Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Maggie Tulliver's Sad Sacrifice: Confusing but Not Confused

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Maggie Tulliver's Sad Sacrifice: Confusing but Not Confused

Article excerpt

One of the most vexing problems in George Eliot scholarship has always been the "sad ... sacrifice[s]" (M, Finale, IV: 370) central to the stories of Janet Dempster, Maggie Tulliver, Romola de' Bardi, Fedalma, and Dorothea Brooke. That "[t]hey do not find whatt hey seek," as Virginia Woolf says,(1) has never ceased to puzzle readers, especially feminists looking for a sister in one who was determined to fulfill her aspirations for love and vocation. None of the heroines' renunciations has so bewildered readers as that of Maggie in The Mill on the Floss.

Why does she give up the culture and romantic love she longs for? Traditionally, readers, convinced that George Eliot is "a thorough-going Victorian rationalist,"(2) have seen Maggie, supported by George Eliot, renouncing her aspirations to do good to others. Since the revival of interest in George Eliot about the middle of this century, many have become bold enough to say that Maggie, with her creator's approval, renounces her aspirations for spiritual perfection or faithfulness to her family. But most of those in both camps have not been able to avoid the conclusion that George Eliot's view of Maggie's renunciation is confused.

Those who think George Eliot supports Maggie's renunciation as doing good(3) are critical of an author sympathetic toward a heroine who at first resists self-denial. Swinburne, who speaks of Maggie's "disloyalty to clear moral law,"(4) suggests that Maggie's duty to others is so plain as to make her grasping after self-fulfillment ignoble. F. R. Leavis, accusing George Eliot of failing to recognize what he regards as Maggie's immaturity, says that the author does not understand her heroine. Others, like Ian Adam, David Carroll, David Moldstad, and Rosemary Mundhenk, see George Eliot confused about whether Maggie does more good by accepting or rejecting her love for Stephen. George Levine contends that George Eliot, aware that Maggie will do harm either by renouncing or accepting Stephen, deceives herself so as to maintain that Maggie does good by renouncing Stephen.

Of those who argue that Maggie seeks selflessness or familial love through self-denial, most, like Walter Allen, Joan Bennett, John Kucich, Laurence Lerner, Bernard J. Paris (who revised his earlier view), Michael Steig, and William R. Steinhoff,(5) also accuse George Eliot of being confused. Arguing that Maggie ostensibly chooses renunciation to do good while actually choosing it for its own sake, they feel they have discovered what George Eliot does not perceive, that the emperor has no clothes.

I agree with those who think that Maggie and George Eliot are primarily concerned with securing acceptance rather than with doing good. But I want to show, by a close analysis of George Eliot's argument, that the woman whom so many have identified with her heroine and whose insight into character had early been sharpened by her Evangelical practice of self-examination, was herself very little confused about Maggie's character or motives, unless on a deep subconscious level.(6) She is confusing, to be sure, but, ironically, I think, because she deliberately deceives the reader in an effort to conceal that her main concern is not the good of self-realization through love and culture, versus the good of renunciation, but the importance of doing good versus that of securing acceptance.

In all her fiction, George Eliot was trying to work out the conflict she herself experienced in crucial decisions over her apostasy, liaison with Lewes, and pursuit of a vocation.(7) Could she justify self-fulfillment in the face of society's demand that she renounce this as harmful to others, and to self, that is, as unnatural? In Adam Bede, she had hinted at her difficulty in endorsing Dinah Morris's sacrifice of personal ambition to social pressure, but she did not seriously challenge conventional wisdom. Now in The Mill on the Floss, she breaks the mold of contemporary religious stories extolling self-sacrifice and submission to authority. …

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