Study Guide

The Mill on the Floss Love

By George Eliot

Love

but then the need of being loved, the strongest need in poor Maggie’s nature, began to wrestle with her pride and soon threw it. (1.3.34)

This need to be loved is a running theme in the book and frequently guides, and even dictates, Maggie’s actions and response to other people.

Poor child! It was very early for her to know one of those supreme moments in life when all we have hoped or delighted in, all we can dread or endure, falls away from our regard as insignificant, - is lost, like a trivial memory, in that simple, primitive love, which knits us to the beings who have been nearest to us, in their times of helplessness or of anguish. (3.1.16)

This primitive love refers to a sort of instinctual and deep bond that exists between family members, and also between people who have known one another a long time. Family and the past play a major role in defining and guiding love in this book.

it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love and that did not belong to them. And if life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie? Nothing but poverty […]. (3.5.72)

Love for Maggie is closely linked to family, or those that "belong" to her, and to honesty and genuineness. Maggie is severely depressed to find a lack of love in the world, and her life quest seems to boil down to either finding a type of genuine love in the world or finding "something else." Perhaps a modified definition of love?

"It would make me in love with the world again, as I used to be; it would make me long to see and know many things - it would make me long for a full life." (5.1.52)

Maggie is asking Philip to not give her any literature to read here. Art and culture act as conduits for Maggie and inspire in her a sort of joyful love for the "world" and for life that frightens her. Love of that sort seems to open Maggie up to pain and disappointment as well as joy.

She and Stephen were in that stage of courtship which makes the most exquisite moment of youth, the freshest blossom-time of passion - when each is sure of the other’s love, but no formal declaration has been made and all is mutual divination. (6.1.37)

The type of love that exists between Stephen and Lucy greatly contrasts with the type of passionate, sexual love that later exists between Stephen and Maggie. The love highlighted here is very sweet and innocent.

She wished she had assured him more distinctly in their conversation that she desired not to renew the hope of love between them, only because it clashed with her inevitable circumstances. She was touched not thrilled by the song; it suggested distinct memories and thoughts, and brought quiet regret in the place of excitement. (6.7.53)

This passage is very telling of Maggie’s true feelings for Philip, which she is in denial about. This denial is reflected here. The first sentence seems like it’s going to end with Maggie not desiring to "renew" Philips hopes at all, only to shift suddenly during an added clause, that clarifies her lack of interest. Philip’s song to Maggie also fails to excite or thrill her. Her feelings for Philip seems to be inspired more by sympathy and "regret."

And they walked unsteadily on, without feeling that they were walking - without feeling anything but that long grave mutual gaze which has the solemnity belonging to all deep human passion. (6.10.9)

This scene between Stephen and Maggie really highlights the pair’s mutual physical attraction and the passionate, romantic love they feel for one another.

To poor Maggie they were very near: they were like nectar held close to thirsty lips: there was, there must be, then, a life for mortals here below which was not hard and chill - in which affection would no longer be self-sacrifice. Stephen’s passionate words made the vision of such a life more fully present to her than it had ever been before. (6.3.57)

Maggie experiences a huge shift in her views here, after Stephen declares his love for her. Before Maggie had seen love in terms of "self-sacrifice" and suffering. Her love for Philip definitely had an air of self-sacrifice. With Stephen though Maggie begins to see love as something happy and fulfilling.

Her brother was the human being of whom she had been most afraid, from her childhood upwards - afraid with that fear which springs in us when we love one who is inexorable, unbending, unmodifiable [...] and yet that we cannot endure to alienate from us. (7.1.3)

Maggie’s views on love as somehow painful are probably related to her relationship with Tom, which is colored by as much fear and awe as it is genuine affection. Maggie’s love for Tom borders dangerously on hero-worship and she is desperate for his approval.

"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 into that willing endurance which is the birth of strong sympathy." (7.3.13)

Philip’s letter to Maggie intriguingly borrows from Maggie’s philosophy of self-denial that Philip protested against. Philip, however, takes his love of another and turns it into a positive force that enriches his own life rather than turning it into a life of painful endurance.

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