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George Eliot. (1819–1880). The Mill on the Floss.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

V Criticisms and Interpretations

V. By W. D. Howells

IT is by her nature, complex, passionate, sensuous, by her sex, intellectualized and spiritualized, that Maggie Tulliver is most important to the reader. In her relations to her brother, which are apparently the chief interest of the book, she is interestingly and novelly studied; but these, though they involve the catastrophe, do not involve the climax. That is reached, as it seems to me, not when she and Tom are drowned together in the flood of the Floss, but when her reason and her conscience are provisionally overborne by her love for Stephen Guest, and she floats with him down a tide and out upon a sea more perilous than any inundation, and saves herself only by a powerful impulse of her will, which is almost a convulsion. The fruition of her love would have been a double treason, treason to her cousin Lucy, who was Guest’s betrothed, and treason to Philip Wakem, to whom she was herself pledged; and the sense of this blackened it with guilt, and turned it to despair, even while she yielded and yielded to the love of being loved. Never has an unhappy passion been more faithfully studied in a character with strength enough finally to forbid it; or more subtly felt from that first moment when Maggie begins to rejoice in her beauty because of her love for the man who loves it, till that last moment when she refuses to marry him, and goes back to suffer shame rather than to merit shame. Every step of the way is accurately and firmly traced up to that passage where Stephen Guest comes to ask her to row with him on the river, and from which there seems no retreat.…

It does not seem to me that the true logic of the late is Maggie’s death with Tom Tulliver, or Stephen’s marriage with Lucy. It is a forced touch where the husband and wife stand together beside the grave of the brother and sister; but in the novels, the best of the novels, fifty years ago, they forced their touches rather more than they do now. To kill people or to marry them is to beg the question; but into some corner the novelist is commonly driven who deals with a problem. It is only life that can deal masterfully with problems, and life does not solve them by referring them to another life or by stifling them with happiness. How life would have solved the problem of Maggie Tulliver I am not quite prepared to say; but I have my revolt against George Eliot’s solution. All the more I must own that the heroine’s character, from the sort of undisciplined, imaginative, fascinating little girl we see her at first, into the impassioned, bewildered, self-disciplined woman we see her at last, is masterly. Having given my opinion that her supreme expression is in her relation to her lover, I have my doubts, or at least my compunctions in behalf of her relation to her brother. Unquestionably the greatest pathos of the story appeals to us from her relation to her brother. The adoring dependence, the grieving indignation, the devotion, the revolt, the submission, and the reunion which make up her love for him is such a study of sisterly affection as I should not know where to match. The very conditions of her intellectual and emotional superiority involve a moral inferiority to the brute simplicity, the narrow integrity, the heroic truth of the more singly natured man. Maggie saw life more whole than Tom, but that part of it which he saw he discerned with a clearness denied to her large but cloudy vision. It is a great and beautiful story, which one reads with a helpless wonder that such a book should ever be in any wise superseded, or should not constantly keep the attention at least of those fitted to feel its deep and lasting significance.—From George Eliot’s “Maggie Tulliver and Hetty Sorrel,” in “Heroines of Fiction” (1901).