I have been, for the past week or so, reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot for class. I can assure you that this is not a book I would have picked up on my own. I have a steady and natural distaste for prose fiction before 1900. The language in the intervening century or so has changed quite dramatically, with usage and cadence shifting and moving. The way these books are written, well, people really just don’t talk like that anymore. The pomposity of the age aside, these books are more complex than they should be simply by virtue of time, and that’s notwithstanding, say, lexical or stylistic choices or dialect differences that compound the problem. When you reach back far enough, you predate the birth of the paragraph, and whole books are like the last fifty pages of Ulysses, giant blocks of text with no chance for the eye to rest or the brain to take mental stock of progress, and that’s ignoring the central purpose of the paragraph, which is to provide a well-structured piece. Prose fiction before 1730, then, is organized along entirely different lines than those along which we’ve been trained to read, with endless, grating stream-of-consciousness insanity, indentation coming almost at random, quotations undifferentiated or unattributed. It’s madness.
So it was with great pleasure that I found The Mill on the Floss an entertaining and engaging read once I got past the unnecessary meditations on the fashions of the day. It’s the story of the Tulliver family in 1830’s Britain (I’ve been trying to place the location based on names and language, as there doesn’t appear to be actual Floss or Rapid rivers), centering on the children, Tom and Maggie, as they age and grow through an extended family crisis, the loss of their mill and property. Maggie is really the protagonist, starting off as precocious and naive little girl, overly-emotional and liable to take out her frustrations by pounding nails into the face of a doll in the attic, but profoundly intelligent, moreso than her brother.
I’m interested in her as a Christian character. At age fifteen, she reads The Imitation of Christ, and, taken with it, decides to make its contents her guiding principals. In the best spirit of evangelical poverty she can muster, being untrained in such things, she embraces self-renunciation, but finds herself bound up in her own pride. As much as she tries to place herself beneath others, it’s there, beneath others, that she raises herself above them.
It’s called the pride of the habit, and I’ve discussed it with Br. Miguel, the old Capuchin vocations director. There is a longstanding question, bubbling just a few inches beneath the skin of the water, about the propriety of the use of the habit in public. It immediately identifies the wearer as, not just clergy, but a very specific type of clergy, and immediately makes claims as to where the wearer stands with God. It draws attention to itself, it demands attention; the friar is, after all, dressed like a twelfth century Italian beggar. In that way, perhaps the habit fosters an amount of pride or self-importance in the friar-on-the-street. I guess the hope is that, by the time you put it on, you’ll have grown enough for that not to be the case.
Eventually, Maggie Tulliver abandons that way of life, mostly at the behest of her sorta-suitor, Philip Wakem (aren’t these all delightfully English names?). I am struck, though, at how it influenced her character, how it bubbled up to the surface at exactly the right time in exactly the right way.
Maggie and Philip have determined they cannot be together, because of a rivalry between Wakem and her brother, but wish to remain essentially committed to each other, Maggie saying that, if she was to marry, she would marry Philip. But, during a long stay with her cousin, Maggie and Stephen, her cousin’s, er, partner, develop feelings for each other. Maggie’s rebuttal of Stephen’s proposal that they run away together, seeing as neither is absolutely obligation to their respective partners, seems a stunning summary of the Christian life.
“You don’t believe that — it’s not your real feeling,” said Maggie earnestly. “You feel, as I do, that the real tie lies in the feelings and expectations we have raised in other minds. Else all pledges might be broken, when there was no outward penalty. There would be no such thing as faithfulness.” [emphasis added]
She goes on with the acuity of a doctor of the Church, saying that love is as often renunciation as it is embrace, and that the two of them cannot simply think of and look only for themselves, and asks Stephen not to take her because he loves her. What astonishing understanding! Such foresight and wisdom, to know the limits and demands of love alongside its pleasures and delights, and what a sense of Christian duty towards ourselves and toward others. We must not always give in to our own appetites.
Stephen, you see, make the argument so common in our movies today, and probably resultantly common among young lovers, that love conquers all and should never be resisted, that love places the lovers in their own world apart from the constraints and demands of society or religion, that love’s demands are beyond reproach or resistance. It’s another aspect of the Hero Thesis that dominates our entire society.
The Hero Thesis is the idea that one particular aspect of society, be it politicians, artists, or even lovers, are exempt from restraint in the name of their particular field. Artists need not make art in any sense with the community in mind, because what matters is the artist’s personal expression, their statement. Politicians are Great Leaders who are going to save us all. And, as illustrated above, amor vincit omnia. These ideas, left to themselves to be taken to their last end, are deceitful, utterly divorced from the lived experience of community, and treacherous in their self-importance. Man was not made for himself.