Maggie Tulliver is a hugely complex character. Which makes sense. She is at the center of a complex novel that has a lot of different themes and ideas swirling around. And this is exactly what makes Maggie so complicated: she’s impossible to pin down as any one "thing."
Maggie is bold and independent, but she frequently submits to her family’s wishes, even when they cause her pain. She longs to find a better life and a better future, but she stubbornly clings to her painful past. She wants love more than anything, but she gives it up after finding it. She has a great capacity to enjoy books and art and music, but she willingly denies herself these things. If we had to pick one word to describe Maggie it would be complicated. And that doesn’t really tell us all that much. It definitely takes some work to understand Maggie.
Fortunately for us, Maggie is always expressing her opinions (and the narrator is always elaborating on said opinions), complicated though they may be. So, we have a lot of clues into her character. During a conversation with Stephen, who frequently challenges Maggie’s views, Maggie delivers a rather climactic summary of many of the book’s major themes. And this a good place for us to start figuring out what makes Maggie tick:
"Many things are difficult and dark to me - but I see one thing quite clearly - that I must not, cannot seek my own happiness by sacrificing others. Love is natural - but surely pity and faithfulness and memory are natural too. And they would live in me still, and punish me if I didn’t obey them. I should be haunted by the suffering I had caused." (6.11.49)
The run-down that Maggie gives to Stephen mentions four major themes that are crucial to Maggie’s character. So let’s check them out.
Love is pretty much everything to Maggie. If the Beatles had been around in Victorian England, "All You Need is Love" would definitely have been Maggie’s favorite song. While Maggie’s desire for love for herself is a major component of her character, we also have to consider Maggie’s love of other people. And Maggie’s desire to receive love and her desire to give love don’t always mesh very well.
See, Maggie’s compassion and her reluctance to hurt others is at the core of Maggie’s character, and this compassion also helps to explain why Maggie is as complicated and as contradictory as she is. Maggie Tulliver is a people-pleaser. She wants everyone around her to be pain-free. And, if they are pain-free, it means that Maggie has done well and that people will in turn love her, which is the other driving imperative in Maggie’s character.
But there are a few problems with this. It is impossible to please everybody and Maggie is almost constantly tormented by the fact that the choices she makes inevitably cause somebody pain. Secondly, Maggie’s consuming need to be loved often conflicts with her desire to not cause others pain. By seeking love for herself, Maggie often ends up angering people, like her family. And by denying herself love and happiness Maggie still ends up making people mad, like her jilted lover Stephen and the perpetually lovelorn Philip. She’s managed to place herself in a no-win situation here.
OK, so it probably sounds a bit creepy to say that Maggie’s love issues all revolve around Tom Tulliver. Actually, it’s kind of is creepy in the book at times. Maggie refuses to marry Philip because of her brother, after all. Which is weird. Of course, Maggie had doubts about Philip anyway, so Tom may very well have been an excuse.
However, Maggie seems obsessed with Tom’s opinion of her, from the time she’s a kid. She fears Tom and she loves him. She rebels against his harsh judgments, but he also has the power to humiliate her. Maggie’s obsession with Tom, though, may not be so much with Tom himself. Tom might actually be the perfect representative of all the values that Maggie holds dear. Tom represents her home, her family, her past, her duty. Still, there are a few things that can challenge Maggie’s devotion to Tom though: her bold personality and her compassion.
See, we were totally getting to the Cruel Intentions part. Tom is mean to Maggie. A lot. And Maggie generally takes whatever he’s dishing out. In fact, Tom seems to love punishing Maggie and Maggie, with her mile wide guilt complex and her romantic views of self-denial, accepts it. To a point at least. Though Maggie sometimes gives a good impression of a doormat, she still has her limits. She’s not afraid to tell Tom off sometimes:
"But yet, sometimes when I have done wrong, it has been because I have feelings that you would be the better for if you had them. If you were in fault ever - if you had done anything very wrong, I should be sorry for the pain it brought you - I should not want punishment to be heaped on you. But you have always enjoyed punishing me - you have always been hard and cruel to me." (5.5.83)
Even in a rant against Tom, Maggie’s desire to be loved and her innate compassion come through. Pity is a driving force in Maggie’s character, and it seems that a lack of pity in others, even in Tom, can drive Maggie to anger.
Yes, that was a Mr. T reference. That’s how we roll at Shmoop. OK, so Maggie is definitely fixated on Tom’s opinion of her. But, as we said before, Maggie’s desire to be loved co-exists with her compassion for others. It’s this compassion and pity that often leads Maggie to act in ways that hurt and anger others. Her whole relationship with Philip was based in the pity she felt for him. And her turbulent and short-lived love affair with Stephen pretty much imploded because of Maggie’s excess of pity: she pitied Stephen who was love-sick, she pitied Philip who she abandoned, and she pitied Lucy who she nearly betrayed. But when Maggie’s pity becomes excessive and out of control, there are two other guides she falls back upon: faithfulness and memory.
Maggie’s view of the past is an odd one. That isn’t surprising, given the other views she holds. For Maggie, the more distant the past, the more powerful a claim it has. Maggie frequently references her history with Tom as a crucial part of her loyalty to him. And Maggie also focuses a great deal on her long history with Philip. Past promises and bonds become a sort of duty for Maggie, and it is this duty that allows Maggie to make the choices that she does. Maggie is never able to fully reconcile her desire to be loved and her pity for others, her passionate nature, and her compassion. But Maggie’s commitment to her past helps to inform the difficult decisions she makes, even though it rarely makes these decisions easier. Much as Maggie can’t let go of her past and her ideas of duty, she can’t let go of her desire to make sure no one around her suffers.