Maggie Tulliver: Divided Needs Represented in Diverse Relations
It is said that George Eliot’s style of writing deals with much realism. Eliot, herself meant by a “realist” to be “an artist who values the truth of observation above the imaginative fancies of writers of “romance” or fashionable melodramatic fiction.” (Ashton 19) This technique is artfully utilized in her writings in a way which human character and relationships are dissected and analyzed. In the novel The Mill on the Floss, Eliot uses the relationships of the protagonist of the story, Miss Maggie Tulliver, as a medium in which to convey various aspects of human social associations.
It seems that as a result of Maggie’s nature and of circumstances presented around her, that she is never able to have a connection with one person that satisfies her multifaceted needs and desires. Maggie is able, to some extent, to explore the various and occasionally conflicting aspects of her person with her relationships between other characters presented in the novel.
“From an early age, Maggie needs approval from men…Maggie is not shown in any deep relationship with a female friend.” (Ashton 83) A reader can explore into Maggie Tulliver’s person and her short development as a woman in four primary male associations: her father—Mr. Tulliver, her brother—Tom Tulliver, her friend and mentor—Philip Wakem and her dangerous passion with Steven Guest.
Maggie unconditionally loves her father although he has been the unconscious root of many of her misfortunes. “Tom’s and Maggie’s young lives are blighted by the gloom, poverty, disgrace and death of their father…Maggie is obliged by her father’s failure to leave school…It is the misfortune of a clever girl denied any activity other than domestic.” (Ashton 50) In the time period of the setting of the novel, women were regarded as male property, to take care of household matters and without skill, originality and intelligence of a man. Mr. Tulliver cared deeply for his daughter’s future but inadvertently oppressed Maggie through his views of women. This idea is represented in his dialog with Mr. Riley of Maggie’s “unnatural” intelligence: “It’s a pity but what she’d been then lad—she’d ha’been a match for the lawyers, she would. It’s the wonderful’st thing.” (Eliot 68) Mr. Tulliver by nature was stubborn, opinionated and led his family to disgrace as a result. However, there is a close bond between him and Maggie for which he had always protected her and favored her over Tom, as much as would permit in that age. Maggie always felt a responsibility to please her father and to never cause him any grievances. She was loyal to him at times that he seemed to not return her affection “How she wished that [her father] would stoke her head, or give her some sign that he was soothed by the sense that he had a daughter who loved him!” (Eliot 371) When her father was in the lowest point of self-ruin and was under the scrutiny of the family, Maggie took upon the position of the protector and loyally defended her protector. “Her father had always defended and excused her, and her loving remembrance of his tenderness was a force within her that would enable her to do or bear anything for his sake.” (Eliot 284)
Maggie’s brother, Tom, is the person of whom she was the most fond of. She turned the cheek on some of his unkind actions toward her in the realization of a strong, unbreakable bond. This excerpt from “Brother and Sister” (Ashton 90) portrays the type of relationship Maggie and Tom Tulliver have.
Of forty inches, bound to show no dread,
And I the girl that puppy-like now ran,
Now lagged behind my brother’s larger tread.
“Every episode in the early chapters show Maggie’s high hopes of pleasure being dashed by disagreements with Tom.” (Ashton 75) “Tom indeed was of opinion that Maggie was a silly little thing: all girls were silly…still he was very fond of his sister and always meant to take care of her.” (Eliot 92) Even with this mutual love, Tom is extremely harsh of Maggie, whose only concern is to please him and maintain closeness with him throughout their lives. In many instances, Tom would feel his authority being threatened by Maggie and bear insensitive punishments upon her. He shows his rage and after his own personal interpretation and feeling, giving Maggie no chance to defend herself. The worst punishment he could evoke upon Maggie is to estrange himself from her and banish him from [their] home. This action in their troubled relationship causes Tom to be callous and harsh and raises the possibility for Maggie to be isolated in the world. “You will find no home with me…You have been a curse to your best friends…I wash my hands of you forever. You don’t belong to me!” (Eliot 612)
Till the dire years whose awful name is change
Had grasped our soul still yearning in divorce,
And pitiless shaped them in two forms that range
Two elements which sever their life’s course.
This excerpt taken from the same poem is significant of the divided views and paths of these two siblings. The only thing Maggie desired was to have no “cloud between herself and Tom.” (Eliot 577) Despite all of the hardships that Tom had inflicted in Maggie, the possibility of his danger during the flood sparked the natural protective nature in Maggie as she laboriously fought the river to Tom’s house in a small boat. As seen before in times of great dispair, they put aside their differences and forgave each other without saying a word. In their unfortunate ending, their mutual love was shown as “an embrace never to be parted” (Eliot 655) “Tom and Maggie must be reconciled in Death, where they could not be in life.” (Ashton 92)
One of the major arguments between Tom and Maggie resulted in her friendship with Philip Wakem. Tom furiously hated Philip as a result of his father, Mr. Wakem, which Tom regarded as an accomplice to his father’s and his family’s downfall. Maggie was given strict orders to stay clear of all Wakem accompaniments. However, good-natured Maggie saw goodness in Philip that he was not associated with his father’s actions. They developed a close friendship where Philip resultantly developed a deep love for Maggie that exceeded the bounds of their comradeship. “Philip is from their schooldays a brotherly figure for Maggie, a loving substitute for Tom…Maggie’s feelings for him will fall short of passion; though he is a more satisfactory brother figure.” (Ashton 92) In this relationship, Maggie finds the love she has yearned for from her own brother, however it is complicated from external issues and irrational thought of a lover status by Philip. Philip provided education and moral support for Maggie during their time together and she regarded him very dear. Philip can relate to Maggie’s inferior status as a woman because he has been plagued by a physical deformity and therefore is inferior to society. “He is marganalized by his deformity as women are marginalized by their gender.” (Carlisle 7) As their relationship progressed, it is threatened by another force: the appearance of Steven Guest.
Steven Guest can provide the aspect of passion for Maggie that Philip cannot provide. In their first interaction Steven felt an instant attraction for her, as she for him. “For one instant Stephen could not conceal his astonishment at the sight of this tall, dark-eyed nymph with her jet-back coronet of hair, the next, Maggie felt herself, for the first time in her life, receiving the tribute of a very deep blush and a very deep bow from a person towards she herself was conscious of timidity.” (Eliot 484) Steven complicates Maggie’s life because his attraction is also irrational—he is courting her loving and dear cousin. Maggie is aware of the danger in these passions and takes great effort not to partake in them, on an external display. Maggie stated that she would rather take death than to participate in temptations that could hurt so many people: Herself, Steven, Lucy—her cousin and Philip. How little she did not know of the disastrous effects it would have on a more broad scale. As time progresses, both Steven and Maggie find it more difficult to hide such attractions for each other and eventually Steven makes a thoughtless gesture that the two of them should be together…forever. Maggie’s conscious and her inability to directly cause grief to her loved ones overcomes her strong sexual attraction for Steven and the prospects of a free life with him. This action causes the complexities of their relation to be exposed to the general public, the public to pass ill judgment on her and begins the second major dispute between her and her and Tom. Steven is said to “be a catalyst in the primary drama between brother and sister” (Ashton 52) This is an accurate statement because tension was already established between Maggie and Tom and if it were not for Steven, it would have been another thing to cause further conflicts. “It is perhaps worth remarking that he is the literary descendant to other energetic, simple, sexually powerful men in novels who create quite complex problems for women whose alternative lovers are perhaps more sensitive.” (Byatt 690)
Despite of her short and problematic life, Maggie Tulliver has the opportunities to explore various aspects of her personality and womanhood in her variety of relationships especially with male characters. She was able cherish the forgiving love of a father, which made so much impact on her life. She was able to experience virtually unpressured friendship and intellectual stimulation from her beloved friend Philip. She experienced a glimpse of sexual identity and attraction with her relations with Steven Guest that unfortunately caused them both much pain. Maggie was also allowed to experience the type of love that can exist between siblings, despite all of their disagreements, Maggie and Tom were able to realize that their bond was deeper than could have been imagined. George Eliot artfully created such relationships in this novel in a successful method to analyze and probe into the complexities of human interaction. This comes along with the message that it may be possible to have everything that one may want in life, just not all at once or at the same time.
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