November 2011

Kevin Frazier


Star-Crossed: George Eliot and Fyodor Dostoevsky


Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses one or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.

November Birthdays:
George Eliot – born November 22, 1819, Warwickshire, England
Fyodor Dostoevsky – born November 11, 1821, Moscow, Russia

Eliot and Dostoevsky were nearly exact contemporaries. Born within two years of each other, they died less than two months apart, Eliot in 1880, Dostoevsky in 1881. For both of them, the period from 1860 to 1880 marked their most significant stretch of writing, when they reached their maturity as artists.

The contrasts between them are huge. Eliot’s novels are models of moderation. They’re balanced in form, rigorous in theme, judicious in presenting their characters. Dostoevsky’s novels are built on excess and contradiction. He never stops swinging through the arcs of his extremes.

I like to imagine both writers in the same room. They try to have a conversation. Dostoevsky paces back and forth. He pours out his passionate views on the decadence of Europe and the holy mission of the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrings his hands, rises to a higher and higher pitch of excitement. His agitation largely blinds him to Eliot’s presence. He argues not with her but with the phantoms of all the viewpoints he carries around with him everywhere he goes. Eliot sits and watches. Calm and amused, she tries to point out the flaws in his reasoning. Once she realizes the task is hopeless, she makes mental notes on how she might use him for one of her novels.    

1 – Dostoevsky: A Writer’s Diary

Dostoevsky’s writing is so unstable that it seems to be in a constant state of trembling. Almost every page jitters and quakes with all the anxious ideas and emotions struggling to take possession of the story. The young author who started as a colleague of Petersburg radicals eventually became a reactionary conservative, a Slavophil jingoist with semi-fascist religious views. In modern American terms, he changed from a Vietnam Era hippie into a Born Again Bush-worshipper with a regular rant-show on Fox News.

Ideologically, it’s an off-putting metamorphosis. Artistically, though, it’s one source of his greatness. Whatever his beliefs at any given time, the radical Dostoevsky always had a reactionary inside him, and the reactionary a radical. Moreover, both the radical Dostoevsky and the conservative Dostoevsky engaged in endless combat with nearly every stray thought that came their way. As a polemicist, Dostoevsky is beautifully self-destructive. He can rarely state a position without imagining its opponents. The more he protests against their predicted hostility, the more life he injects into them. Ultimately you’re far more aware of the characters he brings to the battle than you are of who’s winning the fight.

You see this quality most dizzyingly in the novels, but it also explodes his attempts at propaganda, destroying his arguments while mesmerizing his readers. A Writer’s Diary is his miscellany of reactionary diatribes and editorials, over 1,400-pages long in the full two-volume edition, and for years I avoided it because I thought it must be insufferable. I assumed it was nothing but Dostoevsky riffing on the forgotten news stories of his time, devouring them to feed his extremism and intolerance. That turns out to be true as far as it goes, but I should’ve also realized Dostoevsky could never sustain his opinions without repeatedly coiling back and swallowing his own tail.

Part of the rubbernecking-at-a-car-crash fascination of A Writer’s Diary is that it gives us the same volatility we find in the narration of Notes from Underground. The tone, hectoring and insecure, is as precarious as nitroglycerine. The voice is always on the verge of rupture, of dividing and multiplying into the shouting and stammering and elaborate self-doubts of all those fantastically impulsive characters running loose through the novels.

In one chapter, for instance, Dostoevsky undercuts his opinions about the legal profession even before he gives them. His mischievous doubletalk has the conscious illogic of a vaudeville routine:

…I would like to insert a few remarks about lawyers in general and about talented ones in particular; I want to convey to the reader some of my own impressions and my own perplexity, so to say, which of course may not be at all serious in the eyes of competent people; but then I am writing the Diary for myself, and these thoughts have settled solidly in my head. I admit, however, that they may not even be thoughts; yet they are feelings at any rate…

Throughout his many anti-Semitic rants, which we’ll come back to later, he seems particularly sensitive to his malicious preposterousness. In his efforts to defend himself, he twists his thoughts into ludicrous contortions. Take the semi-justification, semi-surrender that he flourishes when considering an invented objection to a letter he has published from a young woman. The letter describes a Protestant doctor who was supposedly loved by “the poor Jewish women” he helped, and who supposedly represented a “moral center” Jewish people might someday be taught to emulate. After printing the letter, Dostoevsky swings blindly at phantom dissenters, collapses into concessions no one has asked him to make:

An isolated case, you may tell me. Well, gentlemen, what can I say? Once more I’m guilty: once more I see in an isolated case almost the beginning of the solution to the whole question… well, at least to that same “Jewish question” I used as title for my second chapter of this Diary. By the way, why did I call this old doctor “the universal man”? He was not a universal man but, rather, a common man.

The 1877 portions of the Diary contain Dostoevsky’s notorious hymns to the glory and patriotic necessity of Russia’s war with Turkey. At the end of the September section he asserts that the war will bring absolute and irrevocable change to the whole world. He cites Napoleon as an example of a “new man,” the human force who had taken the French Revolution in directions none of the revolutionaries could foresee. Vaguely yet vehemently, Dostoevsky suggests we are about to encounter another Napoleon. He scarcely says it, though, before he pulls back from the idea, like Raskolnikov finally pulling back from the megalomania of his somewhat different Napoleon fantasy:

Yes, indeed; and now again someone is knocking; someone, a new man, with a new word, wants to open the door and come in… But who will come in? That’s the question. Will it be an entirely new man, or will it once more be someone like all of us, the old homunculi?

With his alertness to self-deception -- alertness grounded in his personal susceptibility to the many textures and levels of delusion -- Dostoevsky makes an ideal reader for Don Quixote. In the Diary’s pages on Cervantes, Dostoevsky analyzes the passage where Don Quixote first feels some doubts, not about chivalry in general but about certain specific old tales where a single knight would fight against a sorcerer-generated army of a hundred-thousand soldiers. Though usually untroubled by any interest in logic, Don Quixote here becomes fixated on the practical impossibility of killing a hundred-thousand soldiers in one battle. The doubts compel him to come up with an explanation that will preserve this particular subset of knight stories. Otherwise his belief in all the stories of chivalry will fall apart. A new lie must be created to preserve the whole world of existing lies on which his life is founded:

And so, to save the truth he invents another fantasy, but this one is twice, thrice as fantastic as the first one, cruder and more absurd; he invents hundreds of thousands of imaginary men having the bodies of slugs, which the knight’s keen blade can pass through ten times more easily and quickly than it can an ordinary human body. And thus realism is satisfied, truth is saved, and it’s possible to believe in the first and most important dream with no more doubts…

The absurdity of this goes to the core of Don Quixote, and also to the core of Dostoevsky’s writing. The instability of Dostoevsky’s prose reflects his compulsion to track the bizarre motions of our self-deceptions. It catches the flipping and thrashing we do when we’re reeled in by the fishing-line of our private fictions. Dostoevsky understands how we fight to escape the barb inside the bait, even as our struggles drive the hook deeper into our flesh:

Ask yourselves: hasn’t the same thing happened to you, perhaps, a hundred times in the course of your life? Say you’ve come to cherish a certain dream, an idea, a theory, a conviction, or some external fact that struck you, or, at last, a woman who has enchanted you. You rush off in pursuit of the object of your love with all the intensity your soul can muster. It’s true that no matter how blinded you may be, no matter how well your heart bribes you, still, if in the object of your love there is a lie, a delusion, something that you yourself have exaggerated and distorted because of your passion and your initial rush of feeling -- solely so that you can make it your idol and bow down to it -- then, of course, you’re aware of it in the depths of your being; doubt weighs upon your mind and teases it, ranges through your soul and prevents you from living peaceably with your beloved dream. Now, don’t you remember, won’t you admit even to yourself what it was that suddenly set your mind at rest? Didn’t you invent a new dream, a new lie, even a terribly crude one, perhaps, but one that you were quick to embrace lovingly only because it resolved your initial doubt?         

2 – Eliot: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

For Dostoevsky in his reactionary conservative mode, the enemy was Western thought and culture, “all these Mills and Darwins and Strausses,” as he puts it in the final part of the 1873 section of the Diary.

For George Eliot, on the other hand, Mill and Darwin and Strauss are crucial figures. Her intricate evaluations of their work helped refine her forceful and compassionate mind. She was heavily involved with the Westminster Review, which Mill had edited earlier. Throughout her career, she also joined in the debates over Mill’s On Liberty and his advocacy of women’s rights. She knew Darwin’s ideas early and well. Even before The Origin of Species, she had explored the scientific theories on which evolution was partly built.

Her engagement with the writings of Strauss was particularly important to her life and her thinking. Eliot started off with a provincial Christian viewpoint. Some of her religious ideas were as dogmatic as the ones Dostoevsky ended up holding. She then moved away from these ideas as she grew up. The development of her increasingly wide-ranging sympathy forms a startling contrast with the gradual escalation of Dostoevsky’s fanaticism.

Rosemary Ashton tracks the shift in George Eliot: A Life, one of the many Eliot biographies since the indispensable John Cross volumes came out in 1885. Eliot was named Mary Anne Evans at birth, picked up a fervent Evangelicalism in one of her childhood boarding schools, and attended another boarding school run by Coventry Baptists when she was a teenager. At the age of eighteen, in the years after her mother’s death, she changed the spelling of her name to Mary Ann, while remaining, she said, “strongly under the influence of Evangelical belief.” She constantly read books with a religious or doctrinal cast. She even planned to publish a chart of ecclesiastical history, a project she abandoned only when she learned about the recent publication of a similar chart.

The letters of her adolescence, printed in the first volume of the Yale collection, are sometimes exhaustingly pious. In her messages to her friend and former teacher, the highly religious Maria Lewis, Mary Ann displays an aggressive sanctimoniousness, laced with an amusingly overwrought humility. This letter from August 18, 1838, which begins with a line from Hebrews 6:12, is typical:

“That ye be not slothful but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises,” is a valuable admonition. I was once told that there was nothing out of myself to prevent my becoming as eminently holy as St. Paul, and though I think that is too sweeping an assertion, yet it is very certain we are generally too low in our aims, more anxious for safety than sanctity, for place than purity, forgetting that each involves the other… O that we could live only for Eternity, that we could realize its nearness! I know you do not love quotations so I will not give you one but if you do not distinctly remember it, do turn to the passage in Young’s “Infidel reclaimed” beginning O vain vain vain all else, Eternity! and do love the lines for my sake.

Writing to Lewis again in November, Mary Ann shows she’s as devoted to British missionary work as Dostoevsky was to his much wilder vision of the Orthodox Church rescuing Europe:

…I do think that a sober and prayerful consideration of the mighty revolutions ere long to take place in our world would by God’s blessing serve to make us less groveling, more devoted and energetic in the service of God. Of course I mean only such study as pigmies like myself in intellect and acquirement are able to prosecute; the perusal and comparison of Scripture and the works of pious and judicious men on the subject. I wonder if you have read Mr. Williams’s account of his missionary enterprises in the South Seas. It is deeply interesting; truly the “isles are submitting to the Lord” and literally “wailing for His law” for in many islands the parting request of the inhabitants was “Do send us a teacher.”

She then goes on to discuss William Wilberforce, who had worked to abolish slavery and the slave trade. Her thoughts expose a teenager’s touching combination of self-doubt and self-aggrandizement:

There is a similarity, if I may compare myself with such a man, between his temptations or rather besetments and my own that makes his experience very interesting to me. O that I might be made as useful in my lowly and obscure station as he was in the exalted one assigned to him. I feel myself to be a mere cumberer of the ground. May the Lord gi[ve] me such an insight into what is truly good and su[ch] realizing views of an approaching eternity, that I may not rest contented with making Christianity a mere addendum to my pursuits, or with tacking it as a fringe to my garments. May I seek to be sanctified wholly. My nineteenth birthday will soon be here (the 22d), an awakening signal!

Then the change came. Mary Ann’s religious reading eventually led her to works that were critical of Evangelical doctrine and of general Christian assumptions, such as Charles Hennell’s Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity. At around the same time, she also became friends with Cara Bray and her husband Charles Bray, and with Cara’s sister, Sara Hennell. Cara and Sara, as if to make the ring of Brays and Hennells as confusingly intertwined as possible, were also the sisters of the same Charles Hennell whose book played such a strong role in clarifying Mary Ann’s rejection of Evangelicalism. Intellectually, the Brays and the Hennells were more daring and skeptical than any group Mary Ann had ever entered. It appears, though, that her new friends merely brought into the open the doubts she’d already started to entertain on her own.

The decisive break came in January 1842: she told her father she would no longer go to church. This infuriated him, yet her decision turned out to be striking less for its boldness than for the values of tolerance and evenhandedness it opened up for her future. Far from announcing a new rigidity, a reactionary atheism similar but opposite to Dostoevsky’s reactionary piety, Eliot’s shift took her away from her childhood severity and started moving her toward the open-mindedness of her novels.

The move was greatly strengthened by her first major literary achievement, when she translated into English the infamous Strauss criticism of the Gospels, The Life of Jesus. Mary Ann started the translation in 1844, and it was published in 1846.  

Strauss was the most influential of the contemporary German scholars who questioned the historical basis for traditional interpretations of Christianity. Mary Ann admired his writing, but over the two years of her consuming research and translation work, she became a bit weary of his text. In addition, she couldn’t help noticing the mistakes, repetitions and dubious conclusions he made along the way. The experience, as Ashton notes, seems to have confirmed Mary Ann in her resistance to most forms of extremism. Her immersion in the book’s atmosphere of unrelieved lecturing heightened her refusal to surrender to oversimplification, perhaps especially when she tended to agree with a position. She was suspicious of both reflexive approval and reflexive condemnation, of any judgment incapable of accommodating the conflicting pressures and tricky undertows of personal experience.

It’s part of her intellectual honesty that she never became an atheist. She settled on agnosticism because she didn’t believe the existence of God had been definitely disproved any more than it had been definitely proved. She also declined to presume that the influence of Christianity was automatically bad. This struck her as no closer to the truth than the presumption that the influence of Christianity was automatically good.

Yet in the novels, she seldom comes across as dithering or indecisive. Her Evangelical phase was an early and crude expression of that ardent and sophisticated certainty we sense throughout her work. She is, from start to finish, a passionate and committed writer. The paradox is that she is passionate about being dispassionate, fervently committed to not being fervently committed. Aware that total fairness is impossible, mindful that bias always exists despite our best efforts, she still believes the attempt at fairness is worth making, and worth making with the same strength that fanatics bring to their zealotry. Aesthetically, it’s quite an achievement to dig up layer upon layer of social and psychological analysis as moderately yet forcefully as her novels do. If Dostoevsky’s work is notable for its volatility, Eliot’s is notable for its solidity and balance, the same qualities that can be seen in her handling of her lost faith and in her attitude toward Strauss.

3 – Love Abroad

Eliot and Dostoevsky were lucky in their long-term relationships. Dostoevsky met his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, when he was in his mid-forties.  She rescued him from financial disaster, clearing the way for his final masterpieces. Eliot, of course, lived with George Henry Lewes for twenty-four years, from 1854 to 1878. Though technically never married, they thought of each other as husband and wife, and Lewes played a strong practical role in assisting her throughout her career.

By the time she was introduced to Lewes, the former Mary Ann Evans had fine-tuned her name a bit further: she’d started calling herself Marian after becoming a boarder at the Chapman house in London in January 1851. With remarkable speed, a tribute to the knowledge and skill she brought to her assignments, Marian had worked her way to the position of uncredited editor of the Westminster Review. (Yes, uncredited: Ashton suggests this might have been at Marian's request, though I'm guessing it was one of those requests you make only when you know you have little choice.) The Westminster Review was a leading liberal journal of the time, and Marian either edited or came to know many of London's most prominent literary and intellectual figures. 

She met Lewes on October 6, 1851, when she was thirty-two and he was thirty-four. Ashton thinks they probably started sleeping together in the spring of 1853. It was, discounting some missteps and false starts, Marian’s first serious relationship. In George Eliot: The Emergent Self, Ruby V. Redinger describes Lewes as a “versatile journalist, literary and drama critic, author of the astonishingly influential Biographical History of Philosophy, novelist, and adapter of foreign plays to the English stage.” The grandson of a well-known theatrical comedian, Lewes was a lively, often funny writer. He also excelled at private anecdotes, which Marian particularly enjoyed hearing. His mind, independent and restless, was less probing than hers, but he was still able to keep up with her range of interests.

Known as a philanderer, Lewes supported free love and open marriage. All of London had heard that his wife was carrying on an affair with one of his closest associates, Thornton Hunt, and that she’d given birth to Hunt’s children in addition to her children with Lewes. (Thornton Hunt was the son of the poet Leigh Hunt, the friend of Byron and Shelley.) Lewes accepted his wife’s relationship with Hunt, and had registered two of that relationship’s children as his legal offspring. Consequently he had no realistic ability, under the Victorian marriage system, to obtain a divorce. Marian could never become his wife.

In 1854 Marian started living with Lewes openly. They inaugurated the decision by taking a trip to Germany. They went to Weimar and Berlin. Lewes carried out research for his Goethe biography. Marian had a wonderful time. The gossip in London was ferocious.

Their journey has its counterpart in Dostoevsky’s equally significant travels around Europe with Anna Grigoryevna. But Dostoevsky’s Europe wasn’t Eliot’s Europe. Eliot loved German culture. Dostoevsky hated it. Eliot felt liberated by European artists. Dostoevsky felt oppressed by them. Eliot thrived when she was abroad. Dostoevsky sulked and complained.

Dostoevsky’s experiences outside Russia had never been good, even before he married Anna Grigoryevna. He made his first visit to Europe in 1862. Paris bored him. So did Geneva. In Italy he spent most of his time reading Les Misérables. He had little interest in sightseeing or talking with foreigners. The next summer he traveled to Paris again. He planned to meet up there with his tormented and tormenting lover, Polina Suslova. En route he lost 5,000 francs by gambling at Weisbaden. Then in Paris, Suslova told him she was in love with someone else. The conversation from her diary, as reported in E. H. Carr’s Dostoevsky, was a travesty of soul-baring and flashily paradoxical emotions:          

When we got into a room, he fell at my feet and, clasping and pressing my knees, burst out sobbing:

“I have lost you, I knew it.”

Calming himself, he began to ask me who it was…

“Perhaps he is young and handsome, a good talker. But you will never find another heart like mine.”

For a long time I would not answer.

“You have given yourself to him completely?”

“Don’t ask! It is not fair of you….”

I told him that I loved this man very much.

“You are happy?”


“You are in love and not happy! How can that be?”

“He does not love me.”

“Does not love you!” he shouted holding his head as if in despair; “but you love him like a slave! Tell me, I must know. You would follow him to the end of world?”

“No,” I replied; “I shall go into the country,” and burst into tears.

Suslova’s entire relationship with Dostoevsky ran on this hilarious hamster-wheel of hysteria, though the other man dumped her while she was still in France. Dostoevsky, convinced he had worked out a system for winning at the gambling tables, then took her to Baden and lost another 3,000 francs.

The formula of going to Europe for a combination of romantic turmoil and massive gambling losses was so addictive for Dostoevsky that he repeated it in 1865. This time, though, he raised his initial gambling money through the contract that would threaten to destroy his career. His literary reputation had declined in the years since his release from Siberia. He was working, the Carr biography says, more often as a second-rate journalist than as a novelist, and his reactionary politics had alienated his old radical friends. Worse, he had developed a reputation for not meeting deadlines and not delivering the books he agreed to write. The publisher Stellovsky now contracted for a new Dostoevsky novel, to be issued along with a collected edition of the earlier work. But because of Dostoevsky’s past failures to fulfill his obligations, Stellovsky insisted on an extreme penalty clause. If the new novel wasn’t finished on time, Stellovsky could demand liquidated damages, and the right to all of Dostoevsky’s past and future writings.

Dostoevsky took the advance from Stellovsky so he could return to Weisbaden for another round of gambling. Suslova was again his companion. He played roulette. He lost all of his money. He lost all of Suslova’s money. Broke, he begged Turgenev and others for cash to go home. His relationship with Suslova was effectively over. It had been less a great passion than a great Dostoevskyan whirl, a clash of competing narcissisms and tragicomic obsessions.

This second gambling trip and the Stellovsky contract set the stage for Anna Grigoryevna’s arrival. The first installment of Crime and Punishment appeared in January 1866. Dostoevsky worked steadily on the novel throughout the year. Creditors harassed him. Despite his own large debts, he was also giving financial help to many of his relatives, including the legitimate and illegitimate families of his dead brother. At the same time, the deadlines for the Stellovsky contract were approaching. Dostoevsky was supposed to have his other, entirely new novel delivered by the start of November. He had outlined The Gambler but had written nothing. He was in serious danger of violating the contract and losing the rights to all his past and future work. A friend suggested that he hire a stenographer so he could dictate The Gambler at high speed.

The stenographer was Anna Grigoryevna. On October 4, 1866, less than a month before the manuscript of The Gambler was due, she started taking Dostoevsky’s dictation. She was as organized and efficient as Dostoevsky was scattered and wasteful. The entire novel was done on October 30. On November 8, Dostoevsky asked her to marry him. He then wrote the final two parts of Crime and Punishment. His ability to own and finish this first of his large-scale masterpieces, and all of his novels to come, stemmed directly from Anna Grigoryevna’s decisive and intelligent intervention.   

Anna Grigoryevna’s memoirs have much to say on Dostoevsky’s attitudes toward women. She was twenty when they met, a quarter-century younger than he was, and his favorable opinion of her depended in part on what he perceived as her difference from most young women:

Apparently I never smiled even once while I was speaking with Fyodor Mikhailovich, and my seriousness pleased him very much. He confessed to me later that he had been pleasantly surprised by my knowledge of correct behavior. He was used to meeting Nihilist women socially and observing their behavior, which roused him to indignation. He was all the more pleased, therefore, to find in me the complete antithesis of the prevailing type of young woman of that time.     

Once they were married, Anna Grigoryevna began to challenge him on this view of “Nihilist women,” who in his mind were connected to the entire Nihilist atmosphere that influences Raskolnikov:

One of the causes of our ideological differences was the so-called “woman question.” Since I belonged in age to the generation of the sixties, I would stand up firmly for women’s rights and independence, and was indignant with my husband for what I considered his unfair attitude toward these. I was even ready to regard his attitude as a personal insult and sometimes expressed this feeling to my husband.

I remember that once, seeing me upset, he asked me, “Anechka, what’s wrong with you? Have I offended you in some way?”

“Yes, you have. We were talking about Nihilist women and you said such awful things about them.”

“But you’re no Nihilist, after all, so why were you offended?”

“No, I’m not a Nihilist, it’s true, but I am a woman, and I don’t like to hear a woman being disparaged.”

With some updates in terms, I overheard this same argument at a Croatian café just last month. Anyway, Anna Grigoryevna notes that her influence changed Dostoevsky’s opinion of women’s rights in general and of Nihilist women in particular:

Later, in the seventies, he held an entirely different attitude towards this matter [of Nihilist women], when from their number evolved many intelligent, well-educated women who viewed life with seriousness. It was then that my husband stated in Diary of a Writer that he had great expectations of Russian women.

And indeed when we turn to the Diary, some of the few breaks from Dostoevsky’s reactionary tirades come with his surprisingly strong support for women’s education. He’s still Dostoevsky, though, and sees the issue mainly as a chance for Russia to outdo the West:

By permitting, sincerely and completely, higher education for women along with all the rights that this bestows, Russia would once more take an enormous and original step ahead of all Europe in the great cause of the regeneration of humanity.

Considering how much Dostoevsky despised Europe, it’s ironic that his most productive period of sustained great writing occurred during the years Anna Grigoryevna took him abroad. She correctly believed his relatives were exploiting him financially and making it impossible for him to clear up his debts. In money matters, Dostoevsky was generous by nature. He was incapable of saying no to any claim on his help that he could possibly satisfy. Sensing Anna Grigoryevna’s determination to change this, his relatives did their best to fight against her influence over him. So she pawned all her possessions and demanded that Dostoevsky and she use the money to flee Petersburg. In April 1867 they left Russia together.

They spent the next four years on the Continent. Longer exposure to Europe merely heightened Dostoevky’s contempt for it. Away from Russia, he became trapped in the closed loop of his fixations. Every fresh encounter with European culture confirmed his prejudices: he allowed his biases to warp his impressions in a way that’s about as far removed from Eliot’s tolerant curiosity as possible. Yet under Anna Grigoryevna’s influence, he gradually lost interest in gambling and took up his fiction with fresh energy. If Dostoevsky brought an irrational fervor to his hatred of Europe, this mania was inseparable from the ardor that revitalized his novels from 1867 onward.

4 – Eliot: The Mill on the Floss

Marian Evans finally adopted the pen-name George Eliot in 1857, when she was publishing the stories that would make up her first book, Scenes of Clerical Life. Lewes had enjoyed a triumph with his Life and Works of Goethe, but he was always eager for more money, and Redinger suggests he originally encouraged Eliot to write fiction because it might prove lucrative.

Her success was immediate. Scenes of Clerical Life established her as a writer to watch, and Adam Bede was an exceptionally well-received bestseller.   

The Mill on the Floss appeared in 1860. The hub of the story is Maggie Tulliver’s difficult attachment to Tom, her older brother. Their close, tension-battered relationship replays, with large and small variations, the relationship between their father and his own sister. The novel has a couple of courtship crises for Maggie to deal with, but these become absorbed in the larger pattern of Maggie’s bonds with Tom, and in the complicated emotional and practical legacies left to both of them by their father’s financial downfall. All the Tullivers, in turn, move through a dense, fully imagined environment: the family mill and the people connected to it by many strands, from many directions.     

Mr. Tulliver, the father, intends to pass the mill down to Tom just as it was passed down to him. The constant slight puzzlement of Mr. Tulliver’s mind allows him to feel remarkably good about himself. He simply ignores the dangers to his position, a blur of precariousness he chooses not to bring into focus: “He had always been used to hear pleasant jokes about his advantages as a man who worked his own mill and owned a pretty bit of land, and these jokes naturally kept up his sense that he was a man of considerable substance.”        

He visits his poverty-ravaged sister at her small farm: in the past he has loaned funds to her so she can continue running the farm with her husband. Mr. Tulliver has now made up his mind to be tough with her. He has never approved of her marriage, and it somewhat gratifies him that the farm has failed just as he’d predicted it would. He plans not only to refuse giving his sister any further loans but to demand the payment past due on the earlier amounts. On money questions, The Mill on the Floss is forthright and unblinking. Eliot is, however, less interested in moralizing about money than in considering the complex and multiple impacts of money in each separate situation.

Mr. Tulliver’s sister, when he sees her, mentions his children, Maggie and Tom. Mr. Tulliver “had not a rapid imagination,” Eliot writes, “but the thought of Maggie was very near to him, and he was not long in seeing his relation to his own sister side by side with Tom’s relation to Maggie. Would the little wench ever be poorly off, and Tom rather hard upon her?”

Mr. Tulliver then meets with his sister’s husband and demands repayment of the loan. Immediately after this, though, he changes his mind. He tells his sister he won’t be calling in the money, says he will always be a good brother to her. As he leaves the farm, his puzzlement returns. It’s characteristic of Eliot that this fogginess in Mr. Tulliver is simultaneously part of his kindness and part of his cruelty, a strength and a weakness:  

And so the respectable miller returned along the Basset lanes rather more puzzled than before as to ways and means, but still with the sense of a danger escaped. It had come across his mind that if he were hard upon his sister, it might somehow tend to make Tom hard upon Maggie at some distant day when her father was no longer there to take her part; for simple people like our friend Mr Tulliver are apt to clothe unimpeachable feelings in erroneous ideas, and this was his confused way of explaining to himself that his love and anxiety for "the little wench" had given him a new sensibility towards his sister.

Mr. Tulliver’s feelings of “love and anxiety” for his daughter embrace Maggie’s passionate intelligence and energetic stubbornness. He adores Maggie in part because he knows that her cleverness and determination are always going to cause problems for her with others. He sees her virtues as handicaps that demand a father’s special approval and unspoken pity. Yet there are many times when his admiration for her is sincere, or half-sincere, or simultaneously disapproving and impressed. Eliot likes to take advantage of the sheer diversity and subtlety of feelings that the length of a novel can convey. She seldom settles for a fixed, hammered-down attitude, either toward Mr. Tulliver or anyone else. The outlines of her characters are offset by constant variations, repeated probes into the unexpected nooks and caverns of even the most rigid personalities.

Maggie’s early years with Tom occupy most of the novel’s first two-hundred pages. Maggie is the smarter, more talented and more emotional of the pair, but Tom is older and has some narrow forms of integrity and levelheadedness that she lacks, and we understand why Maggie looks up to him and craves his approval. They love each other yet rub each other the wrong way, and Maggie takes every conflict as life-shattering, unbearable. Even when she’s happy with Tom, the terms of their happiness warn us how they will come into conflict as adults:

…the next morning Maggie was trotting with her own fishing-rod in one hand and a handle of the basket in the other, stepping always, by a peculiar gift, in the muddiest places and looking darkly radiant from under her beaver-bonnet because Tom was good to her… He knew all about worms and fish and those things; and what birds were mischievous, and how padlocks opened, and which way the handles of the gates were to be lifted. Maggie thought this sort of knowledge was very wonderful -- much more difficult than remembering what was in books; and she was rather in awe of Tom’s superiority, for he was the only person who called her knowledge "stuff" and did not feel surprised at her cleverness… Still, he was very fond of his sister and meant always to take care of her, make her his housekeeper, and punish her when she did wrong.

Like his father, Tom assumes he possesses all the talents he needs to survive life’s dangers. Because of this, he thinks everyone should always follow his decisions. In one of the first chapters, Eliot plants clues about the flood that will come at the novel’s end: she immediately links the flood to Tom’s certainty of being one of the world’s deserving winners. Tom tells his friend Bob that the Floss has flooded in the past. Yet Tom believes he has a way to handle any future deluge and keep himself and his loved ones safe:

"When I’m a man, I shall make a boat with a wooden house on the top of it, like Noah’s ark, and keep plenty to eat in it -- rabbits and things -- all ready. And then if the flood came, you know, Bob, I shouldn’t mind… And I’d take you in if I saw you swimming," he added in the tone of a benevolent patron.

Tom’s conviction that his security is in his control, a matter of individual willpower and choice, finds its echo in many of the novel’s other prosperous characters. One of Eliot’s themes is our willingness to hold people wholly responsible for their own successes and failures, and to blame the disadvantaged for our mistreatment of them. From an early age, Maggie is forced to see the inadequacy of group judgments, self-servingly blind or hostile to any possibility that violates the group’s presumptions. When Tom starts learning geometry, Maggie approaches his teacher with the possibility that she might study the subject as well:

"Mr Stelling," she said that same evening when they were in the drawing-room, "couldn’t I do Euclid, and all Tom’s lessons, if you were to teach me instead of him?"

"No; you couldn’t," said Tom indignantly. "Girls can’t do Euclid, can they, sir?"

"They can pick up a little of everything, I dare say," said Mr Stelling. "They’ve a good deal of superficial cleverness, but they couldn’t go far into anything. They’re quick and shallow."

Tom, delighted with this verdict, telegraphed his triumph by wagging his head at Maggie behind Mr Stelling’s chair. As for Maggie, she had hardly ever been so mortified. She had been so proud to be called "quick" all her little life, and now it appeared that this quickness was the brand of inferiority. It would have been better to be slow, like Tom.

A similar reflex is at work in the group reactions to the fall of Mr. Tulliver, the event that sets up the second half of the novel. Mr. Tulliver makes some bad decisions, and pursues a lawsuit he should never have brought. He also continues to avoid demanding the payment of the money he has loaned his sister, even though this might help prevent his financial collapse. Yet his largest miscalculation is his lasting faith that he’ll always be able to push his way out of his troubles through determination and hard work. He has borrowed five-hundred pounds from a client of the lawyer Wakem, precisely the worst and most dangerous decision in the circumstances. He has made this choice, Eliot says, “not because [his] will was feeble, but because external fact was stronger” as nobody else could provide the money. External fact is stronger: the novel deals in the tragedy of facing forces beyond our control, and facing them partly because of mistakes we’ve made along the way. The flood will turn out to be the most overwhelming external fact, but it will only mark the furthest limit of the many gradations of those facts in the novel.

As Eliot repeatedly demonstrates, the mingling of outside forces with our own actions is so complex that passing a final, one-sided moral judgment on most of us is nearly impossible, and usually substitutes self-righteousness for insight. She doesn’t deny personal responsibility: few novelists are as tenacious as she is at tracking our complicity in our failures, the links between our shortcomings and the problems they bring us. But our good points often contain our bad points, and vice versa. Mr Tulliver’s kindness to his sister is part of his undoing, Maggie’s stubbornness and impulsiveness are part of the vitality that powers her intelligence, Tom’s insularity and arrogance are part of his strict and genuine code of honor. Eliot holds us responsible for our flaws, but only on the understanding that we must be given credit for our merits.

The contrary urge -- to dismiss someone’s life by simply branding it a mistake -- strikes her as an act of cruelty and oppression, an abandonment of our duty to understand each other. After all, we never know when the floodwaters will start to run our direction, when we might be the ones drowned by the personal missteps we thought we could minimize or overcome. For Eliot, the desire to blame unconditionally, without recognition of how much we share in the vulnerability of the people we censure, is a form of inhumanity, comic yet obscene. As Mr. Tulliver sinks into his financial troubles, his wife’s well-to-do brothers and sisters are quick to revel in his predicament:

…both uncles and aunts saw that the ruin of [the wife] and her family was as complete as they had ever foreboded it, and there was a general family sense that a judgement had fallen on Mr Tulliver, which it would be an impiety to counteract by too much kindness.

Maggie, with her childhood understanding of what it’s like to have others diminish you to protect their prejudices, discovers an increased devotion to her father. She wants to shield him from the scorn of her aunts and uncles:

Her heart went out to him with a stronger movement than ever at the thought that people would blame him. Maggie hated blame; she had been blamed all her life, and nothing had come of it but evil tempers.                 

The aunts and uncles take satisfaction in seeing Mr. Tulliver broken, and they want to see Maggie and Tom a bit broken too. Aunt Glegg tells Tom that he must “bear the fruits of his father’s misconduct and bring his mind to fare hard and to work hard.” She adds that he must also “be humble and grateful to his aunts and uncles for what they’re doing for his mother and father, as must be turned out into the streets and go to the work-house if they didn’t help ’em.”

The imposition of the father’s mistakes on Maggie and Tom is, in Eliot’s view, another example of the flood-like nature of group judgment. It takes down the wholly innocent along with those who more reasonably might be held liable:

Allocaturs, filing of bills in Chancery, decrees of sale are legal chain-shot or bomb-shells that can never hit a solitary mark, but must fall with widespread shattering. 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.

Mr. Tulliver’s wife tries to help him at one point by going to see the lawyer Wakem, but merely exposes the family to greater damage. As Wakem evolves new ideas for harming Mr. Tulliver, Eliot considers the way that, once misfortune begins to attack somebody, it can accelerate out of control simply because it’s so gratifying to anyone who dislikes that person. As Maggie’s very intelligence was used to discredit her so as to preserve someone else’s sense of a just world, Mr. Tulliver will be sacrificed to Wakem’s casual vanity:

Prosperous men take a little vengeance now and then, as they take a diversion, when it comes easily in their way and is no hindrance to business; and such small unimpassioned revenges have an enormous effect in life, running through all degrees of pleasant infliction, blocking the fit men out of places, and blackening characters in unpremeditated talk. Still more, to see people who have been only insignificantly offensive to us reduced in life and humiliated without any special efforts of ours is apt to have a soothing, flattering influence. Providence, or some other prince of this world, it appears, has undertaken the task of retribution for us, and really, by an agreeable constitution of things, our enemies somehow don’t prosper.

But Eliot, as usual, isn’t content with making Wakem a one-note villain. His revenge takes piquancy from being mingled with altruism, the charity of buying the mill but paying Mr. Tulliver to run it under Wakem’s command:

To see an enemy humiliated gives a certain contentment, but this is jejune compared with the highly blent satisfaction of seeing him humiliated by your benevolent action or concession on his behalf. That is a sort of revenge which falls into the scales of virtue, and Wakem was not without an intention of keeping that scale respectably filled… Such things give a completeness to prosperity and contribute elements of agreeable consciousness that are not dreamed of by that short-sighted, over-heated vindictiveness which goes out of its way to wreak itself in direct injury.

While Tom is sent off to work, Maggie is left to take care of her devastated father and her ineffectual mother. Mr. Tulliver is defeated yet furious, lethargic yet sporadically enraged. In another bit of foreshadowing, he says: “There’s a story as when the mill changes hands, the river’s angry,” though when the flood finally comes, it won’t act in his favor but will instead kill the two children he loves. Before this, though, Mr. Tulliver makes Tom swear to take revenge on Wakem if the chance ever arises.

Maggie, as she tends to Mr. Tulliver in his decline, remains “the desire of his eyes, but the sweet spring of fatherly love was now mingled with bitterness, like everything else.” The community in which the Tullivers have lived for generations abandons him quickly and completely:

As for other acquaintances, there is a chill air surrounding those who are down in the world and people are glad to get away from them, as from a cold room; human beings, mere men and women, without furniture, without anything to offer you, who have ceased to count as anybody, present an embarrassing negation of reasons for wishing to see them or of subjects on which to converse with them.

Maggie feels herself changing in her isolated and debilitating position as caretaker of a fading home:

She rebelled against her lot, she fainted under its loneliness; and fits even of anger and hatred towards her father and mother, who were so unlike what she would have them to be, towards Tom, who checked her and met her thought or feeling always by some thwarting difference, would flow out over her affections and conscience like a lava stream, and frighten her with a sense that it was not difficult for her to become a demon.

Maggie only begins to see her way out of this barren existence when Wakem’s son, Philip, starts visiting her. She has known Philip from the past: he used to be Tom’s schoolmate. Back then, she had pitied him for the hump on his back, the result of an accident when he was a baby. Originally, Maggie had found herself drawn to Philip’s deformity. Her sympathy was a deliberate reproach to Tom, a reaction against her brother’s failure to appreciate her fully:

Maggie, moreover, had rather a tenderness for deformed things; she preferred the wry-necked lambs because it seemed to her that the lambs which were quite strong and well made wouldn’t mind so much about being petted, and she was especially fond of petting objects that would think it very delightful to be petted by her. She loved Tom very dearly, but she often wished that he cared more about her loving him.

Now, years later, Philip is in love with Maggie. He says, however, that he knows she will never love him as much as she loves her brother. Her response is revealing:

"Perhaps not," Maggie said simply; "but then, you know, the first thing I ever remember in my life is standing with Tom by the side of the Floss while he held my hand; everything else is dark to me…"

Not surprisingly, the relationship can’t survive Tom’s interference. Philip tells her about his love for her. She admits that, at some level, she loves him too (though it seems to be a love based mainly on his role as an emblem of life beyond her parents’ suffering). Yet Tom, mindful of his father’s request, has taken revenge on Wakem by demanding that Maggie have nothing to do with Philip. Once Tom discovers they’ve been seeing each other in secret, he insists that Maggie remove Philip from her life. Then Mr. Tulliver dies. Tom, who has succeeded in his initial business labors, becomes the head of the family.

The final section of the novel brings about the great rupture with Tom towards which Maggie has been moving all along, despite her constant efforts to please him. She falls in love with Stephen Guest, who’s engaged to one of her friends. Maggie believes any relationship with Stephen would violate her declared love for Philip and Stephen’s declared love for his fiancée. Still, Stephen admits his feelings to Maggie, and she half-deliberately, half-passively drifts away with him on a boat trip when he proposes they run away together. She sleeps. When she wakes up, she finally rejects Stephen, but the damage to her reputation is done. She returns under the public supposition that she has run off with a man who used her and then didn’t marry her. Tom values family honor above the truth of what might have happened, and tells Maggie he wants nothing to do with her.

His rejection of her goes far beyond the specific situation. It amounts to a self-righteous condemnation of Maggie’s entire life. It is, in its unbending cruelty, the culmination of all the other self-righteous rejections that Eliot has presented in the novel:

"I loathe your character and your conduct. You struggled with your feelings, you say. Yes! I have had feelings to struggle with, but I conquered them. I have had a harder life than you have had, but I have found my comfort in doing my duty. But I will sanction no such character as yours; the world shall know that I feel the difference between right and wrong."

Maggie suffers, and continues to repent her mistake with Stephen. Philip and his fiancée forgive her. Tom doesn’t. He has fulfilled his father’s worst fears.

Then the flood arrives. The novel sets things up so we think Maggie will get in the boat and rescue Tom, bringing about a happy reconciliation between them through her heroism, along with his forgiveness now that she has sufficiently suffered and made amends. Eliot, however, trades less in trinkets of sentimentality than in the harsher emotions of classical Greek tragedy, where personal limitations and impersonal fate come together to destroy us. As a boy Tom had thought he would someday be able to make a boat that could keep him and others safe in any flood. But when the flood actually comes, he isn’t prepared for it, and the smugness of group judgment might well say that Maggie is irresponsible and self-destructive for seeking him out in such dangerous conditions. Instead of saving at least her own life, she attempts a rescue that merely results in both of them dying. But in the end it’s foolish to condemn Tom’s failure to prepare for the flood and Maggie’s failure to bring about the perfect rescue. Both failures are real enough, yet they represent all our failures to meet the severest demands that life places on us. If we feel dissatisfied because Maggie’s bravery is insufficient to overpower the force of the river, Eliot suggests this is our fault for accepting the disgraceful idea that success will always come to those who deserve it. The flood exposes the callowness of the notion Maggie has fought against her entire life, the view that the defeated should be immune to our compassion and respect because they’ve brought their losses on themselves. In Eliot’s world, the flood might be coming for any of us, at any time, and quite possibly no action of ours will be sufficient to preserve us from its power.

I’ve sometimes wondered if Auden was thinking of The Mill on the Floss when he made the controversial change to the line “We must love one another or die” from “September 1, 1939.” In the 1945 edition of his collected poems, he shifts that lovely “or” to a much less immediately pleasing “and,” recasting the line as: “We must love one another and die.” Maggie and Tom matter to us not because they’re victorious but because Eliot has revealed all the shades of their difficult love for each other. It’s the intertwined experience of their lives that matters, not any superficial judgment on whether they might have lost or won. They’ve lived, joined together despite their differences. They’ve loved one another and died.         

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