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Queen of the Gypsies

By (February 1, 2013) 4 Comments

Endings are such fragile things. The slightest exposure ruins them completely. As a result, we are very protective of them—and possessive, too: under no circumstances are they to be given away. “Spoiler alert!” is the now-familiar cry: proceed at your own risk.

But isn’t this anxiety silly? In some circles the very concept of a spoiler, much less a spoiler alert, would seem misguided, even foolish. In academic criticism, for instance, nobody makes any pother at all about revealing the ending. It’s taken for granted that anyone reading the secondary literature either knows it already or has put away such childish things as reading for the plot.

And of course the worry is absurd for a wide array of stories which can hardly be said to be spoilt by knowing the ending. Does anyone not know Anna Karenina’s fate—or Scrooge’s? Is anyone who watches Romeo and Juliet today innocent of its tragic conclusion? Indeed, doesn’t it increase the poignancy of its final scenes that we know everything and yet can do nothing?

Genre alone spoils the ending for a vast array of books we read. The world is saved from the evil conspirators. The detectives solve the case. The hero and heroine live happily ever after. And it’s not just thrillers and mysteries and romances that ruin everything just by being the kind of books they are: so many Victorian novels are built around courtship plots that they can hardly surprise us when they end with a marriage. But what’s endlessly variable, and thus endlessly interesting, is how they get there: who are our lovers, and what keeps them from having their wedding on page 1 instead of page 600?

2So there’s something trivially true but truly trivial about the concept of the spoiler. A book that is not worth reading once the ending is revealed is a book that wouldn’t be worth rereading, and don’t we always read in the hope (so often disappointed, to be sure) that this book will be one of the ones we’ll go back to over and over? With so many unread books to choose from, we should really become dedicated spoilers ourselves, always reading the last chapter first to see if we lose interest once we know how things turned out. TBR piles would shrink across the nation.

Yet as every reader knows, something is different if you already know the ending—something’s lost or changed or constrained. Even setting aside the thrill of suspense and the pleasure of surprise (and are these really such childish desires?), an unread, unknown novel has an open-endedness that keeps us alert to possibilities—including interpretive ones. Unsure of the of the outline, never mind the ultimate direction, of the path we’re on, we have to pay attention to everything. We’re better readers as a result. After all, once we know for sure how things do turn out, it’s much harder to think about how they might have turned out, and then the full significance of the ending that we do get might be lost on us.

3Take The Mill on the Floss, for instance, George Eliot’s second full-length novel, which has both enchanted and troubled readers since its first publication in 1860. The Mill on the Floss is loved especially for its heroine, Maggie Tulliver, who is (if more people only knew it!) as memorable in her own way as Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre are in theirs. We first meet her as a precocious child of nine. Imaginative, free-spirited, and prone to fits of angry rebellion in which she hammers nails into the wooden head of her doll, she is her indulgent father’s delight and the torment of her conventional mother: “You talk o’ ’cuteness, Mr. Tulliver,” complains that long-suffering woman,

“but I’m sure the child’s half an idiot i’ some things; for if I send her upstairs to fetch anything, she forgets what she’s gone for, an’ perhaps ’ull sit down on the floor i’ the sunshine an’ plait her hair an’ sing to herself like a Bedlam creatur’, all the while I’m waiting for her downstairs. That niver run i’ my family, thank God! …. I don’t like to fly i’ the face o’ Providence, but it seems hard as I should have but one gell, an’ her so comical.”

“Pooh, nonsense!” said Mr. Tulliver; “she’s a straight, black-eyed wench as anybody need wish to see. I don’t know i’ what she’s behind other folks’s children; and she can read almost as well as the parson.”

For all his fondness, though, Mr. Tulliver understands what we—and Maggie—realize only too soon as well: her black eyes and sharp intelligence may inspire fatherly pride, but they also compromise her chances at a conventional happy ending. “It’s no mischief much while she’s a little un,” he observes to his wife, “but an over-’cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep,— she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that.” “She understands what one’s talking about so as never was,” he brags to a visitor; “And you should hear her read,— straight off, as if she knowed it all beforehand. And allays at her book!” If Maggie were a boy, “she’d ha’ been a match for the lawyers.” But his pleasure in his daughter’s cleverness is checked by foreboding: “A woman’s no business wi’ being so clever; it’ll turn to trouble, I doubt.”

Mr. Tulliver is easily confused by this “puzzlin’ world,” but his specific concern about Maggie’s future is understandable. As a girl in the 1820s and a character in a mid-19th-century novel, what life can Maggie live, what plot can she follow, if she can’t conform better to the model of a marriageable girl? She should be more like her cousin Lucy, who presents a conspicuous contrast to Maggie’s rough dark hair and impetuous emotions:

It was like the contrast between a rough, dark, overgrown puppy and a white kitten. Lucy put up the neatest little rosebud mouth to be kissed; everything about her was neat,— her little round neck, with the row of coral beads; her little straight nose, not at all snubby; her little clear eyebrows, rather darker than her curls, to match hazel eyes.

Everybody loves “little pink-and-white Lucy”—even Maggie, who “always looked at Lucy with delight.” It’s easy to see where Lucy’s story is going, isn’t it? But what about Maggie’s? What kind of ending can or should she have? We might think we know (it is a Victorian novel, after all), but the further we go, the more we share Mr. Tulliver’s sense that Maggie’s a lovable but difficult anomaly who won’t fit easily, if at all, into familiar patterns.

4The ending that Maggie actually gets in the novel has been endlessly controversial. “The denouement shocks the reader most painfully,” protested Henry James; “Nothing has prepared him for it; the story does not move towards it; it casts no shadow before it.” Critic Harold Bloom asserted with some asperity his disbelief that “literary criticism is capable of explaining why Eliot made so serious a blunder”; scholar Barbara Hardy considered it the “least appropriate conclusion” imaginable. Those who defend its aptness cannot agree on its meaning, and the many complexly abstract and theoretical explanations offered up never quite account for the visceral shock of the moment itself.

Why does Maggie’s story end the way it does? Must it end so? That readers are provoked into passionately demanding answers to these questions is not a flaw but a crucial effect of reading the novel. Once we know what does happen, it’s easy to focus on all the signs pointing us in that direction (and, pace James, there are many, once you know where to look). But our first shocked response to the actual ending—whether it’s anger, confusion, grief, surprise, or frustration—pushes us to think about the other endings that we saw as possibilities, and about why they can’t be the realities. It turns out that the ending of The Mill on the Floss is about foreclosed alternatives, not fulfilled promises. The only one who doesn’t know that going in is Maggie herself—Maggie, and the unspoiled reader.

Of course, Maggie can’t be expected to predict her own future. As a child, though, she certainly imagines it: she will be together forever with her beloved brother Tom, a privileged “bit of masculinity” whose comparative dimness upsets his father’s sex-specific sense of fitness (“you never hear him say ’cute things like the little wench”) and whose need for predominance causes much agony of spirit for his adoring little sister. Tom and Maggie both have “no thought that life would ever change much for them”:

they would only get bigger and not go to school, and it would always be like the holidays; they would always live together and be fond of each other. And the mill with its booming; the great chestnut-tree under which they played at houses; their own little river, the Ripple, where the banks seemed like home . . . these things would always be just the same to them.

“Life did change for Tom and Maggie,” observes the narrator; “and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives.” Their dream of a future entirely continuous with the past is itself wholly congruent with the novel’s moral code, to which memory is the key. “Heaven knows where [our] striving might lead us,” the narrator remarks, “if the loves and sanctities of our lives had no deep immovable roots in memory.” Or, as Maggie herself declares much later in the novel, “If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.”

5This is an ethics with its own roots in Eliot’s determinism, a philosophical worldview emphasizing the inextricable connections between the past and the present. When everything around us, and everything about us, has developed from everything (and everyone) that came before, it’s both foolish and irresponsible to imagine we can just propel ourselves into any future at all. Our earliest ties become “the motives that sanctify our lives”; as Maggie exclaims, when tempted to set them aside, “I can’t set out on a fresh life . . . I shall feel as if there were nothing firm beneath my feet.”

The backwards tilt of this ethical code, with our history acting as ballast for our erratic desires, helps explain the oft-noted imbalance of the novel, which is weighted towards the childhood sections. Eliot excused herself to her publisher for this, saying that she was “beguiled by love of my subject” into an “epische Breite [epic breadth]” in the early volumes of the novel and thus “a want of proportionate fullness” in its concluding ones. But this is also a way the novel reflects its moral priorities in its structure.

Our early life is not our whole life, though—and a good thing too, as most childhoods, like Tom and Maggie’s, are as full of “bitter sorrows” as of idylls. Our past anchors our loyalties, but to let it define us completely would be to set ourselves against development, which would be not just retrograde in principle but also, in some cases, individually destructive. Maggie’s is one such case. As even her father dimly realizes, Maggie’s a misfit in her environment, a “small mistake of nature,” whose character and needs are badly served by her life in the “oppressive narrowness” of the town of St. Ogg’s. There, her relatives live “a sordid life . . . irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith”:

Here one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish, surely the most prosaic form of human life; proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build; worldliness without side-dishes.

What sustenance can Maggie find in this petty provincial world, especially as it views a girl’s talents as trivial, her ambitions as aberrations? “Girls can’t do Euclid: can they sir?” demands Tom indignantly of his schoolmaster.

“They can pick up a little of everything, I daresay,” said Mr. Stelling. “They’ve a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn’t go far into anything. They’re quick and shallow.”

From her impetuous rages as a child, this particular “apparatus of shallow quickness” grows into “eager, passionate longings”: she feels a “blind unconscious yearning” for something—she hardly knows what—for which she can, unsurprisingly, find no resource in these inhospitable surroundings. Such suffering, the narrator explains, “belongs to every historical advance of mankind,” when “in the onward tendency of human things” some forlorn individuals “have risen above the mental level of the generation before them.”

Eliot’s determinism emphasizes agency and responsibility, not inevitability, and as Maggie’s world broadens and she strains towards new possibilities and desires, she must face “the labour of choice.” Why should her love of the mill, of her father, of Tom, sentence her to a life of self-denial and suffering, after all? And yet how can she break away from those to whom she is “tied by the strongest fibres of [her] heart”?

The first severe test arises for her through her friendship with Philip Wakem, Tom’s schoolmate but also son of her father’s arch-enemy. Unlike Tom (and with more insight than Mr. Tulliver) Philip cherishes Maggie’s unconventionality. Maggie, in turn, is drawn to Philip, whose physical deformities and artistic sensibilities appeal to her soft heart and keen fancy. When her family fortunes fall and her father is incapacitated, Philip (defying the feud between their families) comes to Maggie’s rescue. She has embraced asceticism to help her endure her grim circumstances and the constant thwarting of her will by Tom’s stern governance. She thinks that in self-denial she has found the “secret of life … the entrance into that satisfaction which she had so long been craving in vain.” It’s a dreary turn for our spirited protagonist—not the outcome we’ve been hoping for at all. But Philip tempts her with his forbidden friendship, and with volumes of Walter Scott’s novels, which Maggie has put aside in the fervor of her renunciation. “Why should you starve your mind in this way?” Philip demands, and surely we agree: however noble her aim of resigning herself to what she cannot change, he is right that “it is mere cowardice to seek safety in negations.”

7Philip’s urging saves her from her “long suicide” by mental attrition, but in the battle for her future he’s pitting himself against a rival he knows he’s unlikely to beat:

“Ah, Maggie,” said Philip, almost fretfully, “you would never love me so well as you love your brother.”

“Perhaps not,” said Maggie, simply; “but then, you know, the first thing I ever remember in my life is standing with Tom by the side of the Floss, while he held my hand; everything before that is dark to me.”

Against Tom’s historical claims, Philip offers Maggie intellectual sustenance and devoted love untainted by Tom’s brand of stern predominance—no wonder that Maggie yields to his plea that she not “think of the past now … think only of our love.” But it’s also no wonder that when Tom learns of their illicit relationship and demands that Maggie break it off, she agrees.

It’s not just that his love does not trump her loyalty, though. Maggie protests vehemently against the injustice of Tom’s ultimatum, and against his self-righteous judgment of her behavior. (“You have no pity: you have no sense of your own imperfection and your own sins. . . . You have not even a vision of feelings by the side of which your shining virtues are mere darkness!”—now that’s the vital Maggie we knew and loved in the beginning of the novel, restored to us by Philip’s intervention.) But even as she’s full of “indignant remonstrance” on her own behalf and “her heart bled for Philip,” she’s “now and then conscious of a certain dim background of relief in the forced separation.” How can that be, when Philip speaks right to her best self?

The problem (which Maggie senses but can’t, or won’t, articulate) is that just as her loyalty to Tom risks limiting her to a future in which her yearnings for a richer mental life are sacrificed to his conventional ideas and dictatorial habits, her love for Philip dooms her to a future without adult sexual passion. “I had never thought of your being my lover,” is her somewhat dampening reply to his initial declaration, and even her acquiescence is hardly ecstatic:

“It is all new and strange to me; but I don’t think I could love anyone better than I love you. I should like always to live with you—to make you happy. I have always been happy when I have been with you.”

When he asks for a kiss, she stoops “to kiss the pale face that was full of pleading, timid love—like a woman’s.” 8Philip has “perturbed the clearness and simplicity of her life” by reawakening her yearning for “a full life,” but he is not, himself, an answer to those long-denied “eager, passionate longings.”

Such a passion finally enters Maggie’s life with Stephen Guest, her cousin Lucy’s fiancé, who is immediately drawn to “this tall dark-eyed nymph with her jet-black coronet of hair.” As his name suggests, though, Stephen can hardly have a permanent place in Maggie’s heart or life, not just because of her loyalty to Philip and to Lucy, but because the feelings he arouses in her, though strong, are unreliable indications of what’s right, as opposed to what feels good. The mutual attraction of Stephen and Maggie was easily recognized by Eliot’s contemporaries as an invocation of Darwinian nature. Indeed, they were shocked at what one reviewer called “the almost indecent details of mere animal passion in the loves of Stephen and Maggie.” Stephen’s main argument in favor of their love is precisely that it is “natural”: “the feeling which draws us towards each other is too strong to be overcome: that natural law surmounts every other.” It’s a seductive argument in almost every way. Maggie, however, rejects its amorality:

“if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty—we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth.”

“There is nothing in the past that can annul our right to each other,” protests Stephen, against which Maggie asserts,

“There are memories, and affections, and longings after perfect goodness, that have such a strong hold on me; they would never quit me for long; they would come back and be pain to me—repentance.”

Nature is a powerful force, but its strong feelings are also transient ones, and the moral choice is still ours: “We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that, for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us.” That the agents of that “divine voice” are the vexingly rigid Tom and the limply unexciting Philip makes adhering to this principle difficult, and perhaps unfulfilling, but the value of acting morally lies in its intrinsic merits, not in pleasure or external rewards.

9What good choice can Maggie really make, then, if she’s to betray neither her head nor her heart? Where, among these alternatives, is an ending we can all, including Maggie, live with at least contentedly, if not happily? Why, too, aren’t there more options, more choices, more possible stories for Maggie? How is she, how are we, going to get out of this? These are the novel’s crucial questions, the ones that, unspoilt, we turn over and over as we approach the ending. Early on, Maggie herself tries to invent a happy ending, one in which she can be “in harmony with circumstances”: she runs away to the gypsies, among whom she hopes to be more at home, and more appreciated, than she is at St. Ogg’s. That childish fantasy is quickly dispelled by her actual experience (“From having considered them very respectful companions, amenable to instruction, she had begun to think that they meant perhaps to kill her as soon as it was dark, and cut up her body for gradual cooking”). The limits on her life and her novel on a larger scale are similarly set by the need to find a realistic, rather than fairy-tale, outcome. She can’t just will herself into a different time and place, or create a different family history, or ignore the one she has and what it means to her, any more than she could be crowned Queen of the Gypsies. Among the options she actually faces, there isn’t one that satisfies all of her yearnings or any of our hopes—yet choose she must, and does. And then the novel ends, and there we are, shocked and dissatisfied.

It’s that dissatisfaction with the ending, that sense that there was, or could have been, or should have been, a different one, that makes the ending of The Mill on the Floss so productive of just the kind of social criticism that Eliot hoped to provoke. We’re in the same situation, really, as Maggie herself contemplating the story of the witch trial in Defoe’s History of the Devil. “It’s a dreadful picture, isn’t it?” she observes.

“But I can’t help looking at it. That old woman in the water’s a witch,— they’ve put her in to find out whether she’s a witch or no; and if she swims she’s a witch, and if she’s drowned — and killed, you know — she’s innocent, and not a witch, but only a poor silly old woman. But what good would it do her then, you know, when she was drowned?

We too are faced with an intractable problem, one that can hardly be resolved without changing an entire system of habits and beliefs—an entire culture that, among its many faults, constrains and punishes women who defy its limits. Maggie’s analysis of her own reading is also, as it turns out, the ultimate spoiler for the novel she’s in herself. But we don’t know that until we reread the novel, at which point the damage is already done.

Rohan Maitzen is a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly. She teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University and blogs at Novel Readings.