Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Mill On The Floss: Maggie and Tom

I stopped reading The Mill on the Floss sometime before Christmas. I just couldn’t take it any more. George Eliot’s description of Maggie’s mistreatment by her family hit too close to home. On the one hand, I identify closely with Maggie. Like Maggie, when I was a child I wanted desperately to be loved; and “loved” to me meant mostly to be understood as well intentioned.
Like Maggie, and not only in my childhood, I have felt a strong urge to be of some use, to be helpful, and not to be a burden to others. And like Maggie I have often misread the situation, misunderstood the unspoken rules, and failed to see that the thing that I thought I could do, the thing that seemed to me to be most helpful to others, was in fact (or in interpretation) something despised or counter productive. I understand the pain of misunderstood good intentions. I understand the crushing disappointment of zealous acts of self sacrifice producing nothing but disdain, or at best pity, from those I had hoped to bless.
And if this has been the case in my relationships with elders and peers, it has most intensely been the case in my relationship with God. Since my teen years, when I first came to know God in any specific way, I have intensely striven to prove to God that I love Him. And time and time again I have found that my zealous strivings have almost always met a kind of dead end, or at least what appeared to me at the time to be a dead end. Door-to-door canvasing and street evangelism produced no noticeable fruit. Groups and meetings that I organized seemed always to fizzle out. When I tried to emulate charismatic leaders, I soon realized that I was worse at being someone else than I was at being myself. Nothing I did seemed to produce that elusive experience of God’s favor, although there were brief periods when I imagined that I had it. And those times, as it turns out in retrospect, were the worst.
Although I relate a great deal Maggie, I also relate somewhat to Maggie’s brother Tom--and this is where the on the other hand comes in. During those moments when I thought I had it right, when I was confident of God’s blessing, I am afraid that I acted a great deal like Tom. Tom is a character who always does the right thing, no matter whom he has to step on or run over to do it. And whom he steps on most often is Maggie, the one who loves him most and the one he loves the most--according to his own, possessive species of love.
This is the great danger of being right, of knowing that you have God’s blessing. When you are right, the only thing that matters is rightness. People cease to exist as human beings. People become mere buttresses of, or obstacles to, the right. He who knows for sure has little patience for those who know in part (c.f. 1Cor. 13:12), especially if they persist in their stubborn refusal to see the truth he has condescended to make so clear to them. He who is right and blessed--blessed not because he is right, for that would be a theological mistake, but by Grace, of course--is quick to cut off (so that God may judge) those who doubt and those who seem to fail. How do I know? I know because this is how I have thought and acted, at times, when I felt right and affirmed by God.
Maggie and Tom are both burdened with the same strong urge to be affirmed, to be loved. But Tom is able easily to divide his universe into right and wrong and has found his affirmation in being right, while Maggie has the added burden of an active and penetrating mind and a heart that feels deeply for others. Maggie can see the same right and wrong that Tom sees, but she can also see much more.
Over the past ten or fifteen years, I have learned to accept myself. And in accepting myself, I have come to experience God’s acceptance deeply, in a way that is more about being than doing. I hope George Eliot lets her character Maggie come eventually to the same place. However, hints in the text don’t seem to be pointing that way.
I picked up The Mill on the Floss again this morning because I had to wait at the bio-lab for my annual blood work. I’m a little more than half way through. I should probably finish it.


Michelle said...

All I can say is, prepare to be heartbroken ... And I empathize with Maggie, especially with regards to Philip.

Unknown said...

A truly touching blog. I am studying this text at college and yes, poor old Maggie - it is almost unbareable to read about the strife that she edures in her cruel, unforgiving society. In my opinion, her unconventionalities, albeit they can't be helped, deem her a 'mistake of nature', thus leaving her a walking target for the mercilessness of the Fates. This is the injustice of life... Stick with it, if you can, for 'The Mill on the Floss' is a magnificent novel, and even if you as a reader personally feel Maggie's struggles, you may find that you are stronger person by the end. Enjoyed reading you blog!