“The Great Temptation” begins with a love scene between Lucy Deane (Maggie’s cousin) and her almost-fiancé, Stephen Guest. Lucy is a lovable person, very kind, considerate, and generous. She is “a woman who was loving and thoughtful for other women, … with real care and vision for their half-hidden pains and mortifications, with long ruminating enjoyment of little pleasures prepared for them” (ch. 1). Though perhaps not noticing this particular trait in her, Stephen is quite proud of himself for choosing Lucy.
Maggie had a situation in a school for nearly two years, but now she has left it and is coming to Lucy for some months. Lucy is full of ideas to make Maggie happy and comfortable. Very soon, Stephen meets Maggie. Immediately, they find each other interesting. Stephen converses with Maggie much, but all the while sits by Lucy’s side. Whenever Stephen and Maggie are alone, they become silent and embarrassed, yet wish for it to happen again. They take furtive glances into each other’s eyes. In short, they are falling in love. Lucy, completely unsuspicious, enjoys listening to the conversation of her lover and cousin. Then Philip Wakem returns from a trip. He is a friend of Lucy’s, so after confiding the history of their relationship to Lucy (who is charmed with the thought that Maggie and Philip love each other), Maggie agrees to ask Tom to release her from her promise not to speak to Philip.
Tom is vexed by the request, but he doesn’t want to make a fuss and so agrees, but tells Maggie, “If you think of Philip Wakem as a lover again, you must give up me” (ch. 4), and adds that he doesn’t trust her. “She was obliged to be childish; the tears would come. When Maggie was not angry, she was as dependent on kind or cold words as a daisy on the sunshine or the cloud; the need of being loved would always subdue her”.
Almost every scene with Maggie and Tom has them falling out, disagreeing, or clashing in some way and only occasionally making it up — always by Maggie placating or submitting to Tom. Quite frankly, I have trouble believing in their deep affection for each other which so trumps any other relationship for Maggie. Neither her craving for affection nor any sense of duty (another strong trait of Maggie’s) is sufficient to explain to me why she always chooses her brother over Philip.
Anyway, Tom is not the only obstacle in Maggie’s way to Philip, now. Confused and fascinated by Stephen, she at first feels Philip as a refuge.
Maggie … felt her eyes getting larger with tears as they took each other’s hands in silence. They were not painful tears; they had rather something of the same origin as the tears women and children shed when they have found some protection to cling to and look back on the threatened danger. For Philip, who a little while ago was associated continually in Maggie’s mind with the sense that Tom might reproach her with some justice, had now, in this short space, become a sort of outward conscience to her, that she might fly to for rescue and strength. Her tranquil, tender affection for Philip, with its root deep down in her childhood, and its memories of long quiet talk … — the fact that in him the appeal was more strongly to her pity and womanly devotedness than to her vanity or other egoistic excitability of her nature, — seemed now to make a sort of sacred place, a sanctuary where she could find refuge from an alluring influence which the best part of herself must resist; which must bring horrible tumult within, wretchedness without. This new sense of her relation to Philip nullified the anxious scruples she would otherwise have felt, lest she should overstep the limit of intercourse with him that Tom would sanction; and she put out her hand to him, and felt the tears in her eyes without any consciousness of an inward check. (Chapter 7)
Because she is not in love with Philip, Maggie unconsciously feels Tom’s disapproval as a relief. Unwilling to close either relationship, to chose one or the other, complicated by her growing attraction to Stephen, she seeks escape by finding work that she finds dreary at a distance from everyone she knows and loves. “I begin to think there can never come much happiness to me from loving; I have always had so much pain mingled with it,” she tells Philip (ch. 7). “I desire no future that will break the ties of the past. But the tie to my brother is one of the strongest. I can do nothing willingly that will divide me always from him” (ch. 10).
Maggie is not willing to resist her brother, but Philip would not give up Maggie for his father’s sake. He reiterates what he told her1 in the Red Deeps, “I should not give you up on any ground but your own wish, Maggie …. There are points on which I should always resist my father, as I used to tell you. That is one” (ch. 7).
The mill has turned turned out unprofitable for Mr. Wakem, and Mr. Deane thinks he might be able to get it from him. Lucy asks Philip to suggest selling the mill to his father. Philip, who sees in restoring the mill to the Tullivers, “a possibility of altering his position with respect to Maggie, and removing at least one obstacle between them” (ch. 8), reveals his relationship to Maggie to his father. Though angry at first, Mr. Wakem ultimately shows himself tender to his son, overcoming strong prejudice and dislike for his sake, and agrees to sell the mill and reconcile himself to Philip marrying Maggie.
But Stephen and Maggie are falling ever more deeply in love, and Philip begins to suspect. To escape hurting Lucy and Philip, being dependent on Tom, and trouble in general, Maggie takes a new situation. Before she leaves, however, Stephen admits his love to her. While out on the river together, they drift farther than they intended and get taken up by a trading vessel. Stephen tries to persuade Maggie to run away and marry him. At first Maggie passively falls in with his idea, but when she begins thinking, she recoils from taking a good which would come out of others’ pain. Stephen tells her that it must already be known that they have gone away together. Philip and Lucy will already be hurt, why sacrifice themselves as well? Maggie tells him that she does not love him with her “whole heart and soul”, that if they married, she would still be unhappy because of the hurt she caused Philip and Lucy. “I cannot take a good for myself that has been wrung out of their misery” (ch. 14). Falling to this temptation would not result in peace. Despite the deep love between Stephen and herself and the great pain it causes both of them, Maggie leaves him to return to her family.
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 sixth book of The Mill on the Floss here: “The Mill on the Floss: The Great Temptation”.
1 In the Red Deeps, Philip tells Maggie: “I know what there is to keep us apart on both sides. But … it is not right to sacrifice everything to other people’s unreasonable feelings. I would give up a great deal for my father; but I would not give up a friendship or — or an attachment of any sort, in obedience to any wish of his that I didn’t recognize as right.” (Book 5, chapter 1)
Screencap of Maggie and Stephen on the river in a 1978 adaptation of The Mill on the Floss.