When she leaves Stephen, Maggie goes to the Mill, now occupied by her brother and mother. Her brother meets her with accusations: “You have been carrying on a clandestine relation with Stephen Guest, — as you did before with another. … you must have behaved as no modest girl would have done to her cousin’s lover” (ch. 1). He turns his back on her and refuses her sanctuary. Mrs. Tulliver, however, clings to her sorrowful daughter and they find another home together.
The vicar of St. Oggs, Dr. Kenn, tries to help Maggie find work. She wishes to remain as she has no heart to begin a new life among strangers and hopes to make some atonement to Lucy and others. Her aunt Glegg is the only person who defends Maggie, sending her word by Mrs. Tulliver, “you shall have a shelter in her house, if you’ll go to her dutiful, and she’ll uphold you against folks as say harm of you when they’ve no call” (ch. 3). But who’d want to live with Mrs. Glegg? Naturally, Maggie would rather try to make her own way.
Maggie longs for news of Philip and Lucy. Philip writes her a letter, telling her that he believes in her and knows she never meant to deceive him. He tells her that she has been a blessing to him and that she shouldn’t reproach herself. He reproaches himself for having rushed her into an understanding which she felt as fetters. Lucy became very ill when it was discovered that Stephen and Maggie had run away together. (Unlike Philip, she was completely unprepared for this development.) When she is finally well enough, however, she sneaks away to visit Maggie and assure her, “I know you never meant to make me unhappy” (ch. 4), and adds, “you are better than I am.” Maggie’s feelings are expressed in her cry, “O God, is there any happiness in love that could make me forget their pain?” (ch. 3).
Despite Philip’s and Lucy’s forgiveness, wagging tongues make it impossible for Maggie to obtain (or keep) any employment. Dr. Kenn offers to write to a clerical friend of his who would probably be able to find her a position as a governess. Maggie is grateful, but desolate. “She must be a lonely wanderer; she must go out among fresh faces, that would look at her wonderingly, because the days did not seem joyful to her; she must begin a new life, in which she would have to rouse herself to receive new impressions; and she was so unspeakably, sickeningly weary!” (ch. 5). Her sources of joy are unfortunately narrow.
Then she receives a letter from Stephen (who went abroad after she left him, writing a letter to his family absolving Maggie from all blame), begging her to allow him to come to her. Feeling again the day in, day out endurance of hardship and unhappiness (such as set in after her father’s bankruptcy), Maggie is tempted, but determines, “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? Am I to struggle and fall and repent again? Has life other trials as hard for me still?” (ch. 5).
Happily for her, Maggie is spared this long, joyless endurance as she conveniently dies the next morning. What is more, she dies happy because Tom loves her. It happens thus: The river floods. Maggie escapes her house in a boat and goes directly (well, as directly as rushing current and floating debris allow) to the mill. The house is drowned up to the first story, but still firm, and Tom is safely upstairs (their mother is safely away). Tom steps into the boat and rows away. What happened is full of meaning to him, “it was such a new revelation to his spirit, of the depths in life that had lain beyond his vision, which he had fancied so keen and clear” (ch. 5) and he gazes at Maggie with awe and humiliation. Then he calls her his old, childish nickname for her, “Magsie!” and she “could make no answer but a long, deep sob of that mysterious, wondrous happiness that is one with pain.” They determine to go see if Lucy is safe, but they must navigate waters with masses of machinery and so on, clearly visible in the now-rising sun. It is too late for them to get out of the current and they see death rushing towards them. They cling to each other, never to be parted, as their boat is dragged under.
So much of the relationship between Tom and Maggie is tension and conflict, it seems odd that Maggie depends on Tom’s approval so much. It makes the ending more melodramatic than touching. The “Conclusion” states that, under their names, their tombstone is inscribed, “In their death they were not divided.”1 It is about the only time that could be said of them.
When she returned home at the beginning of this book, Maggie feared facing Tom. “Her brother was the human being of whom she had been most afraid from her childhood upward; afraid with that fear which springs in us when we love one who is inexorable, unbending, unmodifiable, with a mind that we can never mould ourselves upon, and yet that we cannot endure to alienate from us” (ch. 1). If Maggie’s love for her brother was so great as to win against any other relationship, I think she needed to get that across to the other men in her life and quit dangling them along.
Philip and Stephen both feel that their “keenest joy and keenest sorrow” (Conclusion) are buried with Maggie. Philip lives solitary, visiting the Red Deeps where he and Maggie met together. Many years later, Stephen “visited the tomb again with a sweet face beside him” — perhaps insinuating that Stephen and Lucy eventually marry? I hope not. I don’t think Lucy deserved being stuck with Stephen. Nothing is said of Mrs. Tulliver (poor woman, bereaved of husband and children — however fractious they were, this would be quite the blow), but I imagine she went back to live with Lucy, who I’m sure did her best to be a daughter to her.
In the end, I did not think The Mill on the Floss equal to the other novels by George Eliot I’ve read. The relationship between Tom and Maggie was not strong enough to carry the plot and the ending was melodramatic.
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 seventh (and last) book of The Mill on the Floss here: “The Mill on the Floss: The Final Rescue”.
1 A quotation from King David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, recorded in the Bible: “Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.” (I Samuel 1:23)
Screencap of Mrs. Tulliver visiting her children’s grave (“In their death they were not divided”) in a 1978 adaptation of The Mill on the Floss.