Study Guide

The Mill on the Floss Choices

By George Eliot

Choices

"Now, which’ll you have Maggie - right hand or left?"

"I’ll have that one with the jam run out," said Maggie, keeping her eyes shut to please Tom.

"Why, you don’t like that, you silly. You may have it if it comes to you fair, but I shan’t give it you without. Right or left - you choose now." (1.6.23-5)

Even as children, Tom had a very definite sense of justice and what made a choice fair or not. Interestingly, Maggie chooses here as she wants, and does not originally abide by Tom’s rules of fairness. Maggie will continue to conflict with Tom’s "rules" later in life too as she develops her own views of what is fair and what isn’t.

"Then I hope you’ll help me to do it, uncle," said Tom, earnestly. "If my father shouldn’t get well, I should be very unhappy to think anything had been done against his will, that I could hinder. and I’m sure he meant me to remember what he said that evening. I ought to obey my father’s wish about his property." (3.3.96)

For Tom, choice is always a question of duty, and is thus not much of a question at all. Family duty comes first for him, and Tom is always confident that he’s doing the right thing. In a way, Tom has only ever made one choice: to do his duty and to do what’s is right. Everything after that is simply "doing" things rather than choosing.

There were times when poor Tulliver thought the fulfillment of his promise to Bessy was something quite too hard for human nature: he had promised her without knowing what she was going to say - she might as well have asked him to carry a ton weight on his back. (3.9.1)

Mr. Tulliver is suffering the consequences of a rather hasty choice he made to promise his wife "anything," which in this case involved his going to work for Mr. Wakem. Tulliver’s actions here – making a blind decision and then quickly regretting it - is a running trend in this book.

Then her brain would be busy with wild romances of a flight from home in search of something less sordid and dreary [...]. But in the middle of her vision her father would perhaps enter the room for the evening [...]. The voice pierced through Maggie like a sword: there was another sadness besides her own, and she had been thinking of turning her back on it and forsaking it. (4.3.35)

Though Maggie feels very strongly about doing her duty towards her family, it isn’t always easy for her to follow through on her resolve. Maggie’s imagination always seeks to give her some sort of an "out" and she must always choose to acknowledge her family duties and to stay.

"Now then Maggie, there are but two courses for you to take: either you vow solemnly with your hand on my father’s Bible, that you will never hold another meeting or speak another word in private with Philip Wakem, or you refuse, and I tell my father everything." (5.5.47)

Tom presents Maggie with a harsh choice here, which is actually something of a false dilemma, or a kind of fake either/or situation. Tom is basically giving Maggie two options and presenting them like they are the only options, when they really aren’t. These choices are the only ones available in Tom’s mind at least.

"It is unnatural - it is horrible, Maggie, if you loved me as I love you, we should throw everything else to the winds for the sake of belonging to each other. We should break all these mistaken ties that were made in blindness - and determine to marry each other." (6.11.35)

Stephen pleads with Maggie to essentially abandon all other promises and obligations that she made before falling in love with him. For Stephen, the present and their personal feelings cancel out everything else, and the only right choice they can make is to marry.

"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." (6.11.45)

Maggie gives a great summary of the novel’s views on promises here. For Maggie, all choices must be weighed in light of promises made before. And promises, even unintentional ones or ones that you no longer wish to keep, must be upheld.

"I mean, if life did not make duties for us before love comes - love would be a sign that two people ought to belong to each other. But I see - I feel it is not so now: there are things we must renounce in life - some of us must resign love." (6.11.49)

Choosing to love someone, for Maggie, is not an easy thing. In fact it is sometimes impossible. For Maggie, life is filled with things likes duties and promises that romantic love can’t just sweep in and cancel out. The choice always hinges on what is there "before love comes," so to speak.

"I will not begin any future, even for you," said Maggie, tremulously, "with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you at Basset I feel now: - I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted for ever then. But we must part now." (6.14.22)

After a lot of difficulty, Maggie finally decides to leave Stephen, refusing to make a choice that she feels is morally wrong. To make matters worse Maggie regrets the choices that led her to this moment in the first place. She’s almost trying to choose now in a way that will somehow obliterate, or destroy, her previous bad choices.

The great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it: the question, whether the moment has come in which a man has fallen below the possibility of renunciation that will carry any efficacy, and must accept the sway of a passion against which he had struggled as a trespass, is one for which we have no master key that will fit all cases. (7.2.26)

This passage sums up the book’s views on the difficulties of reconciling passion and duty. Basically, there is not "master key," or single solution, to the problem. Every case is different and every individual has to manage the tensions between passion and duty differently, choosing different things, depending on the situation.

"We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment or whether we will renounce that for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us - for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives." (6.14.110)

Maggie here sees choice itself as a decision made between the present, or the selfish desires of the moment, and the "divine voice," or her sense of morality, which is tied up in family duty and memory.

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