The Mill on the Floss
by George Eliot
The Self-Help Guru
Philip Wakem has a few things in common with another famous Philip: Dr. Phil. No, really. Philip is basically Maggie’s friendly guide/life-coach. And, like Dr. Phil, Philip is always encouraging Maggie and giving her inspirational speeches about being true to herself and seeking her own happiness and not denying her own desires. It’s all very self-empowering. Philip delivers a lot of uplifting speeches throughout the book:
"But I can’t give up wishing," said Philip, impatiently. "It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them" (5.1.26)
Philip can be downright inspirational when he wants. Though this is odd, because Philip, personally, seems far from self-empowered, which is something the compassionate Maggie picks up on quickly. She has a radar for that sort of thing. Philip suffers a physical deformity and his condition has greatly impacted his life. Philip is cultured, artistic, and sensitive. He is dramatically different from the other young men in the book: Stephen and Tom.
Philip doesn’t think much of himself and practically pleads with Maggie to love him. Inspiring speeches to Maggie aside, Philip doesn’t always seem to practice what he preaches. His life appears to revolve around Maggie more than seizing the day and finding beauty in the world. Basically, Maggie is the world for Philip, and he is alternately sweet, sympathetic, and stalkerish around her.
Philip, Maggie, and Major Themes
Since Maggie is so central to Philip’s life and character, it makes sense that his main roles in the book are in relation to Maggie. Philip is first and foremost Maggie’s friend and confidant; he’s her gateway to a world of art and culture; he’s a connection to her childhood and her past; he’s an outlet for her compassion. So does Philip even have a role outside of his connections to Maggie?
Well, he doesn’t and he does. Philip has taken his love for Maggie, merged it with his artistic leanings and idealistic views, and transcended his connection to Maggie entirely. In fact, Philip may be the most heroic character in the entire book. He’s the underdog who comes out of left field to steal the show at the eleventh hour. Philip’s letter to Maggie near the novel’s end cinches his place as a truly noble and heroic figure:
"Maggie, that is a proof of what I write now to assure you of – that no anguish I have had to bear on your account has been too heavy a price to pay for the new life into which I have entered in loving you. [...] I never expected happiness: and in knowing you, in loving you, I have had, and still have, what reconciles me to life. [...] The new life I have found in caring for your joy and sorrow more than for what is directly my own, has transformed the spirit of rebellious murmuring." (7.3.13)
Out of all the characters in this book, Philip is has the most success in reconciling the divisions and conflicts that plague character like Maggie: the conflict between the self and others. Philip is able to totally reconcile himself to another person and to find his own happiness and peace through that person. He makes an effort to solve the problem of choice by choosing what is right for him and for another person. This is something that practically no one else in the novel manages to achieve. So, Philip the underdog is pretty heroic after all.