Study Guide

The Mill on the Floss Suffering

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He hurried down-stairs and left poor Maggie to that bitter sense of the irrevocable which was almost an everyday experience of her small soul. She could see clearly enough now the thing was done that it was very foolish, and that she should have to hear and think more about her hair than ever [...] (1.7.91)

Maggie often suffers as a child because of her complex personality. She is both highly impulsive and highly prone to obsessing over the past and the decisions that she has (impulsively) made. It’s a definite recipe for suffering.

But poor Tom was only the more cowed and confused by this double novelty, for he had never been used to jokes at all like Mr. Stelling’s, and for the first time in his life he had a painful sense that he was all wrong somehow. (2.1.4)

Tom does get some share of sympathy for the narrator, and Tom definitely suffers, even though it’s easy to blame him for his own problems. Tom’s personality seems to cause a lot of his issues. Here, though, he is young and in a weird place and is feeling much less confident than usual.

Poor Tom! he had just come from being lectured and made to feel his inferiority: the reaction of his strong, self-asserting nature must take place somehow, and here was a case in which he could justly show himself dominant. Maggie’s cheek flushed and her lip quivered with conflicting resentment and affection and a certain awe as well as admiration of Tom’s firmer and more effective character. (3.5.68)

Tom and Maggie often cause one another suffering due to their opposite personalities, as this passage reveals. The two often manage to hurt one another without even meaning to do so.

So deeply inherent is it in this life of ours that men have to suffer for each other’s sins, so inevitably diffusive is human suffering, that even justice makes its victims, and we can conceive no retribution that does not spread beyond its mark in pulsations of unmerited pain. (3.7.2)

This is probably the best thematic statement on suffering in the entire book. Suffering is a part of the human condition here, and is as widespread as it is often undeserved.

I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie - how it had acted on young natures in many generations [...]. The suffering, whether of martyr or victim, which belongs to every historical advance of mankind, is represented in this way in every town and by hundreds of obscure hearths. (4.1.3)

Once again the particular circumstances of Tom and Maggie are universalized or are linked to people more generally. Tom and Maggie are part of a classic story of young people who suffer in their "narrow" small town environments. This is also an interesting case where the narrator switches to the first person and addresses readers directly.

She could make dream-worlds of her own - but not dream-world would satisfy her now. She wanted some explanation of this hard, real life. (4.3.34)

Imagination can only relieve Maggie’s suffering for so long here. Perhaps this is simply part of growing up and getting older – the "hard, real life" becomes harder for Maggie to ignore as she gets older.

"But that is the trial I have to bear in everything: I may not keep anything I used to love when I was little." (5.1.17)

It is interesting that, while Maggie fights so hard to keep her past, she sees the lost of her past as some sort of inevitable trial. Perhaps it is because she is afraid she will ultimately lose her past that Maggie fights so hard to keep it.

Apparently the mingled thread in the web of their life was so curiously twisted together that there could be no joy without a sorrow coming close upon it. (5.7.23)

Tom is revealing his pessimistic side here, as he adopts a fatalistic, or depressing and doomed, view of his family’s life. It begs the question as to whether or not this sort of depressed attitude that anticipates suffering actually causes it in the first place. It may be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

"But I begin to think there can never come much happiness to me from loving: I have always had so much pain mingled with it, I wish I could make myself a world outside it, as men do." (6.7.23)

Multiple themes are linked together here for Maggie: suffering, gender inequality (which causes suffering), love (which essentially is suffering). Like many characters in this book, Maggie has a very depressed attitude towards life. It is interesting that she sees men as having the power to possibly escape suffering, or at least the kind tied into love.

"I will bear it, and bear it till death [...]. But how long it will be before death comes! I am so young, so healthy. How shall I have patience and strength? O God, am I to struggle and fall and repent again? - has life other trials as hard for me still?" (7.5.16)

Maggie’s final despairing speech is highly ironic, meaning that it is sort of funny in a very dark way, given that she drowns a few pages later. Maggie’s certainty that it will be a long time before she dies is quickly proven false, which is a comment on how often unpredictable circumstances and events shape characters’ lives in this book. Characters rarely accurately predict what will happen to them.

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