Maggie and Dorothea: Reparation and Working Through in George Eliot's Novels

by Ignęs Sodré

November 30, 2000


This article discusses the idea that an artistic flaw in a great work of literature may remain in the author's mind as an unresolved conflict which will seek resolution in a subsequent work. George Eliot's great novels The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch are explored to show that Maggie Tulliver's heroic death, artistically unsatisfactory because it is a wish-fulfilling, daydream-like solution is one of the reasons for creating the character of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Dorothea's development from self-idealising adolescent to mature, self-aware young woman works through an emotional conflict which initially belongs to George Eliot herself, and this is seen to have a reparative function, leading to greater integration and a more artistically truthful resolution.


    An artistic flaw in a novel by a great writer may remain in the author's mind as a problem to be resolved in a later work. I believe that this is what happens with the ending of The Mill on the Floss, which has been much criticized because it does follow from the psychological development of the main character, Maggie Tulliver, but provides a contrived solution that gratifies Maggie's needs on an infantile level--and, through identification, George Eliot's needs as well. The issues that are not resolved in The Mill on the Floss are worked through more successfully eleven years later in Dorothea's story in Middlemarch. Whereas George Eliot failed to portray the realistic consequences of Maggie's personality and behavior, her portrayal of Dorothea's more mature solution fulfilled a reparative task and resulted in a more satisfying work of art.

The Ending of The Mill on the Floss: Maggie's Death

    The Mill on the Floss is George Eliot's most autobiographical novel. It is well known that Maggie's childhood and her relationship with Tom are closely based on the author's relationship with her own brother Isaac. At the time she wrote the novel, Eliot had no contact with Isaac, who had stopped communicating with her when she started living with the already married George Henry Lewes. Isaac did not resume contact with his sister until she became "respectable" by marrying John Walter Cross after Lewes's death. George Eliot seems to have felt deeply grateful for her brother's forgiveness, just as she had imagined Maggie feeling many years before when she is reconciled with Tom. The relationship with this profoundly loved older brother seems to have remained in George Eliot's mind as an ideal image of closeness and happiness, and I believe that this influenced the melodramatic conclusion of Maggie's story.

    We meet Maggie when she is still a small child, living with her parents and her brother Tom, to whom she is deeply attached. She is rebellious but very tender hearted and prone to excessive feelings of guilt. She is her father's favorite child, while Tom is the favorite of the mother. Tom is rigid and authoritarian and is not as clever as his sister. Much later, when Maggie is a young woman, Mr. Tulliver is ruined and dies and the family loses its home. Maggie falls in love with Stephen Guest, her cousin Lucy's fiance, with whom she more or less accidentally drifts down the river during an outing in a boat, too far to return home the same day. Stephen urges Maggie to run away with him, but she refuses and returns alone. She is now in a state of utter hopelessness. She suffers intensely from having given up Stephen and is overwhelmed with guilt for having injured her cousin and brought shame and misery upon her family. She is now an outcast with only the bleakest future ahead. George Eliot concludes Maggie's story with an external catastrophe, a great flood, which brings about a disguised happy ending of the kind that appears in adolescent day dreams. It allows the guilty Maggie to die heroically and therefore to be admired, forgiven and loved.

    Many critics have pointed out that something false and idealized interrupts the truthful flow of the story. In his chapter on the novel in A Psychological Approach to Fiction, Bernard Paris observes that "the ending is artistically weak because, though the action of the novel has elsewhere been realistic, it seems here to be controlled by the wishes and fantasies of the heroine. In her over-identification with Maggie, George Eliot loses sight of that disparity between inward and outward, wish and reality, which is usually a controlling principal in her fictional universe"(1974, p. 186). Barbara Hardy makes a similar point in her comment on the scene near the end in which Maggie wishes to die and then immediately realizes that a great flood is occurring, as if in answer to her prayers: "what turns a great psychological novel into a Providence novel at the end is not simply this magical coincidence of prayer and answer (in 'the water flowing under her'); it is the appearance of exactly the wrong kind of problem solving . . .  The end is needed by the artist, not by the tale . . . [it is] not a discovery but an obscuring fantasy (1982, pp. 60 and 65).

    In his review of the novel, Henry James complained that "the denouement shocks the reader most painfully" because "nothing has prepared him for it; the story does not move towards it; it casts no shadow before it" (quoted in Hardy, 1982, p. 62). That is not the problem, however, since in fact the ending is prepared for all through the novel. In Chapter 2, where the story begins, there are two references to the possibility of Maggie drowning. George Eliot herself attributed the weakness of the ending to the fact that she could not develop the concluding book as fully as she wished; but the problem is not so much the brevity as the unreality of the denouement, the fact that it is imposed from without. It seems to me that Maggie's falling in love with Stephen, drifting away with him, and then giving him up out of unbearable guilt are presented fully enough. It is the wish-fulfillment character of Maggie's death and of her reconciliation with Tom that falsifies the novel and shocks the reader. And this disguised happy ending is, as Barbara Hardy points out, colored by George Eliot's wish to be reconciled with her brother.

    Maggie's falling in love with Stephen has also been the object of much criticism. When the novel was first published, there were numerous critics who complained of the immorality of Maggie's choice and of the famous scene in which Stephen passionately kisses her arm. George Eliot replied to these objections in July, 1860, in a letter to John Blackwood: "If the ethics of art do not admit the truthful presentation of a character essentially noble but liable to great error--error that is anguish to its own nobleness-- then, it seems to me, the ethics of art are too narrow, and must be widened to correspond to a widening psychology" (Haight, 1985, p. 249). But George Eliot was also much criticized for her portrayal of Maggie's lover. Leslie Stephen felt that she "did not herself understand what a mere hairdresser's block she was describing in Mr. Stephen Guest. He is another instance of her incapacity for portraying the opposite sex" (quoted in Draper, 1977, p. 85). Virginia Woolf also thought that George Eliot did not know how to "conceive a fit mate for her heroine" (quoted in Draper, 1977, p. 105).

    I think that Maggie's choice of Stephen as a lover is quite consistent with her psychological development and therefore can be said to be "right" for the novel. One has to agree, of course, that Stephen is a "coxcomb" and is not a fit mate for Maggie. George Eliot knows this perfectly well and makes clear the sexual nature of the attraction between Maggie and Stephen. But there is something infinitely more important in Maggie's choice of Stephen, or rather, in her being driven, against her conscious will, to "fall into temptation," only to return after having destroyed her cousin's happiness and her own. Stephen is Lucy's fiance, and Lucy has been the main object of Maggie's envy and jealousy ever since she was a little girl. As Paris points out, "her conquest of Stephen satisfies Maggie's deep, though suppressed, desire for a vindictive triumph over Lucy, in whose shadow she has always lived" (1974, p.179)

    When Tom and Maggie's childhood friend Philip Wakem meets the grown up Maggie for the first time and tells her jokingly that she could take Lucy's admirers away, Maggie feels terribly threatened, but the she launches into a passionate defense of dark heroines (like herself) who always lose their lovers to their blond rivals (like Lucy). She symbolically triumphs over Lucy when she agrees to exchange her little brooch for Lucy's large one, immediately before we--and Maggie--are introduced to Stephen. Maggie's feelings toward Lucy are not merely adolescent phantasies and rivalries but belong to the core of her personality.

    The central problem in Maggie's childhood is the fact that her mother does not understand her and clearly feels threatened by this clever little girl who is physically and mentally so different from herself. Maggie is brown-skinned, black-haired, curious and wild, unlike the members of Mrs. Tulliver's side of the family (Maggie takes after her father). Mrs. Tulliver feels it to be unfair that she should have such a child and wishes that Lucy, the blond, pretty, well-behaved child, who looks like her, were her daughter. All through her childhood Maggie suffers from her mother's rejection.

    Tom, her beloved brother, also shows a preference for Lucy, and in fact falls in love with her when they grow up. The scene in which Maggie, in a fit of jealousy, throws Lucy in the mud, and then runs away to the gypsies, is obviously the precursor to her running away with Stephen and leaving him the next day in Mudport. The childhood scene begins with Tom inviting Lucy to see the pond with him "as if there was no Maggie in existence. Seeing this Maggie lingered at a distance looking like a small Medusa with her snakes cropped" (Bk. I, Ch. 10). Full of enough "warring passions . . . to have made a tragedy," Maggie follows Lucy and Tom and "with a fierce thrust of her small brown arm" pushes "poor little pink-and-white Lucy into the cow-trodden mud," thus making her brown (Bk. I, Ch. 10; my emphasis). The emphasis on Maggie's brown arm is repeated in the seduction scene in the conservatory when Stephen impetuously kisses Maggie's arm, now regarded as beautiful.

    There is no doubt that Maggie is overwhelmed by her infantile wish to be the most loved and to rob the sister-like Lucy, of whom she is envious. But the enactment of her unconscious wishes results in unbearable guilt. It is this guilt that seems to be too much for the author and that causes the natural flow of the novel to break up. George Eliot seems forced to cut "the knot she was unable to unravel" (Bennett, 1948, p. 130), and the wish-fulfilling phantasy takes over. The need for the external catastrophe comes from the author's inability to transcend her identification with her character. Maggie's death is presented as reparative, but there is no true reparation, for, as Paris points out, her behavior "has much more to do with re-establishing her relation to herself . .  than with minimizing or repairing the damage that she has done to others" (1974, p. 182).

"The Lifted Veil"

    In the adolescent day-dream ending of The Mill on the Floss we find not only the idealization of death as a solution, but also a totally unrealistic portrayal of dying as a physical event. George Eliot wrote that "all truth and beauty [should be] attained by a humble and faithful study of nature, and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination in the mists of feelings, in place of definite, substantial reality (quoted in Pinion, 1982, p. 67). In The Mill on the Floss, she described death by drowning as "living through again in one supreme moment, the days they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together (Bk. VII, Ch. 5). George Eliot opts for "mists of feelings" in place of "substantial reality": instead of horrible suffocation, we have ecstasy.

    An inherent counterpart of idealization is the splitting off and projection of negative and undesirable aspects. I believe that George Eliot's story "The Lifted Veil" contains elements that have been split off from the ending of The Mill on the Floss. In March 1859, soon after George Eliot began to work on The Mill, her older sister Chrissey, to whom she was very close, died. Feeling that her distressed state did not allow her to concentrate on her novel, George Eliot decided to write "The Lifted Veil," which she called "not a 'jeu d'esprit' but a 'jeu de melancholie'" (Haight, 1985, p. 207).

    Uncharacteristic of George Eliot's work, "The Lifted Veil" is a tale of the supernatural and the uncanny in which the hero, Latimer, can predict the future (including his own death) and is aware of other people's thoughts, which rush upon him "like a preternaturally heightened sense of hearing, making audible to one a roar of sound where others find perfect stillness" (Ch. 1). Isolated, lonely, and longing for "brotherly recognition" (like both George Eliot and Maggie), Lattimore feels, as does Maggie in her last days, that "we have all a chance of meeting with some pity, some tenderness, some charity, when we are dead: it is the living only who cannot be forgiven" (Ch. 1).

    Latimer has a prevision of his own death, which will take place one month after he finishes writing his story, and although, like Maggie, he wishes to be dead, he is terrified of the moment of dying. He suffers from angina pectoris and will expire from suffocation:

Just as I am watching a tongue of blue flame rising in the fire, and my lamp is burning low, the horrible contraction will begin in my chest. I shall only have time to reach the bell, and pull it violently, before the sense of suffocation will come. No one will answer my bell . . . . The sense of suffocation increases: my lamp goes out with a horrible stench: I make a great effort and snatch the bell again. I long for life, and there is no help . . . Darkness--darkness--no pain --nothing but darkness: but I am passing on and on through the darkness: my thought stays in the darkness, but always with a sense of moving onwards. . .  (Ch. 1; my emphasis).

It seems to me that "The Lifted Veil" contains not only George Eliot's extreme "melancholie" at the time she was beginning to write The Mill on the Floss but also the split off "substantial reality" aspect of Maggie's death, in all its detail: the horrendous suffocation, the last minute wish to live, the darkness under the water, and, in the sense of moving, onwards the physical sensation of being helplessly carried away by the torrent.

    George Eliot was able to resume writing The Mill on the Floss after finishing "The Lifted Veil." As author, she is in a way in Latimer's position: since her character's destiny is entirely in her hands, she can "predict the future." But we are not convinced that Maggie's destiny is truthful--that is, inevitable--and are left with the feeling that it was "made up" rather than "predicted." Although Maggie's end was foreshadowed from the beginning of the novel, we cannot entirely believe in it because it is emptied of its real "melancholie," the suffering that intrinsically belongs to it. That suffering seems to have been represented in "The Lifted Veil."

The End of The Mill and the "Prelude" to Middlemarch

    I think we can begin to see the relationship between The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch if we compare passages from the end of The Mill with passages from the "Prelude" to the later novel.

    Despairing and guilt ridden, Maggie Tulliver hopes for death as the only way to escape her torments and then suddenly realizes that her feet are getting wet and that the great flood has come. She jumps into a boat and, facing mortal danger, goes to her childhood home to save Tom, the beloved but cruel brother who has forsaken her. When Tom sees her "the full meaning of what had happened rushed upon his mind . .  such an entirely new revelation to his spirit, of the depths of life, which had lain beyond his vision which he had fancied so keen and clear, that he was unable to ask a question . .  he guessed a story of almost miraculous divinely--protected effort" (Conclusion). When Tom utters the old childish name "Magsie," his name for her when he loved her as a little girl, Maggie can "make no answer but a long deep sob of that mysterious wondrous happiness that is one with pain." After Tom and Maggie are drowned, "The boat reappeared--but brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted--living through again in one supreme moment, the days they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together" (Conclusion).

    Middlemarch opens with the following sentence: "Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of St. Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?" (Prelude). There is no necessary connection between thinking about "the experiments of Time" and the life of St. Theresa, particularly the apparently endearing childhood scene George Eliot describes. The connection seems to be via George Eliot's nostalgia for what she regarded as her idyllic past relationship with her brother, in the days when, like Tom and Maggie, "they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together." The image of the little girl and her brother does not seem to be connected to the story of Dorothea, to whom we are being introduced, but to the picture of childhood happiness that is in Maggie's mind when she dies. Whereas we can easily picture Maggie setting out with her brother for the country of the Moors (she ran away, we recall, to the gypsies), Dorothea is neither adventurous nor particularly imaginative.

    The "Prelude" continues: "Out they toddled . .  until domestic reality in the shape of uncles turned them back from their great resolve. That child pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa's passionate nature demanded an epic life." The parallel with Dorothea is that although she chooses martyrdom, the reality principle, in the shape of the author, turns her back from her great (but infantile) resolve, and she, unlike Maggie, is allowed to grow up.


    After being told in the "Prelude" that Dorothea is a "later born Theresa," we are introduced in Chapter 1 to an adolescent dominated by phantasies of reparation. We are invited to see her as saintly and heroic but are shown simultaneously the narcissistic, self-idealizing nature of her yearning for a better, "grander" life. George Eliot's attitude toward Dorothea is ambivalent; she both admires and mocks her childish, self-righteous attempts to change a world with which she is obviously out of touch. Dorothea's plans are not only naive but hopelessly unimaginative.

    Dorothea's has renunciatory tendencies that clearly resemble Maggie Tulliver's. Walking in the Red Deeps is a pleasure Maggie loves so well that "in her ardours of renunciation" she feels that she ought to stop indulging herself in it (Bk. V, Ch. 1). For Dorothea, "riding was an indulgence which she allowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it (Ch. 1). We know that for Maggie renunciation is a masochistic way of dealing with a life full of suffering and loss, but Dorothea's pathological self-denial has no apparent cause. She simply is like that.

    Indeed, one of the most striking facts about Dorothea is that she has no history that explains her self-renunciation, naivete, and out-of-touchness. There is almost no information about her past except for a brief mention of parents dying in her childhood and of an education in Lausanne. This lack of a history is totally uncharacteristic in George Eliot, since her other central characters have a past and family relationships that explain why they came to be who they are. Will Ladislaw seems to sense that there is something peculiar in Dorothea's history when he compares her with "the boy in the legend" who had "a vision of Hades" when he was very young (Ch. 22). As G. Beer discovered, this is a reference to Anskar, a ninth century missionary, who "having given himself to boyish levity," saw his dead mother when he was five and was told that to come to her he had to "flee every kind of vanity, and put away childish jests and have regard to the seriousness of life" (Beer, 1983, p. 175). This is a hidden clue to the link between Dorothea's loss of her parents in childhood and her psychopathology, but the link is not directly explored in the novel.

    Middlemarch starts with the story of two sisters, Dorothea and Celia, through whose relationship George Eliot seems to be reworking the relationship between Maggie Tulliver and her cousin Lucy. Early in the novel there are masterly scenes in which Dorothea renounces first her mother's jewels (representing femininity and sensuality) and then the man who is in love with her, in favor of her pretty, blond, down-to-earth sister Celia, thus reversing the situation between Maggie and Lucy in The Mill on the Floss. George Eliot describes Dorothea as having "that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress" (Ch. 1). In the crucial scene in which the exchange of jewelry symbolises Maggie's stealing of Lucy's man, Lucy says, "'I can't think what witchery is in you, Maggie, that makes you look best in shabby clothes'" (Bk. VI, Ch. 2). The jewel exchange is reversed in Middlemarch when Dorothea insists that Celia take all of the jewelry they have inherited from their mother.

    When Celia suggests that her sister at least keep her mother's cross, George Eliot gives us a glimpse of Dorothea's unconscious anxiety and of the contempt that underlies her "renunciation." Protesting "Not for the world, not for the world," Dorothea proclaims that "a cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket," although it would be fine for Celia. George Eliot observes that "there was a strong assumption of superiority in this Puritanic toleration, hardly less trying to the blond flesh of an unenthusiastic sister than a Puritanic persecution" (Ch. 1). Trying to allay her discomfort, Celia insists that Dorothea keep a particularly beautiful necklace. Dorothea replies: "If I were to put on such a necklace as that, I should feel as if I had been pirouetting. The world would go round with me, and I should not know how to walk" (Ch. 1). This seems to show that Dorothea's puritanism and contempt for her sister's femininity hide a fear that sexuality will cause a loss of control and regression to an infantile state.

    In the next chapter, Sir James, who is in love with Dorothea, offers her one of his horses, and she tells him that she means to give up riding. The sexual content of the scene is quite obvious:

    "Let me hope that you will rescind that resolution about the horse, Miss Brooke," said the persevering admirer. "I assure you, riding is the most healthy of exercises."

    "I am aware of it," said Dorothea, coldly. "I think it would do Celia good--if she would take to it."

    "But you are such a perfect horse woman."

    "Excuse me; I have had very little practice, and I should be easily thrown."

    "Then that is a reason for more practice. Every lady ought to be a perfect horsewoman, that she may accompany her husband."

    "You see how widely we differ, Sir James. I have made up my mind that I ought not to be a perfect horsewoman, and so I should never correspond to your pattern of a lady." Dorothea looked straight before her, and spoke with cold brusquerie, very much with the air of a handsome boy. (Ch. 2; my emphasis)

At this point, Mr. Casaubon comes to Dorothea's rescue, and she feels understood in her need for "spiritual communion," which, by enabling her to maintain her sexual neutrality, prevents both the "dangerous pirouetting" and her being "thrown".

    The underlying anxiety in these apparently light scenes--which in fact foreshadow the process by which Dorothea condemns herself to a life of frustration and pain--makes me think of the letter George Eliot wrote to her friends the Brays on the day of her father's death: "What shall I be without my Father? It will seem as if a part of my moral nature were gone. I had a horrid vision of myself last night becoming earthly sensual and devilish for want of that purifying restraining influence" (Haight, 1985, p. 54). Dorothea is unconscious of what she is doing, but the author, the reader, and many characters in the novel all know that, in her search for an ideal Father, Dorothea mistakes the deadness and rigidity she finds in Casaubon for the right kind of "purifying restraining influence."

    In describing Dorothea's choice of "martyrdom," George Eliot presents an an extremely complex psychological situation in a confusing way. When Dorothea is redeeming Maggie's guilt, as it were, by giving to Celia what Maggie had taken from Lucy, and by choosing to give up sexuality altogether, she is, in fact, triumphing over her sister. George Eliot conveys very convincingly that her renunciation is suffused with cruelty ("puritanical persecution") and that it increases Dorothea's self-idealization. But although George Eliot makes this internal process very clear to us, she simultaneously tends to idealize Dorothea herself, leaving the reader in a rather baffled state. She also conveys Dorothea's unconscious anxieties and makes it clear that her choice of Casaubon is ultimately suicidal, so that Dorothea is at first condemned to death, like Maggie. The imagery surrounding Dorothea's married life suggests imprisonment and death--including death by suffocation, since Dorothea is described as "buried alive" in Lowick.

The Importance of Dorothea's Experience in Rome

    In April 1860, soon after finishing the manuscript of The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot left for Rome with George Henry Lewes. From there she wrote to her publisher, John Blackwood: "I hope Rome will at last chase away Maggie and the Mill from my thoughts: I hope it will, for she and her sorrows have clung to me painfully" (Haight, 1985, p. 244). Their first impression of Rome was disappointing, and they hated being there for the Holy Week and its "hateful shams," as Lewes called them (Haight, 1968, p. 324). This visit influenced George Eliot's conception of Dorothea's honeymoon trip to Rome, which marks an important turning point in the development of her character. Drawing on memories of her own experience, she described Dorothea's shock at seeing in the churches she visited "the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina" (Ch. 20). This crucial chapter is fundamentally about Dorothea's disillusionment, as, with great distress, she begins to realize the fact that her relationship with Casaubon bears very little resemblance to her phantasies of an ideal union between a "Milton" and an adoring, devoted daughter.

    I find George Eliot's choice of Rome as the place where Dorothea begins to grow up to be extremely interesting in the light of her letter to Blackwood. When she was in Rome herself, she was preoccupied with Maggie's unresolved tragedy, possibly with her sense of something unfinished which prevented her from separating from The Mill on the Floss; and it is in Rome that she has Dorothea experience the breakdown of idealization when she finally realizes she has made a horrible mistake. Unlike Maggie, Dorothea begins to develop emotionally through suffering and the growth of understanding.

    The epigraph to Chapter 20 conveys one aspect of Dorothea's experience: "a child forsaken, waking suddenly . .  seeth only that it cannot see the meeting eyes of love" (my emphasis). Dorothea has already realized that Casaubon is not as she had imagined him to be, and she is suffering intensely from his emotional deadness. A few paragraphs later, in one of George Eliot's most famous sentences, we have the suggestion that Dorothea is experiencing not only a sense of abandonment but also the presence of something unbearable: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." In Rome, Dorothea seems to be having a breakdown as she is overwhelmed by unmanageable experiences. The author asks us to imagine the impact of

the gigantic broken revelations of that Imperial and Papal city thrust abruptly on the notions of a girl who had been brought up in English and Swiss Puritanism . . . a girl who had lately become a wife, and from the enthusiastic acceptance of untried duty found herself plunged in tumultuous preoccupation with her personal lot. The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs [to whom it merely formed a background for social activities] . .  ; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions. Ruins and basilicas, palaces and colossi, set in the midst of a sordid present, where all that was living and warm-blooded seemed sunk in the deep degeneracy . .  : all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion. (Ch. 20; my emphasis)

In a state of inner tumult, Dorothea became "more and more aware, with a certain terror, that her mind was continually sliding into inward fits of anger or repulsion, or else into forlorn weariness."

    Dorothea is being assaulted by "gigantic broken revelations"-- intensely disturbing fragments of knowledge that seem to be projected into her, violently intruding through her ears and eyes. "Revelations" is a key word here. The psychologically blind Dorothea is beginning to see, and the first impact of realizing that she has done something terribly destructive to herself overwhelms her. Part of what disturbs Dorothea about Rome is its sordidness and open sensuality. Barbara Hardy (1982) has argued that Casaubon is not only emotionally and intellectually sterile, but that he is also sexually impotent and that the marriage was never consummated. I think that the situation is more complicated than that. Whereas George Eliot makes it clear that Casaubon had intended through marriage to "receive family pleasures and leave behind him that copy of himself which seemed so urgently required of a man" (Ch. 29), Dorothea meant to have an impotent husband, a non-incestuous relationship with the Father. She recoils so at the sensuality of Rome because she is horrified by her experience of her husband's sexuality.

    I think, though, that the amazing imagery in the Rome chapter suggests more than Dorothea's shocking discovery of sexuality. What Dorothea discovers, to her absolute horror, when she "wakes suddenly" is that Casaubon is real, not just a creation of her mind. Her illusion is suddenly shattered by his concrete, human presence, and experiencing this as an onslaught of terribly intrusive reality, she is left, raw, defenseless, in despair.

    Dorothea's terrible mistake springs from her narcissism, and the horror of the Rome experience is necessary for the growing up process to begin. The next chapter, ends with the famous passage:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early began to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling--an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects--that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference. (Chap. 21)

After Rome, we find Dorothea at home in Lowick, inwardly divided between her hatred of her husband and her growing acceptance of his "equivalent centre of self."

    There is a scene in Chapter 42 in which, after a night of torment, Dorothea finally feels real compassion for her husband. The scene begins with Dorothea feeling outraged at Casaubon's treatment of her: "What have I done--what am I--that he should treat me so? . .  Is he worth living for? . .  It is his fault, not mine." After a long "meditative struggle," however, Dorothea conquers her desire to strike at the unhappy man. She becomes more aware of his suffering--his equivalent center of self--and wants to be "the mercy for his sorrows." When she stands "outside in the darkness waiting for his coming," Casaubon is surprised and touched and is able then to be generous to her:

    "Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching." When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea's ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband's and they went along the broad corridor together.

We know then that something has become "broader" in Dorothea's mind and even, momentarily, in Casaubon's.

    We are left in the end with a slight sense of disappointment in relation to Dorothea's fate, a disappointment that has been attributed by some critics to Will Ladislaw's not being good enough for Dorothea and by others to the fact that George Eliot fails to lift Dorothea out of the constraints of the established social order--she becomes "just a wife." I believe that our disappointment (mine, at any rate) derives from the fact that there is a continued idealization of Dorothea which does not allow for the complete integration of adult sexuality. Even though Dorothea marries again and has children, like many other "good" heroines she is not allowed to be properly sexual. When presenting scenes between Will and Dorothea, George Eliot seems compelled to describe them as two little children, even if the content of the scene seems to contradict this. For example, in the scene in which Will characterizes Dorothea's life at Lowick as "a dreadful imprisonment" and she replies that she has "no longings," George Eliot describes them as "looking at each other like two fond children who were talking confidentially of birds" (Ch. 39). In the scene in which Will and Dorothea come to an understanding, they look out on the storm that has brought them together "with their hands clasped, like two children"; and Dorothea tells Will that they can live on her own fortune "in a sobbing, childlike way" (Ch. 83). I think that George Eliot cannot completely give up the brother-sister idyll, the idealization of the days when "they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together".

    Dorothea's rejection of sexuality and her totally inappropriate choice of a love object represent, as we have seen, a false reparative solution which furthers self-idealization and depends on the denial of crucial aspects of internal and external reality. At its root is a search for an idealized parent. When the powerful illusion of this idealized union breaks down, the way is opened for Dorothea to work through her internal conflicts and make a new kind of object choice. But we are left with a feeling at the end of the novel that Dorothea never fully matures because of George Eliot's infantilizing of the sexual relationship.

    Despite the fact that the author's continued idealization of her heroine leaves the reader feeling that she sometimes lapses into untruth, I think it is fair to say that in Middlemarch as a whole, there is a powerful movement toward integration, toward the working through of infantile conflicts and the relinquishment of falsifying methods of dealing with difficult emotional situations, that distinguishes this novel from The Mill on the Floss.

The "Conclusion" of The Mill and the "Finale" of Middlemarch

    In the "Conclusion" of The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot describes the desolation left by the flood: "Nature repairs her ravages--but not all. The uptorn trees are not rooted again--the parted hills are left scarred: if there is new growth, the trees are not the same as the old, and the hills underneath their green vesture bear the marks of the past rending. To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair" (my emphasis). She also describes the tomb in which Tom and Maggie lie, which is "often visited" by the two men who had loved Maggie.

    In its opening paragraph, the "Finale" of Middlemarch holds out the possibility of reparation: "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending . . . . a past error may urge a grand retrieval." The last paragraph of the novel illustrates this beautifully, as George Eliot reverses the ending of The Mill by using the river metaphor, but a transformed and optimistic way. Dorothea's "full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffuse: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

    Despite the fact that it fulfills Maggie's wishes, the flood in The Mill on the Floss is shown to cause destruction that can never be repaired. It represents an emotional storm that cannot be contained or integrated in any way. The water metaphor also dominates the end of Dorothea's story but in a totally different manner. Dorothea's passionate nature achieves maturity and fulfilment. The powerful but potentially dangerous river of instincts and emotions is channelled into calm, creative activities; it turns into small, life giving "brooks." There are other details in this paragraph that remind us of The Mill on the Floss. Dorothea's acts are constructive but "unhistoric," unlike Maggie's "historic" heroism; and Maggie's "often visited tomb" becomes Dorothea's "unvisited" one.

    In an earlier river metaphor George Eliot conveys her understanding of the impossibility, and, indeed, the undesirability of achieving a static state of goodness, as she emphasizes constant change, movement and flow towards what is morally and aesthetically most valuable: "But in Dorothea's mind there was a current into which all thoughts and feelings were apt sooner or later to flow - the reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good (Ch. 20).


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Ignęs Sodré "Maggie and Dorothea: Reparation and Working Through in George Eliot's Novels". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 1, 2000, Published: November 30, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Ignęs Sodré