Maggie Tullivers: Character Analysis in Mill on The Floss

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      Critic after critic has vexed eloquently over the character of Maggie Tullivers, the heroine of the novel The Mill on The Floss. According to Walter Alien, “Maggie is the unifying principle of the novel, its center of consciousness. I do not think it at all necessary for readers of novels to identify themselves with characters in them; but I believe it is impossible to read The Mill on the Floss without identifying with Maggie. She is as deeply felt a character as any in fiction; and she exists, in her aspirations and the frustration of them, as a permanent criticism of the quality of ordinary life anywhere and in any age” Leslie Stephen regards her as a very close self-portrait and writes “George Eliot throws herself so frankly into Maggie’s position, gives her double such reality by the wayward foibles associated with her nobler impulses, and dwells so lovingly upon all her joys and sorrows, that the character glows with a more tender and poetic charm than that of any of her other heroines. I suppose that Dinah Morris would be placed higher in the scale of morality; but if the test of a heroine’s merits be the readers’ disposition to foil in love with her (and that, I confess, is my own), I hold that Maggie is worth a wilderness of Dinahs.”

An Ugly Duckling: Her Transformation

      As a child Maggie is plain-looking. She is awkward, careless and wild. She is constantly rebuked by her mother for her wildness and she is afraid that one day or the other she would he drowned in the river. She has long hair which would not curl, and which constantly comes over her eyes and face, She is careless of her dress, ill-mannered, and disrespectful to her uncles and aunts and thoughtless in her words and actions. The result is that she is constantly rebuked and snubbed by her mother, by her aunts, and by her beloved brother Tom. In short she is an ugly duckling, like the child in Anderson’s famous story: but also she has a fairy-tale quality about her. This ugly Duckling turns into a swan; she growls up into a tall, charming lady with big, black eyes, and a beautiful head of hair. She has such charm and fascination, that all those who come in contact with her at once fall in love with her Philip Wakem loves her and cherishes her memory even after her death, end Stephan Guest fells in love with her at first sight.

      Sensitive, Emotional and Impulsive
Maggie is extremely sensitive, emotional and impulsive, one of those noble natures who are born to suffer and; be martyred. She wants to be loved, and to have some object of love, exclusively devoted to her. She loves her brother Tom with all the fullness other generous heart, and when he is angry with her for some fault others, or when he transfers his attention to her cousin Lucy, the suffering of poor Maggie knows no bounds. Impulsively, she pushes Lucy into the mud, for she regards her as the cause of all her troubles. When Tom is angry with her for having neglected the rabbits and refuses to play with her, her sensitive, loving soul is lacerated, and she finds compensation in coming upto her attic and beating her doll which is kept there for the purpose. It is in this way, that she finds relief for the suffering caused to her by the Cruel world. When she is rebuked by one of her aunts, because her hair comes over her face and does not curl, she takes up a scissors and cuts her locks off. This makes her look extremely ridiculous a, ‘horror’ as one of the aunts puts it. This very impulsive nature, this very hunger for love, makes her vulnerable to the ‘great temptation’ posed by Stephen Guest and the reckless elopement is the consequence. She is extremely sensitive, and like all, sensitive people, must suffer in this cruel prosaic world. It is only the sympathy, love and affection of her father, who always takes her part, which makes life tolerable for her.

Poetic Imagination

      Maggie is a girl gifted with the imagination of a poet, and her childish imagination invests the trivial and the commonplace with the glamour of poetry and romance. She constantly imparts; human characteristics to objects and creatures around her. She speculated especially upon the Tat floury spiders’ and their probable relations to spiders of the outside world. Toads and earwigs become actors in other little romances; “She confides to her little cousin, that Mrs. Earwig is running so fast to fetch a doctor for a small earwig that has fallen into the hot copper, Brother Tom shows his matter-of-fact character by smashing the earwig as a superfluous yet easy means of proving the entire unreality of such a story.” Her imaginative faculty transfigures toads and earwigs and invests with, mystery the round pool, framed with willows and tall reeds, where she delights in the whispers and dreamy silences, and listens to the light dipping sounds of the rising fish and the gentle rustling, “as if the willows and the reeds and the water had their happy whispering also”.

Her Terrible Suffering: Causes

      Such sensitivity and such imagination are serious disadvantages in a prosaic world, and one who has them has to suffer raps over the knuckles from the Tom Tullivers of the world, and the result is heart-rending tragedy, Aeschelian in its intensity and Sophoclean in its grandeur. She has to give up Philip because her insensitive brother commands her to do so, and consequently she suffers terribly. Maggie is a great tragic figure and she suffers, because she has to struggle and fight on two fronts—the inner and the outer. She longs and yearns for the unattainable, and she is born in uncongenial surroundings.

An Extremist—Internal and External Conflicts

      As Mexwell H. Goldberg points out she is an extremist, not satisfied with the little that life can offer her, and so has to suffer terribly. Like the poet Shelley, she is drawn to the earthly absolute of utter fulfillment of the desires of the senses and the heart, and to the opposite absolute of utter renunciation of earthly desire and utters If-sacrifice “I was never satisfied with a little of anything,” she tells Philip, That is why it is better for me to do without earthly happiness altogether. I never felt that I had enough music—I wanted more instruments playing together—I wanted voices to be fuller and deeper.” while these mighty opposites contend within her, Maggie is likewise at war against confining pressures outside herself. She seeks to break through the meshes of the boring, monotonous, humdrum, routine, commonplace, conventional social pattern into which she has been born, and with which she is expected to enter into subservient terms. It is with all this that she feels most painfully out of harmony. The pent-up poetry in her soul beats its luminous wings against, the conservatism, the self-complacency, the lack of imagination, of the long established provincial society within which she is confined.

Ruskin’s View

      It is this rich personal endowment, this divine discontent and this aspirational capacity for struggle toward enfranchisement and enlarged experience that help to give the list to John Ruskin’s contemptuous dismissal of The Mill on the Floss as perhaps the most sinking instance extant of that type of literary disease which minutely celebrates the trivial and the insignificant. “There is not a single parse in the book”, Ruskin declares, “of the smallest importance to anybody in the world, but themselves, or whose qualities deserve so much as a line of printer’s type in their description”. On the contrary, Maggie is highly qualified for the tragic role assigned to her. The novelist has not used the word tragic when she refers to this role. But the intention is clear. For, in describing her purpose, George Eliot closely follows the requirements for the tragic character as set forth by Aristotle in the Poetics. She writes that her purpose is “the truthful presentation of character essentially noble, but liable to great error that is anguish to its own nobleness”. Here is that flaw, that blind spot, that step in blindness taken, as well as, that ironic discrepancy between promise and fulfillment which is so important in the Aristotelian conception of tragedy and which before George Eliot, had appeared rarely in English prose fiction.”

The Tragic Flaw

      In Maggie’s case, the blindness is twofold. First, it leads her to make wrong self-assessments. She thinks, for example, that in setting up an ideal of utter renunciation of earthly desire, she is putting, herself on the road of eniranchisement. Yet actually she is mistaken, as Philip makes clear to her, “You are shutting yourself up in a narrow self-delusive fanaticism, which is only a way of escaping pain by starving into dullness all the highest powers of your nature. You are not resigned; you are only trying to stupefy yourself.” Actually, her powerful instinctive and impulsive self rebels at the Brontean sense of loneliness and utter privation of joy, and would strike at that power outside herself which, in moods of pagan mysticism, she senses as thwarting her best endeavors at earthly self-fulfillment

      The tragic failure to make proper assessments shows itself too, in Maggie’s dealings with forces outside herself. Hey, reason unseated, she yields to the impervious eruption of her passion for Stephen and his for her, then drifts into the enmeshing complications of human relationships caused by this yielding. What is worse she fails to see the glaring discrepancy, between the little that Stephen Guest can mean to the fulfillment of her yearnings and the towering demands she places on love; for as is generally agreed, Stephen not only lacks the qualities that would make him Maggie’s partner in glorious self-fulfillment, he is woefully inadequate as the agent of that sort of high emancipation and the more abundant life she seeks. The startling contrast adds to the tragic irony which increasingly asserts itself as the action moves to its crisis.

Noble and Generous—Tragedy of Trusting Love

      Maggie is noble, generous and kindhearted. This is seen in her pity and sympathy for the deformed, Philip Wakem, which he mistakes for love, as also in her sympathy and solicitude for her father when he is an invalid, fallen on evil days. Her generous soul hungers for love absolute love, which she fails to get from Tom, and which she gets from Stephen bill which she generously renounces too late out of mistaken notions of duty towards her cousin Lucy. She is a noble character, but one liable to great error of judgment. She is a noble, sensitive soul caught in a web of circumstances partly of her own making, and partly beyond her control. The result is suffering, tragedy and ultimate death. When the end comes, it finds her in the midst of tempest and destruction as a bringer of reconciliation arid peace, and the novel closes, in perfect harmony with its opening, as a story of trusting love.

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