from, so to speak, the background, and which are really of deeper significance as well as more substantial the interdependence of all human beings; the intricate workings of consequence which propagate the influence of a given act, for good or for evil, beyond our visible horizon, in every widening circles; and more especially the pathetic quality of the most common human emotions. — Cazamian


      They are the first novels which set out to give a picture of life wholly unmodified by those formulas of a good plot which the novel had taken over from comedy and romance. Her story is conditioned solely by the logical demands of situation or character it ends safely or happily, includes heroes, or omits them, deals with the married or the unmarried, according as reason and observation lead her to think likely. If fact, the laws conditioning the form of George Eliot’s novels are the same laws as of Henry James and Wells and Conrad and Arnold Bennett. Hers are the first examples in English of the novel in its mature form; in them it structurally comes of age. — David Cecil 


      What is it that makes us conscious that George Eliot had a position apart; that in a field where she had so many competitors of no mean capacity, she stands out as a superior to all her rivals? To such questions, there is one obvious answer. There is one part of her writings upon which every competent reader has dwelt with delight, and which seems fresher and more charming whenever we come back to it. There is no danger of arousing any controversy in saying that the works of her first period, the Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss have the unmistakable mark of high genius. They are something for which it is simply out of question to find any substitute. Strike them out of English literature, and we feel that there would be a gap not to be filled up; a distinct view of thought and feeling unrepresented; a characteristic and delightful type of social development left without any adequate interpreter. A second-rate writer can be more or less replaced. When you have read Shakespeare, you can do without Beaumont and Fletcher, and a study of the satires of Pope makes it unnecessary to plod through the many volumes filled by his imitators. But we feel that, however much we may admire the other great English novelists, there is none who could make the study of George Eliot superfluous. — Leslie Stephen


      My faith will not digest at once the first two volumes and the third volume of The Mill on the Floss; my conscience or credulity has not gorged enough for such a gulp. Whatever capacity for belief is in me I find her impaled once more as on the horns of that old divine’s dilemma, between the irreconcilable attributes of goodness and omnipotence in the supposed Creator of suffering and of sin. If the one quality is predictable, the other quality cannot be predicable of the same subject. The hideous transformation by which Maggie is debased—were it but for an hour—into the willing or yielding companion of Stephen’s flight would probably and deservedly have been resented us a brutal and vulgar outrage on the part of a male novelist. But the man never lived, I do believe, who could have done such a thing as this; as the man, I should suppose, does not exist who could make for the first time; the acquaintance of Mr. Stephen Guest with no incipient sense of a twitching in his fingers and a tingling in his toes at the notion of any contact between Maggie Tulliver and a cut so far beneath the chance of promotion to the notice of his horsewhip, or elevation to the level of his boot. — A.C Swinburne


      The Mill on the Floss is perhaps the most striking instance extent of this study of cutaneous disease. There is not a single person in the book of the smallest importance to anybody in the world but themselves or whose qualities deserved so much as a line of printer’s type in their description. There is no girl alive, fairly clever, half-educated and unluckily related, whose life has not at least as much in its as Maggie’s, to be described and to be pitied. Tom is a clumsy and cruel lout, with the making of better things, in him and the same may be said of nearly every Englishman at present smoking and elbowing his way through the ugly world, while the rest of the characters are simply the sweepings put of a Pentonville omnibus. And it is very necessary that we should distinguish this essentially Cockney literature—developed only in the London suburbs, and feeding the denizens of the rows of similar brick houses, which branch in devouring cancer round every manufacturing town — from the really romantic literature of France. George Sand is often immoral; but she is always beautiful... But in the English, Cockney school, which consummates itself in George Eliot, the personages are picked up from behind the counter and out of the gutter; and the landscape, by excursion train to Gravesend, with return ticket for the City-road. — John Ruskin


      The second half of the Mill on the Floss is less closely autobiographical, and much weaker. Stephen Guest has often been criticized as unworthy of Maggie and unlikely to attract her love. Certainly he is only seen from outside, and is a local dandy, a vain, complacent, trivial young man. But Maggie like so many people with great powers of feelings, is slow in coming to emotional maturity. She has led a starved life leaching in a girls school. Stephen is young, gay and handsome. George Eliot does convey although it was not, possible for a novelist in Victorian England to say it, that what sprang up between them was sexual feeling. Maggie, like her creator, is avid for love. Less fortunate than her creator, she moves in a world where there is no one of her own calibers. She loves the most attractive man she knows, as soon he breaks down her resistance by showing a preference for her. A novelist writing today would probably be aware that there must have been some satisfaction as well as other feelings in taking Stephen from Lucy, the girl who had been held up to her as a model in her childhood as Chrissey had to Marry Ann. George Eliot’s high-mindedness and the comparative innocence of her period leaves; these undercurrents unexplored. Maggie is all remorse about, Lucy. Lucy is a gentle forgiveness. Lucy is an idealized portrait, but as with Dinah Morris, George Eliot succeeds in giving to what might have been simply an intolerable prig, a sweetness that makes her bearable. — Lettice Cooper


      George Eliot once expressed the view that in former times art had constantly treated of character essentially: noble, but liable to great error. The words are almost, a paraphrase of Aristotle’s definition of the tragic hero, and the typical hero of great tragedy from Oedipus to Othello has constantly conformed to it. It is true that it is a conception that rarely occurs in English prose, fiction before George Eliot. She was more aware than her immediate predecessors of the complexity of character and her creation cannot be labeled good or bad, nor accorded the wholesale approval or disapproval of the reader as readily as can many Victorian heroes or heroines.

      George Eliot’s conception of moral choice required that her heroine should be faced with a dilemma out of which there was no happy issue. She was to be forced to choose between two alternatives, either of which would cause suffering, and the decision she reached was to depend upon her own prevision of the effect other, choice upon the other people involved in it. Her motive would be to cause as little unhappiness as the circumstances would allow and this would involve her in the difficulty that, George, Eliot believed, is in the nature of such choices. The difference between right and wrong was not to be clear cut, no preconceived principles should determine what the heroine had to do. That roast depends upon Maggie’s own; perception of all the circumstances relevant to her act. In the early part of the book, George Eliot had freely drawn upon her own self-knowledge and memories in creating Maggie. Consequently, the invention of a suitable moral dilemma was perplexed by her own private life. She would obviously avoid any situation too closely resembling her own when she elected to live with Lewes. A part of what is wrong with the close of the novel is that the problem facing Maggie and Stephen at the crisis is not a satisfactory vehicle for the conception the author intended to symbolize by it. — Joan Bennett


      The whole graded background of the book is beautifully built up, from the conventions of the stolid yeomanry, “who dressed in good broadcloth, paid high rates and taxes, went to church, and ate a particularly good dinner on Sunday, without dreaming that the British constitution in Church and State had a traceable origin any more than the solar system and the fixed stars,” to the rare, hushed scandals, illustrated by Mr. Wakem and his illegitimate offspring towards whom “he held only a chiaroscuro parentage”. In contrast to Maggie spiritual longings is set the mild skepticism of Mr. Stelling, who thought religion was a very excellent thing, and Aristotle a great authority, and Great Britain the providential bulwark of Protestantism, and faith in the unseen, a great, support to afflicted minds. Is it possible that, if the establishment of her time had been able to generate a warmer enthusiasm, George Eliot’s rational head would have given way to her religious heart? This would not necessarily have been to her advantage as a writer, for it was precisely her condition of suspended belief; a condition of sympathy but not of attachment, which enabled her to imagine and to judge so truly. — Robert Speaight

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