Since I want to focus on genre in this review, I can’t help but give spoilers. There’s always the argument that literary fiction isn’t spoiled by spoilers, rather can be enhanced, and that genre expectations give away just as much as I will, but if you want to enjoy a ‘clean’ first reading, go no further.
Before reading this book, I didn’t know what tragedy was.
That’s not to say I couldn’t cite the dictionary definition (‘an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress’, from the Greek meaning ‘goat song’, apparently), or that The Mill on the Floss is the saddest book I’ve ever read. No, although it is one of the few novels to have brought tears to my eyes on first and second reading, there’s more to its tragedy than the emotions which it provokes.
Maggie Tulliver has been my favourite literary heroine for a long time, and that’s a considerable feat: she’s had to compete with the likes of Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, and Dorothea Brooke. On first reading, I felt deeply engaged in the tumult of her feelings. My heart swelled when someone declared their love for her, and I felt the pangs of any reproach directed at her. I sobbed, and was sorry for her suffering, and her tragic end.
But my second reading was little short of an epiphany. Those questions which I’d asked myself at the close of the book, or moaned to myself whilst reading, trying to understand Maggie and her actions, lamenting her fate but accepting (because of some unexplained but intuited reason) that it had to be that way, were answered. And so blatantly that I couldn’t account for my having missed them first time around.
The keys to Maggie’s character, the clues which tell us that she’s different, and doomed, are to be found, often explicitly stated, in the events of her childhood. We see her insatiable hunger for distinction, and knowledge, and affection, which no one attempts to satisfy. We see her vain attempts to ‘give up longing and wishing’, and hear warnings from the unknowingly insightful Philip, which ring poignantly when we know how the story plays out, that to do so is impossible ‘while we are thoroughly alive’.
And I can’t help getting philosophical here. Because the disparity between my first and second reading struck me, not simply because it enabled me to understand the intricacies of a fictional character’s psyche more intimately, but because it seemed revealing about human nature more generally. All the crucial character traits which at once gave Maggie such intelligent vivacity and hastened her demise were there from the off. We were shown, blatantly, the events which augmented them, and often prompted to dwell upon their effect. And yet, first time around, we were just as blind, or just as bewildered and floundering, as Maggie herself. We were given all the answers, but they were useless until hindsight gave us the corresponding questions.
So as well as showing us just how inextricably our ability to succeed and fail is linked to our basic nature, but also the events which then mould it, I think The Mill on the Floss challenges us to consider to what extent we can know ourselves, and how that knowledge can influence those things.
This is where we get to tragedy – but its literary, not its everyday, definition: ‘a play [or, more generally, story] dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character’. This downfall of a main character, because of some essential flaw which makes them more than a victim of circumstance, but usually endears them to us nonetheless. And Maggie Tulliver is a tragic heroine, and in Mill, Eliot is asking us to contemplate her flaw, but more than that, she’s asking us to contemplate her inability to know this flaw, which in turn enhances her tragedy.
Crucially, though, this is hidden – the reader can be almost as bewildered as Maggie, when we follow her journey for the first time. It isn’t even called Maggie, like Hamlet, or Othello; Eliot hides the tragedy, denying us the illuminating light of genre expectation. And only when it’s too late, when all we can do is re-read, and notice what we, just like Maggie, should have been seeing all along, do we recognise the inevitability of the tragedy.
Marie Howe’s poem ‘Why the Novel Is Necessary but Sometimes Hard to Read’ articulates this beautifully:
It happens in time. Years passed until the old woman
one snowy morning realized she had never loved her daughter . . .
Or Five years later she answered the door, and her suitor had returned
almost unrecognizable from his journeys . . .
But before you get to that part
you have to learn the names—you have to suffer not knowing anything about
and slowly come to understand who each of them is, or who each of them
imagines themselves to be—
and then, because you are the reader, you must try to understand who you think
each of them is because of who you believe yourself to be in relation to their
or to your memory of one very much like it.
Oh it happens in time, and time is hard to live through.
I can’t read anything anymore; my dying brother said one afternoon.
Not even letters.
Come on; Come on, he said, waving his hand in the air.
What am I interested in—plot?
You come upon the person the author put there
as if you’d been pushed into a room and told to watch the dancing—
—pushed into pantries, into basements, across moors, into
the great drawing rooms of great cities, into the small cold cabin or
to here—beside the small running river where a boy is weeping,
and no one comes . . .
and you have to watch without saying anything he can hear.
One by one the readers come and watch him weeping by the running river,
and he never knows
unless he too has heard the story where a boy feels himself all alone.
This is the life you have written, the novel tells us. What happens next?
I think what Eliot might be suggesting is that this problem, this insight into character which retrospect gives us, only after crises, isn’t limited to the world of storytelling.