Poised Above Pleasure or Pain: Some final thoughts on The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot’s novels usually affect me very deeply and The Mill on the Floss has been no exception. When I am in the midst of one of her books, I find myself steeling every free moment I can to read it and continually thinking about the characters and plots she so masterfully creates. The plight of Maggie Tulliver, as I mentioned in a previous post, has particularly captured my attention. Maggie is not like the other English women in St. Ogg’s; she is darker skinned, with dark eyes and dark, wild hair to match. Her personality is also quite different than other women as she experiences life with more passion and intensity than is appropriate for a proper, English young lady. She craves love, kindness and affection from her taciturn and stubborn family, especially her brother and her father.

When Maggie does finally experience an intense love that matches her own passion, it is for a self-confidant man from St. Ogg’s named Stephen Guest. But when they meet both she and the object of her love are tied to other people; Stephen is engaged to Maggie’s dear cousin, Lucy, and Maggie is bound to an old, childhood romance with Philip Wakem. The sexual tension and passion that Eliot builds into Maggie and Stephen’s encounters are the stuff of literary brilliance. The two are frequently thrown into social situations in which they take pleasure in one another’s company but try to resist the temptation of this passion. In the scene before their mutual feelings are revealed, Eliot writes about Maggie: “Even the coming pain could not seem bitter—she was ready to welcome it as a part of life, for life at this moment seemed a keen vibrating consciousness poised above pleasure or pain.”

In the culminating emotional scene between them, Stephen is trying to convince himself and Maggie that they should be together even though neither of them wants to cause what will be an inevitable pain to others in their lives. Stephen’s strongest argument, I think, is when he reminds Maggie that they will end up marrying their respective fiances under false pretenses and insincere feelings: “It is unnatural: we can only pretend to give ourselves to any one else. This is wrong in that too—there may be misery in it for them as well as for us. Maggie, you must see that—you do see that.” Maggie’s response will stand out in my mind as one of those great passages found in timeless literature:

O it is difficult—life is very difficult! It seems right to me sometimes that we should follow our strongest feeling;—but then, such feelings continually come across the ties that all our former life has made for us—the ties that have made others dependent on us—and could cut them in two. If love were quite easy and simple, as it might have been in paradise, and we could always see that one being first towards whom…I mean, if life did not make duties for us before love comes, love would be a sign that two people ought to belong to each other. But I see—I feel it is not so now: there are things we must renounce in life; some of us must resign love.”

It is so utterly tragic that when she finally feels the love she craves that Maggie must give it up. I keep thinking about that now clichéd Tennyson quote as I reread this paragraph: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Would Maggie really agree with this? Or would she rather have spared herself the pain that comes along with such a love?


Filed under British Literature, Classics

5 responses to “Poised Above Pleasure or Pain: Some final thoughts on The Mill on the Floss

  1. I always much preferred Maggie Tulliver (and Becky Sharp and Marian Halcombe) over the more traditional ‘feisty’ heroines like Jane Eyre or – heaven forbid! – Tess. Yes, life (and the Victorian society) does often get the best of them in the end, but how interesting the journey!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ali

    This is a wonderful post. I must read more of Eliot’s work. I mentioned on your earlier post that Middlemarch is one of my absolute favorite novels in the world. I only got a little into Daniel Deronda before abandoning it. This might be my next one. By the way, I know you love Middlemarch, too, so if you’re a podcast person, you might want to check out In Our Time. A few weeks ago they did an episode on Middlemarch. I thought it was fantastic, and I listened to it twice.

    Liked by 1 person

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