Dark Spirituality as a Symbol of Female Frustration:
Voodoo Gothic and the Mill on the Floss
George Eliot's The Mill On the Floss is arguably one of the most widely read novels of the Victorian period. Although many differ as to just why this is the case, one thing is clear -- what was once a rather straightforward tragic tale, tinged with the time's popular romantic/gothic influence, has become a bastion of feminist criticism. Although many readers, especially those contemporary to the work's publication, expressed strong disappointment with the fate of Maggie -- especially at the end of the novel, the advent of feminist criticism brought many readers to begin to strongly identify with the fate, and the message, George Eliot was trying to convey. (Jacobus 62) Maggie Tulliver's representation of the tragedy of intellectual womanhood mired in the doom of repressive Victorian society -- is particularly satisfying. For these critics, they find the themes of light and dark, God and the Devil, good verses evil, and the gothic overtones (represented most strikingly in Maggie's voodoo doll scene), as striking symbols of the tragedy of the position of Maggie as a woman "out of the mold." Further, even her eventual death is viewed as an inevitable outcome for a woman destined to have "no place" of belonging.
According to George Eliot, herself, she was a "realist" writer -- a characteristic specifically described by her as "an artist who values the truth of observation above the imaginative fancies of writers of "romance" or fashionable melodramatic fiction." (Ashton 19) If, then, the reader is to consider The Mill on the Floss, as a work in realism, one cannot fail to regard the position of Maggie to be a keen representation, on the part of Eliot, of her perception of the reality of the women of her time. Indeed, this is especially true if one considers Maggie to be a representation of intelligent women, outside of the realm of "traditional female roles." Further, if one is to consider Maggie to be a representation of the Victorian notion of "unacceptable" modes of being, one cannot fail to draw a parallel between Maggie and Eliot, herself.
Indeed, Eliot uses a wealth of observation concerning the interactions between the protagonist of the tale, Maggie Tulliver, and the various other characters (male and female) as well as the various circumstances of the story. It is thought these observations that Eliot communicates to her readers about her central characters act as a device to illustrate her perception of the "reality" of the social/cultural world that she inhabits. An excellent example of this comparison is in Maggie's difficulty with "connection." Certainly, from the beginning of the novel, one notes that because of Maggie's strikingly intelligent, unusual (for her time) nature, and uncommon appearance, she seems to never achieve any real measure of connectedness with those around her -- After all her own parents not only criticize her, but are made markedly uncomfortable by her and her ways. Even those men with whom she forms relationships with later in life either in friendship or romantically either fail to connect with her, or her with them. In addition, the simple fact that Maggie goes through the entire novel not only without finding real satisfaction romantically with the opposite sex, but fails to have any real relationships with women as well, (Ashton 83) -- perhaps signifies Eliot's beliefs and experiences from her own life; namely, that when a woman is out of sync, she is cast out of the realm of belonging on all levels, male and female -- family, friend, and stranger. In essence, according to Eliot, she becomes doomed to a non-existence eventually symbolized by her death.
Although from the beginning, the reader notes that Maggie has a strong desire for male approval, especially from her brother, Tom, she still suffers from a great deal of frustration at their hands. To be sure, desiring male approval was not unusual in a time and culture where women were relegated to existing as the "chattel" or property of men. After all, when women as a group are oppressed, and live under the power of the male members of their culture, their only real sense of personal belonging, safety, and power (such that it is) depends completely on the acceptance and approval of the men in their lives.
Thus, to be accepted, they were expected to be pretty, entertaining, self-effacing, and useful in the home -- yet it was not only not particularly important for them to demonstrate "non-domestic" intelligence. They were certainly not encouraged to develop education or intelligence as a virtue -- and, if for some reason, they did, it would be of particular importance to glow just a bit less brightly then the men in their lives -- love or no. Not only was Eliot keenly aware in her own life of this reality -- hence her pseudonym, but she specifically illustrated the fact in the story in question. Indeed, the reader sees the tragedy of this reality.
An excellent example of the reality of the cultural attitude concerning women's intelligence during Eliot's time -- again, a reality Eliot clearly wants to convey in the tale, is in Mr. Tulliver's opinion of Maggie's intelligence as "unnatural," saying "It's a pity but what she'd been then lad -- she'd ha'been a match for the lawyers, she would. It's the wonderful'st thing." (Eliot 68)
Indeed, the reader sees that, more than once, Mr. Tulliver compares his son, Tom with Maggie, and notes her superior intelligence and reason. However, this only vexes him. This is because he sees no value in Maggie's intelligence whatsoever. Actually, quite the opposite -- it embarrassing him.
Of course, the tragedy is that Maggie, in spite of her father's dismissal of her intellect, she nonetheless, suffers from an immense need to please her father -- as well as to receive affection and approval from him, Eliot writes, "How she wished that [he] would stoke her head, or give her some sign that he was soothed by the sense that he had a daughter who loved him!" (Eliot 371)
Even more symbolic of the terrible position of intelligent women in Victorian times is Maggie's relationship with her brother, Tom -- a relationship that is both loving, and damaging.
To be sure, Tom is without peer the most important person in Maggie's life. Even more than her father, Maggie longs to please and maintain a close relationship with her brother. Ironically, however, Tom is also the one most capable of hurting her. Not only is Tom a symbolic representation of all that she cannot have as a woman, a fact that cannot fail to cause her significant pain, but her need to feel close to him is even more striking and painful when held up against that fact
The reader notes that Maggie so desperately wants to please Tom, yet, "Tom indeed was of opinion that Maggie was a silly little thing: all girls were silly...still he was very fond of his sister and always meant to take care of her." (Eliot 92) Unfortunately, the reader senses with these words that this is not destined to be the case.
In addition, the fact that Tom sees Maggie as "silly," perhaps as many men dismiss any intelligent woman, illustrates quite clearly that he was also threatened by her, and her natural intelligence (also symbolized by her physical difference). Even worse, his eventual cruelty in disowning Maggie underscores the terrible reality of all that is at stake for a woman should she choose not to conform (or be unable to conform) to her society's expectations of her. After all, the perpetration of cruelty in spite of love is exponentially worse than cruelty springing from pure hate. It is a terrible truth that glares in the lives of Eliot and Maggie -- that in spite of everything, the punishment for nonconformance toward the "womanly ideal" is the loss of love and belonging. For, when her brother says, "You will find no home with me...You have been a curse to your best friends...I wash my hands of you forever. You don't belong to me!" (Eliot 612) he demonstrates that her love for him (and his for her) cannot compete with the demands of society. Indeed, society demands nothing less than complete obedience.
Even if one is tempted to imagine that Maggie can find a certain acceptance in her friendship with Philip, to do so would be a grave error. After all, it is no accident that Eliot crafts Philip to suffer from a "deformity." For, it is this deformity that symbolizes the impossibility of having a normal male-female relationship on equal, and "normal" terms. Further, even her attraction to Steven is doomed from the start because of his unavailability, again symbolic of the impossibility of her having a "normal" relationship as she is. (Carlisle 7)
Of course, this reality is ultimately driven inequitably home in the final end of Maggie and Tom, when they…