Stephen Guest: Character Analysis in Mill on The Floss

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Adverse Criticism

      Maggie’s love of and elopement with, Stephen Guest has come in for a great deal of criticism even from competent critics, and several grounds have been advanced for it. Let us examine such criticism, point by point, and thus try to form an impartial estimate of the whole affair.

      Grounds for It First, Stephen Guest is considered to be unsuitable for a cultured, sensitive and intelligent girl like Maggie in Mill on The Floss. Leslie Stephen calls Stephen Guest, “a mere hairdresser’s block.” Saintsbury calls him, “a counter-jumping cad”. Virginia Woolf refers to the coarseness of Stephen Guest but ascribes it to, “not so much George Eliot’s inability to draw the portrait of a man, as the uncertainty, the infirmity, and the fumbling which shook her hand when she had to conceive a fit mate for a heroine.” In other words, these critics are of the view that Stephen Guest represents a failure in characterization, that the novelist has failed to sketch him suitably so that he might have been a suitable lover for a girl like Maggie.

      Secondly, there are critics who are of the view that Maggie’s love of Stephen is incredible, that it is a debasement of a cultured and sensitive girl, that a girl of Maggie’s sensibility cannot be attracted by a person like Stephen Guest. Swinburne’s condemnation of the entire episode is most virulent. He considers it, “utterly incredible that a woman can be moved to any sense but that of bitter disgust and sickening disdain by a thing, I will not write a man, of Stephen Guest’s character, and if he must accept it on the authority of George Eliot then he must protest that it is a shameful avowal, a vile revelation that sounds and lays bare the last abyss of cynicism. Such a degradation of female character never suggested itself as imaginable even to the greatest French cynics. George Eliot’s handling of Stephen Guest appears to the learned critic to be no rent or splash on the raiment, no speck or scar on the skin of it, but a cancer in the very bosom, a gangrene in the very flesh. It is a radical and mortal plague-spot, corrosive and incurable... Swinburne minces no words and adds, ‘‘But the man never lived — who could make for the first time the acquaintance of Mr. Stephen Guest with no incipient sense of a twitching in his lingers and a tingling in his toes at the notion of any contact between Maggie Tulliver and a cur so far beneath the chance of promotion to the notice of his horsewhip, or elevation to the level of his boot.”

      F.R. Leavis, Criticism is less virulent but he too writes very much along the same lines. In his view, Stephen Guest’s character is essentially feminine. He does not find it surprising that Maggie shows a weakness for Stephen because he believes that the earlier part of the book has indubitably established, “the soulful side of Maggie, her hunger for ideal exaltations”. His chief objection is that the treatment of Stephen betrays a certain immaturity tint George Eliot never really overcame. There is no suggestion that Maggie would have resisted a union with Stephen if there were no qualms of conscience to stand in her way. “And it is quits plain that George Eliot shares to the full the sense of Stephen’s irresistibleness.”

      Writing at some length about the entire episode Leslie Stephen says “Given the character and the circumstances, that is, this was the inevitable outcome. It is, no doubt painful and disagreeable that a young woman of so many noble qualities should be guilty of such a step, but noble young women do make slips— that I fear, is undeniable—and Maggie behaves as might be expected from her previous history. That is where I presume to doubt. Nobody, indeed, can deny that the passion of love is apt to generate illusions.

      Most men would probably be able to give examples from their own experience of the truth that young women who fall in love with somebody else have a singular inability for forming a correct judgment of the truly valuable qualities of masculine character, the fact has often been noticed, and is frequently turned to account by novelists. I will not deny that even Maggie’s love for Stephen is conceivable. A young woman brought up in Dorlcote Mill was no doubt liable to be imposed upon by a false appearance of gentleman like character. But, one thing seems to me obvious.

      The whole theme of the book is surely the contrast between the ‘beautiful soul’ and the commonplace surroundings, it is the awakening of the spiritual and imaginative nature and the need of finding some room for the play of the higher faculties, whether in the direction of religious mysticism or of human affection. That such a character, with little experience of life and with narrow education, should fall into error is natural, if not inevitable. But then the error should surely correspond to some impulse which we can feel to be noble. Maggie may be wrong in attributing high qualities to her hero; but we should feel that, in her eyes, he has high qualities, and that the passion if misdirected, is itself congenial to her better impulses. Her admiration for Mr. Guest would be natural enough m the average miller’s daughter, suddenly brought into a rather superior social scale and introduced to a well-dressed young man scented with ‘attar of roses’. But as Maggie, by her very definition, as one may say, is a highly exceptional young woman, she should surely have something exceptional in her love.

      “We can understand her sympathy with Philip Wakem, who is a man of heart, and whose physical infirmity is an appeal for pity; we could have understood it, if she had fallen in love with the excellent Vicar of St. Ogg’s, who would have been able to talk about a Kempis and religious sentimentalism; and we might even have forgiven her if; after being a little overpowered by the dandified Stephen, she had shown some power of perceiving what a very poor animal he was.

      The affair jars upon us, because it is not a development of her previous aspirations, but suddenly throws a fresh and unpleasant light upon her character. No one will say that the catastrophe is impossible; he, at least, who could pronounce dogmatically upon such matters must be a bolder man than I am; but neither, I think, can anyone say that it was inevitable, or could have been expected, given the circumstances and the characters.

      The truth is, I think”, differently. George Eliot did not herself understand what a mere hairdresser's block she was describing in Mr. Stephen Guest. He is another instance of her incapacity for portraying the opposite sex. No man could have introduced such a character without perceiving what an impression must be made upon his readers. We cannot help regretting Maggie’s fate; she is touching and attractive to the last; but I at least, cannot help wishing that the third volume could have been suppressed. Do, I mentally exclaim, save this charming Maggie from damning herself by this irrelevant and discordant degradation.”

More Balanced Estimates—Joan Bennett’s View

      Joan Bennett and Gordon S. Haight give a more impartial and balanced estimate of the whole affair. According to Joan Bennett, Stephen Guest has not been presented as an adequate temptation for Maggie, “Some defect in the drawing of Stephen is a contributory cause of dissatisfaction with the end of the book, and this defect is a probable result of the relative brevity with which this part of the composition is treated. The other main characters concerned in the tragedy have been lived with throughout the novel: Tom and Lucy, Philip Wakem and Maggie herself have been known to the reader since their childhood. An intimate understanding of their nature and their development has been established in the first part of the novel. But Stephen Guest, although much of his childhood must have been spent at St. Ogg’s, was in a sufficiently different social world for his path not to have crossed with theirs. We meet him first as Lucy’s accepted suitor. Stephen makes an initially disagreeable impression on the reader:...the fine young man who is leaning down from his chair to snap the scissors in the extremely the abbreviated face of the ‘King Charles’ lying on the young lady’s feet is no other than Mr. Stephen Guest, 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.

      “There is every reason to suppose that George Eliot intends the impression to be disagreeable, he is a vulgarian, compared with Aruthur Donnithorne, a coxcomb and an insensitive egoist compared with Philip Wakem, a man without chivalry and without perception compared with Bob Jakin, a man without conscience or principle compared with Adam Bede. As all these impressions are the direct result of George Eliot’s own creative activity, it is unlikely, on the face of it, that they occur against her will. She meant to show the development of better things in Stephen’s nature under the influence of his love for Maggie”, but the intention has not been carried out. He chooses Lucy, deliberately, and the reasons for the choice have been given in detail. But Maggie throws him off his feet at the very first meeting.

      “The author’s intention is tint, in total contrast to his deliberate choosing of Lucy, he shall be mastered by passionate love for a woman he would never have thought of choosing, and that the experience shall shatter his complacency, humble his masculine vanity, and give a new depth to his character which will become capable of tragic suffering. There is not space enough for her to convince us of this development of Stephen’s character, nor does she achieve for the reader sufficient intimacy with him to establish compassionate understanding. Her heroine concerns her far more. Nor would her partial failure with Stephen matter so much if she were wholly successful with Maggie in this part of the book. But the two are interdependent. It is essential that the reader should be able to feel with Maggie when her love for Philip Wakem is overwhelmed by stronger feelings, unlike any she has hitherto experienced. The relationship with Philip has been gradually unfolded in the first part of the novel. Philip has won Maggie’s love both because, as a cripple, he commands her pity and because his keen and well-furnished mind wins her respect. But the passionate, sensual element has never entered into her feeling for him. The combination of attractions by which she is bound to him resembles those that draw Dorothea to Casaubon in Middlemarch; it is obvious in both novels that George Eliot has complete understanding of this type of experience and that her art can communicate it fully.

      “But to communicate the experience of falling in love when that experience includes the inexplicable delight given by the physical presence, the voice, the gestures, the mannerisms of the beloved, is far more difficult. Stephen Guest is far from being physically charming to the reader of The Mill on the Floss. There is an artistic failure to carry the reader along with Maggie at this point. We understand what happens to her, but we do not feel with her. And this is an element in the dissatisfaction we feel with this part of the work; but it does not explain the whole of it. An important part of it is due to the invention and treatment of the moral problem which is to be the climax of the story.

      Maggie is mastered by the first onrush of her passionate love for Stephen which springs to meet his love for her. She allows the bond between them to tighten, by imperceptible degrees, into an almost unbreakable tie. Possibly the limitation of space does apt allow George Eliot scope enough to convince us of the insidious and gradual development of the feeling, but her conception is clearly discoverable. Maggie advances by definite stages from, a private recognition of her own state of feeling to ah avowal of it to Stephen and both are fully conscious of danger when she agrees to go alone with him on the boating expedition. Lucy had withdrawn from the party herself believing that Stephen was not going and that Philip and Maggie would be alone together. She had discerned some understanding between them and hoped to further it. Maggie herself looked forward to being alone with Philip. She was almost glad of the plan; for perhaps it would bring her some strength and calmness to be alone with Philip again.

      “But Philip, fevered with anxiety about Stephen and Maggie, whose mutual attraction he also is aware of is too ill to come. Stephen arrives alone. For a few moments Maggie resists the temptation, but it does not seem a very serious one and she soon yields to it. Stephen is all along more conscious of what he is doing; he is allowing the circumstances to lead on to the fulfillment of his desires, even if he is not actually contriving them. Stephen rows past the shopping place at Luckreth half-aware of what he is doing while Maggie is wholly unaware. But she has allowed her natural impulse to take charge, and the moral sanctions accepted by George Eliot, exact as sternly as the traditional standards, that natural impulses be controlled by reasoned judgment. The description of the boat gliding through the waters symbolizes the way Maggie is letting things slide.

      Maggie can refuse to go forward to marriage with Stephen and the enjoyment of a selfish happiness; but she cannot go back and, save Lucy and Philip from the misery of knowing that they are not loved. Ultimately, they may think better of her because of this sacrifice she is making, but for themselves, it cannot bring happiness nor much alleviate pain. It is, therefore, hard for the reader to believe that this sacrifice of her own and Stephen’s happiness is worth while. More important is the fact that the real error does not seem to be the one of which Maggie is conscious. When we apply the moral standards that the author herself invites us to apply, we feel that Maggie and Stephen should have shown more courage and honesty when they first discovered that they were in love, Their intention to marry Philip and Lucy in spite of that discovery seems the reverse of noble. That intended deception shocks the reader more than does the failure to carry it out. The qualities needed in their difficult situation were not self-sacrificing heroism, but patience and tact and delicacy of feeling. They needed to allow time to pass so that they might test the durability of their love for each other and, if it stood the lest, extricate themselves from their former ties without needless cruelty.

      Maggie can only rely on the mural sense that her temperament, her upbringing and her environment have combined to develop in her. But the total effect that George Eliot seems to be trying to produce is more complex than she can achieve in the form of fiction she is using. To express her own consciousness of the subtle discriminations necessary to the just solution of a moral problem, and to set against this, the groupings of a girl who has little to rely on except her instincts, required more space and a different artistic form. Henry James was to treat situations of a comparable kind in long novels wholly devoted to their unraveling. George Eliot is hampered, by the traditional form and also by current moral assumptions. The former leads her to attempt too much in the last sixth of a work already overflowing with varied interests. The latter, presumably, accounts for her missing the cruelty that underlies the seemingly virtuous intention of Maggie and Stephen to dissemble their love and carry out their undeclared engagements.” (Joan Bennett) In other words, the real failure of the episode arises not from the character of Stephen Guest, but from the fact that Maggie is presented with a moral problem, and the problem is not adequately solved. The ‘moral choice’ she makes is wrong and this makes the readers dissatisfied with the episode, as well as with the end of the novel.

Gorden Haight’s View

      Gorden Haight’s treatment of the episode is equally balanced and impartial. “St. Ogg’s environment limits Maggie’s choice to the disabled Philip Wakem, and Stephen Guest. Admittedly, out of these two, the tall, robust Stephen is, at least biologically, easily the best match for Maggie. He shares Maggie’s interest in music and his full-toned voice takes hold of her and sends her into raptures, where as Philip’s fine tenor voice only touched, not thrilled her. This is perhaps symbolic of the overall effect that the two young men have on Maggie. The bantering chatter of Stephen that so infuriates readers against him seems no more than a pose, for he can get completely out of it when he is alone with Maggie. Their mutual fascination is conveyed very skilfully, by their long, mute looks, rather than by words.

      “There is hardly anything in Stephen’s conduct towards Maggie that one can take exception to. Stephen is certainly more honest about his love than Maggie, who is deeply committed to Philip and far less candid with herself and others in acknowledging it. Stephen’s act of kissing Maggie at the ball is impulsive, rather than premeditated. Maggie’s answering attachment is clear from the fact that she does not look upon his transgression as a sexual liberty but only as, “the sin of allowing a moment’s happiness that was a treachery to Lucy, to Philip”, When Stephen follows her to Basset, we may blame him for holding out a renewed temptation to Maggie, but it is amply clear that Maggie is more than willing to be tempted.

      We are told that Maggie could have freed herself from Stephen by declaring that her whole heart was Philip’s but her lips would not utter that and she was silent. Ironically, she pleads with Stephen to help her in her resolve of remaining true to Lucy and Philip because, “I love you.” Professor Haight rightly concludes; ‘The evidence, fairly weighed, 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. The difficulty lies, not in believing that Maggie was borne along by the tide, ‘but that she could turn back when she did” (Gordon Haight)


      Love of Maggie makes a much better man of Stephen; his letter to Maggie, is not only sincere, but more natural than Philip’s rather rhetorical epistle. He is right in complaining that Maggie wanted to “crush all his hopes for the sake of a mere idea”.

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