“The Valley of Humiliation” is the shortest of the seven books of The Mill on the Floss. The first chapter describes the respect for religion, but lack of true faith, of the Dodson and Tulliver families. Then it focuses on Maggie. Past the excitement of initial sorrow, Maggie (and her family) must now endure “the time when day follows day in dull unexpectant sameness, and trial is a dreary routine” (ch. 2). Here is Maggie, at thirteen years old, trying to find some meaning and hope in her dreary life. Mrs. Tulliver grows restless and bewildered. Mr. Tulliver is sullen and depressed. Tom is weary and abstracted. The family’s one goal is to finally repay Mr. Tulliver’s creditors and thus rid themselves of the degradation of debt. This home life produces in Maggie loneliness and an “utter privation of joy” (ch. 3). Even books, which had given her so much pleasure before, are now no comfort to her. Her dream world has ceased to satisfy her. “She wanted some explanation of this hard, real life”.
It is during this time of sorrow and discouragement that Maggie receives a present of books. Books have ceased to be a pleasure to her, but she takes up one by Thomas à Kempis. She begins to read it and experiences a “strange thrill of awe”. Here, she thinks, she has found the secret of life.
It flashed through her like the suddenly apprehended solution of a problem, that all the miseries of her young life had come from fixing her heart on her own pleasure, as if that were the central necessity of the universe …. [S]he sat … forming plans of self-humiliation and entire devotedness; and, in the ardour of first discovery, renunciation seemed to her the entrance into that satisfaction which she had so long been craving in vain. … Maggie was still panting for happiness, and was in ecstasy because she had found the key to it.
Beginning her new plan of humility and self-mortification, Maggie works at plain sewing that she might contribute to the fund for repaying her father’s debts. Her mother is amazed that her contrary child has become so submissive. Maggie even allows her mother to arrange her hair, as it gives her mother pleasure — “steadily refusing, however, to look at herself in the glass”. And thus Maggie grows up.
A little is said about Tom and Maggie’s relationship. Part of Maggie’s hardship is “the cruel sense that Tom didn’t mind what she thought or felt”. When Tom doesn’t want her to “lower” herself by asking for work at a shop, she holds the speech “as dross, overlooking the grains of gold, and took Tom’s rebuke as one of her outward crosses. Tom was very hard to her … who had always loved him so”.
This is part of the Eliot Project, in which “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I read through all of George Eliot’s novels and write about them. Read “Sophie’s” notes on the fourth book of The Mill on the Floss here: “The Mill on the Floss: The Valley of Humiliation”.
Screencap of Maggie hanging laundry in a 1978 adaptation of The Mill on the Floss.