Monday, February 01, 2010
The End(s) of The Mill on the Floss
I’ve been re-reading George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss for a graduate seminar I’m offering this term (what luxury, to be reading five George Eliot novels in a row!) and I’m in love with it all over again, especially the end. Well, OK, not the very end, which is (as critics have been pointing out since 1860) jarring, confounding, and depressing. But the last several chapters thrill me--and as I read them this time, I’ve been trying to figure out why. They aren’t as beautifully written or evocative as the earlier parts of the book treating Tom and Maggie’s childhoods. There are some false notes of melodrama that betray, I think, some lingering uncertainty about authorial tone that would be resolved by the time Eliot wrote Middlemarch ("[she] glared at him like a wounded war-goddess” may be the worst of these). The machinery of the plot creaks a bit. Still, once we are launched into the turbulent seas of Maggie’s terrible dilemma, I feel that we are engaged, with her, in a struggle of genuine moral significance, a conflict over what the narrator aptly describes as “the shifting relation between passion and duty,” which, as she says, “is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it"--that is, once you recognize the complexity of the problem, its solution becomes more, rather than less, obscure. When Maggie drifts away with Stephen, she temporarily abandons “the labour of choice” that has made her life so burdensome to her so often before. What a relief, to stop deciding! “All yielding is attended with a less vivid consciousness than resistance,” the narrator observes; “it is the partial sleep of thought; it is the submergence of our own personality by another.” That soothing condition is illusory, however: “the morrow must bring back the old life of struggle.”
What follows on Maggie’s awakening is, precisely, struggle--not physical, but moral and philosophical. And here (perversely, perhaps) is where I think things get really exciting, because Eliot dares to present it to us as a debate between people with strong feelings but also strong intellects. This is not a lovers’ quarrel to be resolved by passionate embraces. Indeed, the powerful lure of passionate embraces and what other ties or values might nonetheless take precedence is precisely the issue. Even before they head out on the boat, Stephen and Maggie have argued about what one chapter title identifies as “the laws of attraction.” Stephen’s argument is that their feelings for each other are natural, that to ignore them is “unnatural” and “horrid,” that it is morally repugnant, even, for them to marry other people. In response, Maggie insists that, though love is natural, “pity and faithfulness and memory are natural too.” They reprise this argument later, Stephen proclaiming that “the feeling which draws us towards each other is too strong to be overcome: that natural law surmounts every other; we can’t help what it clashes with.” Maggie, however, remains true to her conviction that biology is not destiny, that we can choose whether to obey this “law”:
‘It is not so, Stephen--I’m quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again; but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty--we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no laws but the inclination of the moment.’"
‘We can’t choose happiness either for ourselves or for another: we can’t tell where that will lie. We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that, for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us--for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives.’
That natural law “is not the force that ought to rule us.” Steadfast in this resistance to his ‘great temptation,’ Maggie returns home--only to find, of course, that there are no rewards for choosing what is difficult except the bittersweet satisfaction of being true to “all that [her] past life has made dear and holy to [her].”
As has often been pointed out by critics, one way of reading Maggie’s situation is in the context provided by Eliot’s essay “The Antigone and Its Moral,” as a struggle representing the “antagonism of valid principles.” Morality would be easy, and worthless (as she argues in a review of a novel by Geraldine Jewsbury) if the right way were strewn with roses, or the wrong way not worth pursuing at all. It’s when we can see good on both sides that the “labour of choice” really begins, and though Maggie’s struggle would perhaps be more dramatically satisfactory if Tom and Stephen were both more deserving of her love, her perception of the principles at stake is not any less compelling for their inadequacies. The ending of the novel can be seen as suggesting the struggle cannot be resolved, though that conclusion is due as much to Maggie’s particular personal and historical circumstances as to any larger claim about the ‘relation between duty and passion.’ What I appreciate is the emphasis throughout on difficulty, and the absence of any concession to our impatience or preference for easy or romantic resolutions. As she says in the famous ‘men of maxims’ passage, “moral judgments must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.” That’s the work she requires of us.
One of the rewards she offers, though, is time in her company--which can be as funny as it is philosophical. Here’s a bit that nicely mingles those qualities:
But you have known Maggie a long while, and need to be told, not her characteristics, but her history, which is a thing hardly to be predicted even from the completest knowledge of characteristics. For the tragedy of our lives is not created entirely from within. ‘Character,’ says Novalis, in one of his questionable aphorisms--’character is destiny.’ But not the whole of our destiny. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was speculative and irresolute, and we have a great tragedy in consequence. But if his father had lived to a good old age, and his uncle had died an early death, we can conceive Hamlet’s having married Ophelia, and got through life with a reputation of sanity, notwithstanding many soliloquies, and some moody sarcasms towards the daughter of Polonius, to say nothing of the frankest incivility to his father-in-law.