Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Mill on the Floss: The Weakness of a Single Virtue

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie’s great virtue is her compassion, her pity.  It is a pity born out of her own sufferings.  Maggie can feel compassion (suffer with, from Latin) because she has suffered so much pain, pain due to misunderstanding and unrequited love from her family.  It is not as though her family doesn’t love her at all; it’s that her love is not returned in the way she most needs it.  Maggie’s love is a love that feels the pain of others, and she in turn needs others to feel her pain. This Maggie does not receive. Nevertheless, the pain she experiences only increases her compassion which in turn leads her to righteousness.  That is, she is led to do what is morally right, not in order to be right, but in order not to inflict pain on others: “Oh God!” she prays in desperation, “preserve me from inflicting.” She says elsewhere to Stephen, “I must not, cannot, seek my own happiness by sacrificing others.”
Maggie is a compassionate woman.  Compassion guides her, almost always, into righteousness; however, no single virtue is sufficient to keep us safe from our passions.  When Maggie reproaches Stephen for leading her into a compromised position, it is her pity for him, for the pain he is suffering at her reproach, that induces her to yield even more, allowing Stephen to take her near the point of no return.  Eliot says of Maggie’s feelings at this point, “This yielding to the idea of Stephen’s suffering was more fatal than other yielding, because it was less distinguishable from that sense of others’ claims which was the moral basis of her resistance.”  The moral basis of Maggie’s resistance to Stephen is the claim others have on her love, faithfulness and loyalty--and the suffering she will cause others if she does not stay faithful to their claim.  However, because her resistance is based solely on this sense of compassion, her unwillingness to hurt others, she is easily manipulated by Stephen, who, while not a complete cad, has by this point reduced the conflict between his will and Maggie’s to a matter of winning. Near the end of Maggie’s “inward as well as...outward contest” with Stephen, Eliot says that Stephen thought “of his new hope: he was going to triumph.”  And again toward the very end of the contest Eliot says, “Stephen thought again that he was beginning to prevail--he had never yet believed that he should not prevail.”
Stephen is intent on winning what he wants.  Consequently, he can stoop to use almost any means likely to secure his trophy.  Never, or almost never, is a human being fully demonic; similarly, never, or almost never, is a human being free from some demonic influence so long as he or she is pursuing a desire to win it.  Stephen played on Maggie’s strength, which, unguarded by other important virtues, was also her weakness.
Compassion is a great virtue, yet it is only one of the virtues.  But in Maggie's religious culture, a culture full of biting criticism of the weak and hypocritical tolerance of the sins of the strong (those with wealth and social position), compassion, wherever it can be found, is certainly a virtue to be nurtured and esteemed.  I do not fault Maggie for her compassion; rather, I observe that compassion alone is not enough.  It is not enough to protect us from the serpent of our own passionate desires and the temptations that come to us through the serpent at work in those who might want to win us (or more exactly, some aspect of us) as a prize for themselves.

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