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Thread: Tom and Maggie embrace in death - a happy ending?

  1. #1
    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    Tom and Maggie embrace in death - a happy ending?

    On finishing The Mill on the Floss, I thought Maggie and Tom entwined in death a romantic but feeble ending to an otherwise great novel. Although a few pages earlier, I was blown away with the astonishing acceptance of Maggie by austere Aunt Glegg. Nevertheless, death coming to Maggie's rescue in situation impossible seemed decidedly too glib.

    On reflecting - and I find reflection is always prudent on finishing literature - I feel that this interpretation of the ending is superficial. Maggie is locked in a seemingly insoluble ethical dilemma throughout the second half of the novel, a dilemma which, if anything, worsens with time. Borne with brother Tom on the raging torrent of flood-waters, death provides her a convenient release? Surely the reader expects Maggie to endure heroically to a sad end decades in the future.

    In the flood she thinks only of Tom, trapped in the low-lying mill. From a young girl, Maggie has been motivated by a love that withstands repeated cold-shoulders from her intolerant brother. He has disowned her. But stranded by rising flood-waters, a hitherto recalcitrant Tom has a convenient change of heart and welcomes his rescuer in the row-boat. With the threat of drowning imminent, his rigid moral code becomes more accommodating, at least in the short term. Consider what is happening in the mind of this son of the late Mr. Tulliver?

    Why does the headstrong Tom venture recklessly into the perilous current, with his sister on-board, when he surely knows that Lucy’s home is situated on higher ground? Lucy is unlikely to be in mortal danger from the flood. Remember that Tom has just suffered the embarrassment of being rescued by his little sister, his fallen sister. So what does he do? He shows himself as reckless as his father, Mr Tulliver, who gambled everything on a frivolous lawsuit at the expense of his family. Tom gambles with his sister’s life, and in death they are entwined, just as the family had once been entangled in bankruptcy. Is this romance? I'm not so sure.

    The death of brother and sister in the flood-waters is hardly a happy ending from any angle. Maggie’s perennial struggle with passion for Stephen Guest and boundless sympathy for Philip Wakem is unresolvable. Had the two siblings survived, Tom would have continued to oppose Philip, and her sad obsession with the rather shallow Stephen Guest - and Lucy's loss - would have continued to haunt the clever Maggie. Tellingly, Stephen is such an unsympathetic character, with little moral sensibility as he continues to stalk Maggie like a spider its prey.

    I think the high drama of the ending makes little difference. Notwithstanding her epitaph, "In their death they were not divided," Maggie is a supremely tragic figure, dead or alive.
    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

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    Ending of /The Mill on the Floss/ is disappointing

    @Gladys, what you say makes some sense to me, but I don't quite see a basis for calling Maggie a "supremely tragic figure". Maggie didn't seem to me to be headed for greatness (absent some tragic flaw that would kill her chances), but she did seem to have the strength and intelligence to overcome some daunting obstacles, some of which were her own fault. (Most people don't run away from home to join the Gypsies, for example. That might not have ended well.)

    I don't see how Tom could have gone to Lucy's house during the flood -- after all, when Maggie got to him, "[h]er boat was on a level with the upstairs window." It wouldn't be easy for Tom to go to Lucy's house or anywhere else, with his own house totally surrounded by water. Once they were both in the boat, they didn't have much choice about where to go, as the current was strong and the tide was going out.

    I was very disappointed with the ending, beginning with about the time Maggie rescued Tom in the boat. At that point, Maggie had, through diligent effort, managed to overcome most of the effects of a bad reputation (that I think she really didn't at all deserve) through her loving nature and desire to please people. I wanted to see her relationship with Philip grow into marriage; after all, she had previously secured Tom's grudging acceptance of her doing that. I would love to have seen a couple of additional chapters on how Maggie and Phililp, along with Lucy and Stephen, became important members of society in St. Ogg's. For example, Maggie could have done much to support Philip in a bid for public office. Or Maggie, Lucy, and their husbands could have become sponsors of events like the charity bazaar that would be the envy of the snobbish neighbors that had previously snubbed them. Maybe even get Tom to come around and admit that his baby sister was someone really special. There was plenty of evidence earlier that, despite Maggie's humble origins, she was intelligent, loyal, and industrious, and she usually went out of her way to treat people well. I'd like to have seen admirable qualities like these rewarded, and also to have seen Philip's life brightened and enlivened by Maggie's influence. Absent the accident, I think that could easily (and plausibly) have happened.

    No, instead of anything like that, the author just kills Maggie and Tom off. Of course, in real life, accidents do happen, but here it just seemed to me needless, almost as if George Eliot had grown weary of recounting the tale. I think I would even have been happier with the story if the last couple of pages had been lost.
    Last edited by Poisoncat; 07-08-2012 at 10:35 PM. Reason: Title doesn't mention the name of the book

  3. #3
    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    Not so disappointing?

    Quote Originally Posted by Poisoncat View Post
    ...I don't quite see a basis for calling Maggie a "supremely tragic figure"
    Maggie, a fundamentally kind person, makes so-called mistakes but the impact of these on her is massive and overwhelming. So sad.

    Quote Originally Posted by Poisoncat View Post
    I don't see how Tom could have gone to Lucy's house during the flood
    Without Maggie's boat Tom could go nowhere.

    Quote Originally Posted by Poisoncat View Post
    I wanted to see her relationship with Philip grow into marriage...
    But Maggie merely feels sorry for Philip, while she loves Stephen...for better or for worse.

    Quote Originally Posted by Poisoncat View Post
    No, instead of anything like that, the author just kills Maggie and Tom off. Of course, in real life, accidents do happen...
    I prefer to think, Poisoncat, that a headstrong, shamefaced Tom kills off sister Maggie. And it's scarcely accidental: like father, like son.
    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

  4. #4
    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    George Eliot’s novel, I now learn, is well-nigh an autobiography of her childhood. Knowing that, gives me confidence that the ending is Ibsen-like rather than trite, as so many seem to think.

    There was no happy ending available in this world for sister and brother.
    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

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