Poetry Porch: Forgiveness


What’s Absent in The Mill on the Floss

by Nadya Aisenberg 

                                             Throughout all eternity 
                                             I forgive you, you forgive me.
                                                                      —William Blake

       The flood of critical attention George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss has received, from the time of its publication in 1862 down to our own, comes close to rivaling the great flood which provides the novel’s denouement. Historians have seen it as a reflection of that moment when England was shifting from an agrarian to an industrial economy, attributing Eliot’s infusion of sentiment into the landscape as nostalgia for what is already passing. When Eliot declares, “Since the Reformation, an imaginative religion has not been possible,” she provides grounds to read the novel as a period chronicle—reason in the ascendancy, imagination taking flight into the realm of art. (The fact that all the “good” characters in it—Lucy, Maggie and Philip, love music, lends credence to this view. But little importance attaches to art in the world of St. Oggs, the locale of the story.) Other commentators, more psychologically oriented, have interpreted it as fictionalized autobiography, pointing to Eliot’s long poem sequence entitled “Brothers and Sisters,” an well as to one of the novel’s working titles, “Sister Maggie,” which privileges this fraternal relationship. The novelist’s long estrangement from her brother Isaac, caused by his disapproval of her common-law marriage to George Lewes, supports this perspective.
        Feminists have held The Mill on the Floss in particular regard—which adolescent girl has not identified with Maggie Tulliver’s rebellious, misunderstood, quick-witted, “noble” nature?—and indeed Eliot herself, some say, created Maggie as her alter ego. Whether or not this is so, inequity of gender arrangements constitutes a powerful argument of the book. Maggie is constrained by domestic duties which oppress her spirit and limit her horizons—the identical problem of frustrated aspiration faced by Dorothea Brooke, Eliot’s heroine in Middlemarch. Maggie is not sent off to be educated as her brother Tom is, though she is hungry for the world of books whereas he is bored and impatient with learning; no career or profession is open to her; she does not inherit property; she has no independent income except the pittance she makes school-teaching for two years. Maggie, stung by Tom’s pride in his role as provider after bankruptcy and an incapacitating accident overtake his father, reminds him of her position as a woman: “[Y]ou are a man, Tom, and have power, and can do something in the world.” Because of gender roles, Maggie feels, as the story progresses, that Tom’s faults have been “redeemed” by his payment of his father’s debts; but what can redeem hers? Only the ultimate sacrifice of her life, it seems.
        The critical foci touched on above have all revealed aspects of the novel well worth reflection. I am not proposing another perspective from which to view The Mill on the Floss. Rather, I want to call attention to a sub-text which has been curiously neglected; I want to identify an absence, not a presence in the novel by which it may be glossed. My purpose is examine the moral impasse at the core of Maggie’s world which, I argue, subverts the intended resolution and leaves us with an absence.
        In the course of The Mill on the Floss, the word “forgiveness” and the idea of forgiveness are raised but never developed. They do not take their place either in the maturation of character or in the turnings of plot. The Mill on the Floss teems with conflict, verbal and physical, external and internal. (Most novels before modernism employed conflict to drive their plots; there is nothing exceptional in that. What is exceptional is that most novels don’t keep dropping “forgiveness” into the dialogue, and then sliding around it.) This work is most definitely not a variation on the parable of the Prodigal Son (or Daughter), though Maggie herself invokes that analogy at the novel’s beginning. Maggie is the only character steadfastly connected to forgiveness; even as a young child, forgiveness, tied intimately to love, is a profound concern for her.
        Let’s look at a variety of instances in which “forgiveness,” both as word and idea enter the narrative, and the hollow ring they acquire in the course of events. The instances on which I have chosen to focus occur in the relationship of the two basic adversarial pair, Maggie and Tom, and Mr. Tulliver and Mr. Wakem.
        The novel commences with Tom’s return home from his tutor’s, Maggie’s confession that because she has forgotten to provide water for his rabbits, the animals have died. She pleads for forgiveness for her negligence, crying to Tom, “I’d forgive you, if you forgot anything . . . . I’d forgive you and love you . . . O please forgive me, Tom, my heart will break . . . .” But Tom withholds forgiveness and runs away from her to play elsewhere. Maggie retreats to a hideaway in the attic and does not later come down for tea, reflecting, “If she went down to Tom now, would he forgive her? Perhaps her father would be there, and he would take her part. But, she wanted Tom to forgive her because he loved her, not because his father told him.” When Tom, following his father’s instruction, does seek her out in the attic, she again throws herself upon his mercy. Finally Tom, his anger and desire for punition subsiding in the long afternoon, (not having advanced yet to that general adamancy he will acquire as he grows older), gives her some cake and escorts her down to tea. But what we meet here, in this early conflict of will between sister and brother, is much more than sibling rivalry. It will harden into irreconciable conflict; two temperaments vastly dissimilar, becoming more of what they promise to be—one, Maggie, always regretful, repenting of flaws (“I didn’t mean it,” “I didn’t think,”) struggling to do things better, and as an adult, veering, unaided, between duty and passion; the other, Tom, sincerely convinced of his rightness, the justice of any position he espouses, unimaginative and pragmatic, who honors duty above all. The pattern, established early and maintained throughout the novel—Maggie’s contrition confronting Tom’s disbelief and begrudging acceptance—derives in large part from his undeviating faith in himself as an agent of justice. His reasoning is, If you haven’t committed a wrong, you don’t need to be forgiven. Why can’t others refrain from error, and then they won’t need to be forgiven either? In a clash of later years, Maggie reiterates her childhood charge: “He [Tom] was very slow to forgive her, no matter how sorry she might have been.” (Unlike the father who joyfully welcomes the Prodigal Son back home, Tom, when head of the family, does not permit Maggie to take her place in the Tulliver household). In a still later instance, she judges, “He was cruel.” So that yes, by Book V, when both children are grown, Maggie’s summation of their relation, a powerful element in the moral impasse of the novel, is accusatory: “But you have always enjoyed punishing me—you have always been hard and cruel to me: even when I was a little girl, and loved you better than any one else in the world, you would let me go crying to bed without forgiving me.”
        Maggie, for her part, retains her personal conjunction of love and forgiveness as she grows up. When a small girl visiting her brother at his tutor’s, she remarks to Philip Wakem, also a tutee at Mr. Snelling’s, that she believes he loves her more than Tom does. As a young woman of nineteen, Maggie, still coupling love and forgiveness, contrasts brother and friend and arrives at a similar conclusion: “You [Philip] would have loved me well enough to bear with me, and forgive me everything.” Philip, the androgynous male in the novel, is unlike any of the other characters. He is an artist and Europeanized. He is also a humpback and able to understand the pain of others through the rejection he has suffered. Tom, for instance, as the masculine principle personified, scorns Philip not only as the son of his father’s enemy, Wakem, but because disability exempts Philip from “manly” sports.
        The reader is disposed at first to find Maggie and Tom’s father, Mr. Tulliver, congenial, a character familiar to readers from English fiction—bluff, hearty, a country fellow. He is spontaneous, (like Maggie, who is likened to his side of the family), he has a residue of sentiment toward his impoverished sister Gritty, and he appreciates Maggie, for whom his affectionate term is “the young wench.” But as the novel progresses, we see Mr. T. pagan in his thirst for revenge, blindly obeying rage and pride as if he were the hero of a Greek tragedy or an Elizabethan revenge drama. When he agrees to remain at the mill as manager for the new owner, Wakem, after losing this property through bankruptcy, (a loss precipitated by a rash lawsuit he undertook), Tulliver may experience a moment of “renunciation and submissiveness” but it is followed by a “violent struggle” of the mind. Within the short space of the next two pages, Tulliver swears “I won’t forgive him [Wakem]” three times; he summons his son to solemnly inscribe, in the family Bible, his curse upon Wakem. Not satisfied, he exacts a promise from Tom to uphold his malediction: “And you mind this, Tom—you never forgive him neither, if you mean to be my son.” Slightly afterwards, meeting Wakem upon the road and taking as intentional insult Wakem’s correction upon his management, Tulliver horsewhips his employer in what the author/narrator describes as “a frenzy of triumphant vengeance” and Tom sees as “a mad outbreak of his father’s long-smothered hate.” Lastly, when Maggie entreats him as he lies dying, “But father, dear father . . . you forgive him [Wakem]—you forgive everyone now?” Tulliver replies, “No, my wench. I don’t forgive him . . . What is forgiving to do? I can’t love a raskill . . . Does God forgive raskills . . . but if He does, He won’t be hard on me.” Forgiveness is God’s alone, implies the miller, something beyond the scope of human nature. For Mr. Tulliver and Tom, forgiving necessitates forgetting, a preemptive assumption if there ever was one. Both the written inscription of the curse, and the vow extracted from Tom to honor it for his lifetime, preclude forgiveness. As Tom reminds Maggie in an subsequent argument, “I don’t forget,” explaining why he remains bound by this oath.
        George Eliot, as narrator, pronounces the final judgment on Tulliver herself. “Certain seeds which are required to find a nidus [a place where spores and seeds develop] for themselves under unfavorable circumstances, have been supplied by nature with an apparatus of hooks, so they will get a hold on very unreceptive surfaces. The spiritual seed which had been scattered over Mr. Tulliver had apparently been destitute of any corresponding provision, and had slipped off to the wind again, from a total absence of hooks.”
        Though the author has given Tulliver likeable attributes, she has not exempted him from the material, provincial, “emmet-like” character of the villagers of St. Oggs. She denies him any spiritual sense. And indeed, the one time the miller asks for forgiveness he refers to his worldly state, “You [Mrs. Tulliver] must forgive me if you’re worse off than you expected to be.” And Mrs. Tulliver belongs to the reasoning of this world; it is the loss of her possessions she mourns.
        Mr. Tulliver never repents his violent flogging of Wakem; his sense of righteous indignation, his injured pride, justify him in his own mind. His bewilderment as events toss him about, compounded by his own faulty judgment, ill equips him to tackle misfortune, except with the rage of victim. “The world is too many for me,” Tulliver’s rather pathetic, restated admission, brings him no closer to understanding his own culpability, which arises from his intransigence and temper, but he only emphasizes the malignity of fate.
        The two major breaches of relation in The Mill on the Floss, (augmented by minor ones such as that between the unforgiving Aunt Glegg and the rash Mr. Tulliver), those between Tom and Maggie and between Mr. Tulliver and Mr. Wakem, can only be resolved by final catastrophe given the terms of the novel. The novel unfolds deterministically; the force of the ending, (La Forza del Destino), is that of an unstoppable force of nature, a flood. And indeed, Chapter XIII is entitled “Borne along by the tide.” Comments Maggie, apropos of reading Defoe’s novel The Pirate, “no one could make a happy ending out of that book.” This judgment applies equally to The Mill on the Floss. The flood of emotion which sweeps Maggie along, the flood of rage which engulfs Tulliver and Wakem, culminate in the evocation of the biblical flood at the conclusion of the novel. Eliot supplies the reader with numerous adumbrations of the final outcome—Mrs. Tulliver frequently fears for Maggie and Tom’s safety as they play near the river; villagers call up from memory a previous flood about which Maggie and Tom learn from their father; the quarrel between Mr. Tulliver and Mr. Wakem originates in a dispute over water rights; Maggie and Stephen’s disastrous elopement takes place in a boat. When the mill changes hands, passing from Tulliver to Wakem, the superstitious villagers mutter darkly that it’s a bad omen, that the river will rise to protest this upset in the established order of things. Finally, Eliot explicitly instructs the reader midway through the story, “Maggie’s destiny, then, is at present hidden, and we must wait for it to reveal itself like the course of an unmapped river [emphasis added] . . . and that for all rivers there is the same final home . . . .” That home is the loss of selfhood, of ego, rivers merging into the great ocean. We might say, as nemesis triumphs over sympathy, the mills of God grind slowly.
        The novel suggests strongly that the final drowning of Maggie and Tom, her rescue attempt unavailing, is intended as a resolution. Eliot composes an epitaph for their tombstone, “In their death they were not divided.” Literally, this is true; the author has brought the novel full circle. Children together, M. and T. finally perish together, after a long-standing rift. The fact that water is a symbol of rebirth ostensibly supports this interpretation. But surely there is something emotionally unconvincing about this finale; it is a conclusion, not a persuasive resolution. Something has been left out.
        In a determined world, there is no place for forgiveness, which is an act of individual free will. The structural “unity,” beginning and ending the work with M. and T. together, cannot alter the fact that they had not been reconciled and reunited before death. Tom had, to the contrary, held unswervingly to his judgment that her abortive elopement with Stephen deserved banishment from her family home. Nor does Maggie forget, until the scene of the flood, that in the shared childhood which the author invokes in the last few lyrical pages, Tom, harsh and judgmental, had tormented her; indeed, he was one of the miseries which induced her to run away to the gypsies. Moreover, the gendering of their lives kept them apart. Tom, finally owner of the mill, is planted firmly back in the world of his origins, he regains an established place in the community. Their mother, after a brief interval with her evicted daughter, returns to keep house for Tom in that “old home” from which he has banned Maggie. Maggie, however, though at least as sensible as Tom of ties to home, family, countryside, is exiled first by the teaching duties she assumes to earn money, and then, after her elopement, she is doomed to “forever sink [another prefiguring of the drowning] and . . . wander vaguely.”
        Had geographical or economic circumstance occasioned the separation between Tom and Maggie, it could have been bridged; rather, the responsibility for its continuance lies with Tom’s failure of forgiveness. It is the “resolution” which seems circumstantial or adventitious, despite the book’s circular movement and symbolic foreshadowing. When Maggie arrives to row Tom away from the flooded mill, he reverts to his childish nickname for her, Magsie. This, and Tom’s certainty that Maggie would come for him, (a reader biased against him might call that certainty smug), are all we are offered to indicate his state of mind at the end of The Mill on the Floss. Is this adequate to indicate a resolution or the merest scrap of an offering? (Certainly, his desire to escape death cannot help but make him welcome her!) Maggie forgives Tom everything, from the fullness of that “noble” character with which Eliot endows her. Tom has, to the point of death, forgiven no one, neither Wakem nor Maggie. These were their starting positions, forgiving, unforgiving, from which their characters do not, and seemingly can not, deviate. The Mill on the Floss is a novel of destiny.
        If there isn’t much character development to Maggie and Tom, though events teach them both hardship, it’s not just because they die before we might expect time to mature them. It’s partly because they cannot advance beyond the past. Though Tom’s sense of responsibility may be mature, he retains his stern narrowness; Maggie never loses her childish impetuosity. We recall here, too. Maggie’s wish that time could be arrested, that she and Tom could remain as children always, in their familiar landscape, with her natural affection holding sway over them. Additionally, there isn’t much character development because both characters remain immured in sexual difference. The principle of feminine self-sacrifice, or what one critic has termed “the inherited morality of female suffering,” which governs the ending, could have been altered by the introduction of forgiveness. If forgiveness had entered the scenario, it might have been possible for Tom and Maggie to establish a new moral contract (or for Tulliver and Wakem in their turn to do so). But “God has taken care of me, to bring me to you,” Maggie calls to Tom as she rows the rescue boat toward him. The principle of self-renunciation, joined to predestination, triumphs. Her love is victorious over his implacability; but the inequity remains. A catastrophe has to occur, because how else would her “undefinable sense of reconcilement” be brought about? “[W]hat quarrel,” she asks herself as she approaches the flooded mill, “what harshness, what unbelief in each other can subsist in the presence of a great calamity?” Maggie may believe that the flood “washes clean” the slate on which all their bitter disputes had been recorded. But in fact, the reader has no evidence that Tom shares this feeling. Precisely because their mutual disbelief and mistrust would break out anew if they landed upon some distant Ararat, the brother and sister cannot be allowed to survive the flood. The resolution will not survive survival.
        Self-renunciation and submission, concepts Maggie acquires reading Thomas à Kempis during her religious phase, appeal to her as a way of redemption from the abiding sense of guilt she carries from childhood, always “the naughty child.” This is where Maggie’s “goodness,” “innocence,” and “integrity,” terms the author uses to delineate her character, conflate gender roles and spirituality. Virginia Woolf saw Maggie’s longing for “perfect goodness” as sharing in “the deep feminine passion for goodness.” Gender inequity obtains not only in education, economic responsibility, property rights, but in moral expectations.
        Lucy, Stephen’s fiancée, pictured by the George Eliot as a “little blond angel-head,” is an Angel in the House before Virginia Woolf made the term so familiar. A two-dimensional character, her unfailingly angelic disposition allows Maggie, contrite and grieving after her elopement with Stephen, to predict, “Lucy will believe me and forgive me,” and Lucy characteristically does. Even the nomenclature reinforces the notion that there must be something about forgiveness that is both suprahuman and confined to the female sex for Lucy, derived from Lucia, the Saint of Light and therefore of the blind. Maggie’s flaw is that she is indeed “blind,” unable to attach consequence to deed. In the event, however, Lucy’s unconditional forgiveness comes too late in the novel to change character or reverse plot lines. Lucy’s generosity, comforting as it is to Maggie, does not open up a channel for forgiveness in the novel as a whole. The full spate of the river in flood intervenes.
        To forgive and to be forgiven is to be enabled to get beyond the past, to develop fully as Maggie and Tom never do. Importantly, Maggie never forgives herself for injuring Lucy and Stephen. There simply isn’t time in the novel for her to achieve wholeness; her nature, though “noble,” sundered, as we learn in her agonizing choice between Philip (bonds of affection and duty) and Stephen (passion). The terms of Maggie’s battle between Philip and Stephen are hard for Eliot to present as equally forceful, since Victorian convention disallowed the full description of a young girl’s passion. Recalling herself to duty as from a trance-like state, Maggie relinquishes Stephen; but the stony ground of duty on which Stephen’s romantic arguments fall, does not suggest fertile ground for future happiness. So that another reason why the “peace” Maggie feels at the novel’s watery end seems incomplete is that the conflicts of her “sundered” nature have not been worked out but dissolved, the scenes of their enactment literally obliterated by the flood.
        Eliot’s evident sympathy for Maggie capitulates to her belief in judgment and expiation; sympathy, or empathy, which might lead to forgiveness, yields to fate. Eliot does not allow her reader to subscribe to the maxim, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Maggie herself loses her guilt, forgives herself, only in the inevitable fatality of her drowning.
        Where could the novel have looked for forgiveness? George Eliot makes it abundantly clear that we cannot turn to the collective morality of St. Oggs. The inhabitants of the village are disparaged repeatedly as resembling insects and animals, as “lower” (Eliot’s word) in the development of their sensibilities than Maggie. “The young wench’s” struggle between duty and passion, forgiveness and the need for love, family ties and self-development, are moral issues. But the moral consensus of the village is based not upon social welfare, or the common weal, or fellow feeling, or promptings of the spirit, but upon respectability, convention, and expedience. St. Oggs is a microcosm of “the world and the world’s wife,” in the memorable phrase of the time, and they do not forgive the lapse of decorum Maggie’s elopement constitutes. Lack of charity and compassion characterize the twin poles of rural life, community and church. When Maggie returns to St. Oggs after her flight on the river with Stephen, the author assures us that had she returned married, possessor of the wealth and position the wife of Stephen would command, her escapade would have been “forgiven,” she would have been accepted. As it is, the community shuns her; she can’t even find work among them. The fact that Maggie resisted seduction while away briefly with Stephen, is both disbelieved by the villagers and rendered irrelevant; she failed to secure her own future. Her imprudence is financial as well as moral. In fact, the voice of public opinion is sufficiently clamorous against her that even the vicar, Dr. Kenn, to whom Maggie turns for spiritual counsel, is unable to continue to shelter her as governess to his children. Not education, faith, nor “family values,” represented by Eliot as hypocritical, self-serving, and narrow, enlightens the people of St. Oggs. Her depiction, for example, of the clans of Dodsons and Tullivers, (the maternal and paternal families of Tom and Maggie), show them to be egotistical in the extreme, sharing the flaw of pride.
        The Mill on the Floss, as a highly moral work, emphasizes the gulf between the ideals of Christianity and the “emmet-life” of the characters with their “peasant-like world.” Eliot reveals the depth of her condemnation when she characterizes village life as “without any relation to the unseen world . . . irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, [like Maggie’s], no active, self-renouncing faith, [such as Maggie cultivates], a community which has no trace of religion.” The villagers attend church for baptism, marriage, and funeral, rituals they do not connect with belief, but propriety. The distinction Eliot makes here is between their casual observance and the transcendent, the spiritual. So neither the ethics of the secular world, nor the Christianity of the nominally religious world, operate as agents of moral tutelage, opening a door to forgiveness. Rather, in this climate of practical common sense, of deals and winning and getting ahead, of clever lawyers and “raskills,” of Uncle Deane advising Tom how to rise in business, neither the uneducated Mr. Tulliver nor the educated Wakem, can find a paradigm for forgiveness. To the contrary—both fathers extend hostility to the sons of their respective enemies, to the next generation, Philip Wakem and Tom Tulliver. As for Maggie, her conscience must serve as her only moral instructor; she operates instinctually, as the child of nature she is.
        Throughout the novel, Maggie is closely associated with the natural world. She is described as “wild” and “untameable”; Philip declares she reminds him of stories of prisoners turned into animals. Maggie wishes, as we remarked before, that she and Tom could remain as children, in their home-bound natural setting, governed by her heart’s natural affections. The author identifies Maggie, when grown to young womanhood, as a force of nature herself: “. . . with her dark coloring and jet crown [braids] surmounting her tall figure, she seems to have a sort of kinship with the tall Scotch firs, at which she is looking up as if she loved them well.” And Philip muses, observing the portrait of her he is painting, “You will look like a tall Hamadryad, dark and strong and noble, just issued from one of the fir trees.” Describing her heroine tête-à-tête with Stephen, newly awakened to love, Eliot likens her to a creature who needs gentling: “Her lips and eyelids quivered; she opened her eyes full on his for an instant, like a wild animal, timid and struggling under caresses. . . .” Maggie, the instinctual child of Nature, must be obedient to its laws; this confluence of Maggie’s nature and Nature is an important contributant to the determinism of the book.
        Can we infer then that forgiveness is presented as a “natural” sentiment because Maggie, the force of Nature, most embodies it? Bob Jakins, a naif from the children’s childhood, grown to a poor peddler, forgives Tom numerous and callous slights, since, like Maggie whom he befriends in her trouble, he has a “noble heart.” (George Eliot seems to have a Dickensian faith in the goodness and innocence of the truly simple.) Are we to assume, as The Mill on the Floss does on one level, that though forgiveness may not be transmitted through education, religion, family, it can be found in human nature, there to be tapped into? Or does this obtain only for “noble” natures?
        This is where the moral impasse of the novel most firmly roots. Almost all the breaches in relationships take place in natural settings—on the river, in the Red Deeps, in the conservatory, on a walk at Aunt Gritty’s, on the road approaching the mill. Is forgiveness still to be read, despite the vernal backdrops against which so many ruptures occur, as part of nature—or should we rather locate forgiveness within civilization? How can we when St. Oggs, standing in for civilization, is a parody of civic virtue, a center of destructiveness?
        Maggie’s desire to be forgiven and her readiness to forgive, are inextricably tied to feelings of love and affection, wanting to make loved ones happy—Tom, Lucy, Stephen, Philip, her mother. Similarly, maternal feeling temporarily brings Mrs. Tulliver to the support of her daughter. But we as readers can’t extend this into a principle. Intimate ties can slacken, as author and reader know. Tom’s fraternal tie with Maggie does not compel him to forgive her. Furthermore, if love and affection are prerequisites for forgiveness, we can hardly expect Tulliver and Wakem, for example, with no such bonds between them, to forgive each other. And indeed they do not.
        Reluctantly, we are forced to conclude that forgiveness, either as a response instructed by intelligence and humanism, or as a natural instinct, is in rare supply. Neither source, in The Mill on the Floss, generates sufficient forgiveness to dam the tide of destiny. More than a century later, we feel our failure before this same moral impasse. What was absent in the novel, what never took hold in the dialogue, remains tragically absent from our world today: forgiveness with which we may create new moral contracts.

Copyright © 1999 by Nadya Aisenberg.

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