I have finished The Mill on the Floss. The novel ends tragically, but not in the classical sense. On one level, I was certainly pulling for Philip. I hoped Maggie could overcome temptation and find a long-term loving relationship with Philip. Like Lucy, I fancied that the difficulties could be worked out. However, real life, like Maggie’s, is usually not that easily managed.
I do not want to reveal too much of the plot for those who have not read the novel yet; however, I will say that Eliot must have in her own life experienced temptation as profoundly as any human being has. Her description of Maggie’s alternating yielding to and struggle against temptation strikes me as an almost exact description of both my own experiences with temptation and the experiences of others I know of as a priest and confessor. The Fathers of the Church teach us that one experiences demonic temptation to the degree of one’s devotion to God. Those who have devoted themselves most deeply to faithful love of God and neighbor (neighbor meaning those close to you, not the imagined neighbor of philosophy and pretended religion), those who have so devoted themselves experience the greatest demonic temptations. Those who have little care for God or neighbour, experience few temptations.
Maggie is a young woman who has wholly devoted herself to love of God, as best as she knows how. In her mid teens, she comes across Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and completely devotes herself to the way of self-sacrificing love. But because she has no one to guide her, “making out a faith for herself without the aid of established authorities and appointed guides,” Maggie exaggerates and is willful in her self renunciation. Elliot points out that Maggie, like many who begin on the road to self renunciation, prefers the path of martyrdom, “where the palm branches grow” (i.e. glory and praise), “rather than the steep highway of tolerance, just allowance [for the weaknesses of others], and self blame, where there are no leafy honours to be gathered and worn.” Maggie in many ways experiences what many who have converted to the Orthodox faith have experienced. She discovered the fathers, or at least a father; but this father has come to her only in a book, and thus she is left to her own resources to fill in all that a book cannot provide. In some places she does well, in others, not so well.
Unfortunately, Maggie, like all who strive to follow the way of the cross without careful, close and personal spiritual guidance, has a clear image of righteousness in her mind and a firm resolve to pursue it. She asserts repeatedly that she would rather die than to “seek [her] own happiness by sacrificing others.” Unfortunately, dying is not so easy. When one is unguided in the arena of spiritual warfare, persistent thoughts and strong feelings can shake even the firmest resolve and the highest morality. And for Maggie, Stephen’s persistence and her strong yearning to be loved combine to shake her very foundations.
Eliot does an excellent job of describing the experience of slipping into a temptation and again of the revival of conscience to resist. Eliot speaks of Maggie’s “less vivid consciousness” that she experiences when yielding to temptation. There is no clear sense of deciding anything, just a yielding, as though “every influence tended to lull her into acquiescence,” a “partial sleep of thought.” Each time Maggie yields a little, some small awareness startles her back to resistance. Suddenly she sees clearly her danger. Suddenly she knows death is preferable to any betrayal of those she loves. Back and forth Maggie struggles with an unrelenting tempter, yielding a little, then forcefully resisting. Back and forth until in the end, God delivers her.
I will reflect more tomorrow.