Renouncing of Self to Satisfy Who, You or Others?
An essay on The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Renouncing of Self to Satisfy Who, You or Others?
George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss is a biographical novel of Eliot’s life experience from girlhood to young adulthood. The main protagonist is Maggie Tulliver, a rebellious and yet clever girl who finds herself in conflict with the people around her as she grows into a young woman. Maggie, determined to please her family, sets her mind on renouncing her worldly desires, and in doing so denies her self of her own fulfillment. By embracing the idea of renunciation, Maggie Tulliver has decided that she can use the tragedies she has suffered to view her life in a new light; however, in doing so she has given up on her chance at being truly happy.
Maggie Tulliver has always been an outcast in her own family, and the only member who does not fault her is her father. Mrs. Tulliver can’t associate Maggie as her daughter because Maggie looks nothing like her. Maggie has darker eyes, hair, and skin than her blond and paled-skinned mother, who calls Maggie “half an idiot” because of the peculiarities of Maggie’s behavior. Mrs. Tulliver says she believes this of Maggie because:
For if I send her up-stairs to fetch anything, she forgets what she’s gone for, an’ perhaps ‘ull sit down on the floor i’ the sunshine an’ plait her hair an’ sing to herself like a Bedlam creature’, all the while I’m waiting for her down-stairs” That niver run I’ my family, thank God, no more nor a brown skin as makes her look like a mulatter.” (13)
Maggie’s father, on the other hand, is rather fond of his daughter. He loves her personality; however, he finds Maggie’s cleverness of no use to her since she is a girl, and it will all come to trouble. The rest of Maggie’s family, specifically her mother’s side, finds Maggie’s behavior as rash, her darker skin unnatural, and her cleverness annoying. Maggie has affection for her older brother Tom and seeks his approval in her daily activities. His opinion is what she cares about the most, and she wishes that he had the type of unwavering love for her that she does for him.
Throughout the first half of the novel, Maggie has disappointed her mother and her mother’s side of the family by chopping off her hair, which she thought would please them, forgetting to feed her brother’s rabbits, which all die, and pushing her cousin Lucy into the mud. The repercussions of these affairs are not to Maggie’s advantage, and she is reprimanded for her faults by the maternal side of her family as they tell her she is nothing but trouble. Maggie feels as if she does not belong and runs away to live with the gypsies, whom she had been told that she looked like. Upon seeing that she did not fit in with them and could not become their gypsy queen, Maggie is taken home to her father, who is happy to have her back even though he did not know she was missing. Maggie finds that her life is painful and that her wild and free nature has been some of the cause for this pain. After her father loses his case against Mr. Wakem, Mr. Tulliver loses his family’s home and most of all his family’s pride. It is her father’s downfall that finally causes Maggie to seek some serenity in life and to feel that renouncing will solve her problems.
What does it mean to renounce? The dictionary defines renouncing as giving up or putting something aside voluntarily. Although Maggie Tulliver finds solace in renouncing her earthly desires, it would seem that she has renounced desire partly because of the tragedy that has happened to her family and in part because she is outcast from them. It would seem that she has renounced desire because of her situation in life. Does this mean that she has done so voluntarily or was she forced by her nature and family to do so to become what she thought would make her happy? By choosing to follow Thomas a’ Kempis’ idea of renunciation, Maggie has found a way to take what has happened in her life and look at it in a new light:
It flashed through her like the suddenly apprehended solution of a problem, that all the miseries of her young life had come from fixing her heart on her own pleasure, as if that were the central necessity of the universe; and for the first time she saw the possibility of shifting the position from which she looked at the gratification of her own desires—of taking her stand out of herself, and looking at her own life as an insignificant part of a divinely-guided whole. (290)
She chooses Thomas a’ Kempis because she can focus on the self-sacrificing and goal oriented part of this religion. She thought, “Renunciation seemed to her the entrance into that satisfaction, which she (Maggie) had long been craving in vain” (291). But whose satisfaction was she craving, her own or her family’s? For the first time in her young life, it would seem that Maggie’s mother finally approves of her daughter. Mrs. Tulliver, “felt the change in her with a sort of puzzled wonder that Maggie should be ‘growing up so good;’ it was amazing that this once ‘contrairy’ child was become so submissive, so backward to assert her own will” (294). Despite the approval of Mrs. Tulliver, Mr. Tulliver is disappointed. Mr. Tulliver had always loved Maggie’s cleverness and spoiled her even when she did stupid things, so when she became unlike herself he was saddened.
Tom, who Maggie wanted to please excessively, was never really ever pleased with her at all. He is one of the reasons she renounces because she wants him to love her unconditionally. When Maggie forgets to feed Tom’s rabbits and they die, she is distraught. She even offers to pay Tom back for the loss of his pets, but he tells her that he doesn’t love her, even as she begs for his forgiveness. Another example is when Maggie and Tom share a dessert. Tom cuts the dessert in half but one was a little better than the other half because it had jam running out of the puff. Maggie tells Tom that he can have the better piece, and he tells her she must choose by shutting her eyes to be fair. By chance Maggie chooses the better piece. Tom is bitter about Maggie’s luck, and she offers it to him again, yet he still refuses. When Maggie gobbles up her piece of dessert Tom replies, “O, you greedy thing!” and is angry that she did not offer him a bit of hers. Maggie wonders why Tom did not ask for a piece because she offered to give it to him twice. Tom continues to make Maggie feel inferior and unloved throughout the rest of the novel by excluding her from his play date with Lucy and trying to get her to swear to never see Philip Wakem again. Since Philip is the son of the man that brought his family to ruin, Tom does not want Maggie to associate with him. However, it is Philip who nourishes Maggie’s intellect and gives her the things she loves most-- books and enlightening conversations.
Philip is an outlet for Maggie’s intelligence and a way for her to enjoy what her family considers to be annoying, and he does not feel that Maggie’s renunciation is wise. Philip Wakem has a physical deformity, and Maggie is attracted to him because of this. Maggie it would seem “had rather tenderness for deformed things” (177). Yet, Philip also had other attracting characteristics; he was intelligent, talented, and clever, as described by Maggie (183). The two carry on a friendship as children, and Philip is very fond of Maggie. When Maggie and Philip are young adults, Philip’s fondness develops into love. Even though Maggie is not supposed to see Philip, they arrange to meet in the Red Deeps, where he shares books and music with her. Philip has not been around for Maggie’s renunciation and finds her unlike herself. He tells Maggie, “It is mere cowardice to see safety in negations. No character becomes strong in that way. You will be thrown into the world some day, and then every rational satisfaction of your nature that you deny now, will assault you like a savage appetite” (329). Tom later discovers the secrecy in which Maggie and Philip see each other, and he wants his sister to swear on the Bible that she will never see Philip again, or he will tell their father. Maggie says she cannot do this but adds, “I give you my word not to meet him or write to him again without your knowledge. That is the only thing I will say. I will put my hand on the Bible if you like” (343). After the oath is sworn, Tom and Maggie go to look for Philip. On finding him walking in the Red Deeps, Tom insults and threatens Philip while Maggie looks on in disgust. It is unlike her character to sit by and watch Tom and do nothing. She has always spoken her mind and defended the people she loves, including her father and her brother. But, it seems that she is too worried about pleasing her father and Tom than her own true feelings, so she listens as Philip is ridiculed. When Maggie finally does speak she says, “It was for my father’s sake Philip” (346). Renouncing her worldly desires causes Maggie to renounce her nature and to act as she wouldn’t normally act. This is her downfall.
After the confrontation in the Red Deeps Maggie and Philips relationship is in jeopardy. Maggie and Philip’s relationship continues to diminish as Maggie continues her life of struggle and self-deprivation. Maggie goes to school again and becomes a teacher. After her father dies, her mother and brother leave Dorlcotte Mill. Maggie’s cousin Lucy invites her to come and stay with her so that Maggie may be exposed to culture and leisure, and here she meets Lucy’s betrothed, the charming and handsome Stephen Guest, and where she is reunited with Philip Wakem. There is an instant attraction between Stephen and Maggie, but they try not to act on it. Maggie, being who she is, would not dare cross the line of friendship with Stephen for the sake of Lucy and Philip’s feelings. Presently Stephen cannot hold back his feelings after he has gotten to know Maggie and expresses his desire to marry her. Maggie tells him, “…there are things we must renounce in life; some of us must resign love. Many things are difficult and dark to me; but I see one thing quite clearly – that I must not, cannot seek my own happiness by sacrificing others” (450). Maggie does love Stephen but feels that she would be punished and their love would be “poisoned” if they were to indulge in it. Even though the two try desperately to stay apart, they are thrown together by mere chance when Lucy conspires to get Philip and Maggie alone together on a boat trip. Lucy miscalculates and Philip ends up staying home while she decides to go to town and shop, thus leaving Maggie and Stephen to go alone. After contemplating the trip they decide to go anyway. Maggie gets lost in her thoughts as Stephen rows them along the river, and when she revives she notices that they have gone past their stop. Maggie is at first flabbergasted. She wants to go back, but Stephen insists they continue on. Despite a lot of pleading and begging, Maggie has silently said yes in continuing to the next town with Stephen. Even though her situation as an innocent has been compromised, Maggie has made this decision. She is finally thinking with her heart until they arrive at Torby, where she tells Stephen that she cannot marry him. She says, “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 in ourselves in the present moment or whether we will renounce that, for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us…” (477). Maggie has renounced her chance at true love.
Sacrificing her desires and leaving Stephen causes Maggie to go back to the one place she loves, home. She goes back home to Tom at Dorlcotte Mill, where he will not let her stay. To Tom, Maggie has disgraced herself and her family by coming home unmarried and without Stephen. He does not care that Maggie’s heart had controlled her actions and that is was her nature to do what her heart wanted; yet, she rejected her desires at the thought of Lucy and Philip’s feelings. The one person that Maggie has loved more than anyone else and wanted to approve of her has rejected her. In Tom’s rejection, Maggie is devastated once again. However, Mrs. Tulliver sympathizes with her daughter and leaves with her. The townspeople speak of the scandal, and Maggie is looked down upon. The only people who defend or believe her are surprisingly Mrs. Glegg, Dr. Kenn, and Philip. Stephen eventually writes to Lucy and Dr. Kenn telling them of the events that occurred between him Maggie, putting the blame on himself. When Lucy is well enough to leave home, she sneaks to see Maggie and is very compassionate, not blaming her for what has transpired. In the end, Stephen still wants to marry Maggie, and she yet again goes back and forth between wanting him to come and not wanting it. She finally burns his letter, and that is when she realizes there is a flood upon her.
The flood at Maggie’s feet is like the flood of emotions she has been going through throughout the novel. When she sees the water at her feet, she thinks about her mother and brother. Maggie wakes up Bob Jankin, whom she has come to reside with, and heads out to the mill to see if her mother and brother need her help. “Maggie seized the oar, and stood up again to paddle; but the now ebbing tide added to the swiftness of the river, and she was carried along beyond the bridge” (519). Maggie made the decision to go against the odds and the river’s current to save her family. At last, she made a conscious decision based on her wants to make a sacrifice for others instead of making sacrifices she did not want to make, but had chosen to. This choice to self-sacrifice was a desire that Maggie held in her heart. She loves her family and wants to save them. This time her sacrifice was not forced by the hands of others but by the heart of Maggie. However, by this time in the novel, it is too late for Maggie to do anything other than die. Maggie has chosen her path of renunciation, and it leads her to renounce love and happiness. She has no other reason to live, and so she drowns with her beloved brother. This renunciation of desires may have seemed to be the best way for Maggie to become in tune with her family, but it was the worst way for her to lose herself.
In conclusion, at the expense of others Maggie Tulliver’s happiness is sacrificed. It was unnatural for her to be someone she was not and thus caused her more pain and suffering at the hands of loved ones. She gave up her one chance at love for the sake of family and friends, and even her life. At least, her last sacrifice was by her own free will, whereas the other ones were forced upon her. By renouncing herself, Maggie Tulliver was no longer the clever and witty child her father once knew. She was a lonesome young woman with nothing else to live for.