Friday, January 29, 2010

Daniel Deronda and Mostly Mill on the Floss

Because of reading Daniel Deronda at the gym, I burned off far fewer calories than usual, pedaling slowly in a trance. My 900-page Penguin is disintegrating--the binding is so loose it’s more like a calendar with tear sheets than a book--but I’m preserving it in a rubber band so I can reread the intro and commentary. Although I like to make fun of others' notes in books, I have to laugh at myself: there is an aberrant chicken cacciatore recipe on the last page, which I scrawled there for reasons best known to my younger self. Couldn't I have borrowed a piece of paper?

I am simply breathless with admiration of The Mill on the Floss, which I finished today. What a remarkable coming-of-age story! Eliot flawlessly delineates passionate Maggie and plodding, unemotional Tom’s pastoral childhood on the banks of the river Floss, their change of circumstances when their father loses the mill, their accelerated maturation as Maggie gloomily begins to do plain sewing for money and gives up reading, and Philip goes to work as a flunky in his uncle’s business and hopes to rise (the real entrepreneur is his lower-class friend, Bob, who plans the cheap export business that makes Tom’s fortune).

There is a double-sexual plot involving Maggie: from childhood she half-pityingly loves the brilliant but crippled Philip Wakem, the son of the lawyer whom Mr. Tulliver blames for his losses; and she is very strongly sexually attracted to her cousin Lucy's annoying but physically beautiful boyfriend, Stephen. Both relationships are forbidden: her father and brother hate Philip, whom they associate with their financial disaster; and her love for Lucy prohibits the pursuit of Stephen. Sex is a problem for the complicated, philosophical Maggie, who gives up all relationships for the sake of family (especially for Tom). I absolutely believe in her morality with Stephen: who hasn’t had the experience of a friend’s boyfriend or husband coming on to them? But the strange scene on the river, where Maggie passively allows Stephen to carry her away in a boat overnight, then spurns him, thank God, though she goes home with her reputation ruined and is once again rejected by Tom, is a bit unrealistic. At the end her return to Tom in the flood seems an escape not just from problems but from sex somehow. Maggie is not allowed to have a sexual relationship. She can only love her brother. She dies for her sin of sexual desire (though Eliot surely wouldn't have considered it sin) and her wish for Tom's approval.

Jenny Uglow, however, in her interesting book, George Eliot (Virago), has a different interpretation of the much-criticized ending, which she considers “appropriate.

“Maggie achieves nothing, and even her drift down the river with Stephen is the result of refraining from choice. She carries nothing through to a conclusion, not even her own desires, and yet one feels that with a different kind of courage and honesty she could have admitted her passion for Stephen, confronted Lucy’s pain and outfaced St. Oggs. george Eliot makes us see, however, that this was not possible because Maggie is doubly trapped, by her own nature and by her position in society at that particular moment in history. She is thwarted at every turn--not only in the craving for education which is out of her feminine sphere, but also in her search for romance and marriage, the routes through which women traditionally should achieve fulfillment.”

I read this a little differently--I do think she chooses to go down the river with Philip, but then, when Philip slyly passes the last town, she is stuck with his decision to avoid danger by boarding a boat that won't reach harbor till the next day.

But I'm not really a critic: I'm an enthusiastic reader!


Buried In Print said...

I'm really enjoying your posts on George Eliot's novels. I read Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede in fairly quick succession in one year, but haven't yet gotten back to her (with the exception of Silas Marner, which I didn't enjoy quite so much...maybe I just wanted it to be longer)!

I think it would make a fun focus to compare the different types of workouts that you get depending on your reading material: I can imagine that, as with George Eliot, Dorothy Richardson and Henry James, would lead to slow revolutions, whereas Muriel Spark and Helen Simpson might keep the pace a little steadier.

Frisbee said...

I couldn't work out at all with Dorothy Richardson!

I'm so glad you're a George Eliot fan. She doesn't seem to be as popular as, say, Dickens or Austen, though I think she is a better writer than either. Of course, that comparison is unfair.

Reading George Eliot is a good reason for NO revolutions on the bicycle!