Even as a little girl, Maggie Tulliver is considered “contrary” and un-ladylike by her relatives. She speaks out of turn, reads too much, and engages in acts of rebellion like cutting off her hair. Her behavior is often contrasted unfavorably with that of her cousin, Lucy Deane, a model of perfect Victorian femininity. Lucy is sweet, obedient, and conventionally pretty, all of which are qualities valued in women in Victorian society. As Maggie and Lucy grow up, they experience womanhood in very different ways. While Lucy conforms to the social expectations of her gender, Maggie struggles against the restrictions placed on women’s lives and choices and becomes a social outcast as a result. The contrast between the fates of these two women suggests that Victorian society tends to both idealize women and harshly punish transgressions against the predominant social and sexual order.
The social organization of St. Ogg’s—and of British society in the mid-nineteenth century in general—emphasizes the status of women as property. As a child, Lucy is praised for the neatness of her clothes, hair, and appearance, whereas Maggie is shamed by her relatives for having messy hair or a dirty pinafore. This suggests that women are valued for their appearance and ability to please others. In her childhood, Maggie is also constantly reminded of her second-class status. Unlike Tom, she is not given a rigorous education, since her schooling is designed to prepare her to be a wife and mother. When she looks at her brother’s geometry textbook, Tom reminds her that “girls can’t do Euclid,” and his tutor Mr. Stelling remarks that women “couldn’t go far into anything.” Although she shows significant intellectual aptitude, Maggie is thought unfit for higher study simply by virtue of her gender. Maggie’s subordination to Tom is also brought to light in other, subtler ways. For example, her mother, Mrs. Tulliver, comments that she plans to pass on her best tablecloths to Tom, leaving to Maggie only “the large check […] it never shows so well when the dishes are on it.” Even in small household matters, men are given precedence and priority. Yet women in Maggie’s position are unable to forge a separate identity from their family, as illustrated by Mr. Wakem’s comment that “we don’t ask what a woman does—we ask whom she belongs to.” Mr. Wakem, the lawyer who feuded for a decade with Tulliver family, points out to his son Philip that he can’t marry Maggie because of the family quarrel. It doesn’t matter what Maggie did in this conflict; she is guilty merely by association, because she “belongs” to the male Tullivers. Lacking agency of their own, women’s identities are subsumed into those of their husbands and families.
As Maggie grows into adulthood, she continues to struggle with her lack of agency in the world. In the wake of the Tulliver family’s bankruptcy, Tom goes to work for a shipping company and begins to make his fortune. Maggie, by contrast, has to remain at home, submit to her circumstances, and wait passively for a change in her life. When they are children, Tom points out to Maggie that he has more financial power than her by virtue of his gender. “I’ve got a great deal more money than you, because I’m a boy. I always have half-sovereigns and sovereigns for my Christmas boxes, because I shall be a man, and you only have five-shilling pieces, because you’re only a girl.” This small discrepancy in their allowances as children mirrors the larger financial inequality between them as adults—a discrepancy that, in turn, further limits Maggie’s autonomy. Tom reproaches Maggie for disobeying him in continuing her friendship with Philip Wakem behind his back. In response, she points out that his authority over her life is grounded in his social position: “because you are a man, Tom, and have power, and can do something in the world.” Maggie’s inability to “do something” is a constant source of frustration to her, since she feels that it prevents her from helping her family or herself.
After her botched elopement with Stephen Guest, Maggie faces the full force of social rejection and alienation from St. Ogg’s society. Because she has transgressed the bounds of acceptable feminine behavior, she lives as a virtual outcast. It doesn’t matter that Maggie did not choose to run away with Stephen Guest, did not sleep with him outside of marriage, and did not marry him—simply by leaving St. Ogg’s with a man, she is considered guilty. However, the narrator points out the hypocrisy of “respectable” society in these cases: “If Miss Tulliver, after a few months of well-chosen travel, had returned as Mrs. Stephen Guest […] public opinion […] would have judged in strict consistency with those results.” In other words, if Maggie had married Stephen Guest after running away with him, she would have been accepted in the town as the wife of one of its most prominent citizens. Even though the “crime” was the same, she would have been retrospectively validated by the marriage. The narrator observes that Victorian society tends to either elevate women or cast them down. Lovers like to sit in a chair “a little above or a little below the one on which your goddess sits,” the narrator explains, since “women are at once worshipped and looked down upon.” This precept is borne out in the lives of Lucy and Maggie. The conventionally feminine Lucy is idealized as an angelic, beautiful, and “perfect” woman and future wife. By contrast, in eloping with Stephen Guest, the once desirable Maggie becomes a “fallen woman” who is now treated with contempt.
Maggie’s passion, intelligence, and unconventionality are a poor fit for the narrow requirements and roles allotted to women in Victorian society. She is unable to reconcile herself to the passivity expected of women, and her acts of rebellion against those conventions lead to social alienation. The Mill on the Floss suggests that Maggie is unable to find creative, intellectual, and sexual fulfillment because of the limited choices available to women in her community.
Women’s Roles and Social Pressures ThemeTracker
Women’s Roles and Social Pressures Quotes in The Mill on the Floss
“I don’t want your money, you silly thing. I’ve got a great deal more money than you, because I’m a boy. I always have half-sovereigns and sovereigns for my Christmas boxes, because I shall be a man, and you only have five-shilling pieces, because you’re only a girl.”
“No; you couldn’t,” said Tom, indignantly. “Girls can’t do Euclid: can they, sir?”
“They can pick up a little of everything, I daresay,” said Mr. Stelling. “They’ve a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn’t go far into anything. They’re quick and shallow.”
When they did meet, she remembered her promise to kiss him, but, as a young lady who had been at a boarding-school, she knew now that such a greeting was out of the question, and that Philip would not expect it. This promise was void, like so many other sweet, illusory promises of our childhood; void as promises made in Eden […] impossible to be fulfilled when the golden gates had been passed.
While Maggie’s life-struggles had lain almost entirely within her own soul, one shadowy army fighting another, and the slain shadows for ever rising again, Tom was engaged in a dustier, noisier warfare, grappling with more substantial obstacles, and gaining more definite conquests.
But the rain is to be depended on. You gallop through it in a mackintosh, and presently find yourself in the seat you like best—a little above or a little below the one on which your goddess sits (it is the same thing to the metaphysical mind, and that is the reason why women are at once worshipped and looked down upon), with a satisfactory confidence that there will be no lady-callers.
“We don't ask what a woman does—we ask whom she belongs to. It's altogether a degrading thing to you to think of marrying old Tulliver’s daughter.”
If Miss Tulliver, after a few months of well-chosen travel, had returned as Mrs. Stephen Guest, with a post-marital trousseau, and all the advantages possessed even by the most unwelcome wife of an only son, public opinion, which at St. Ogg's, as elsewhere, always knew what to think, would have judged in strict consistency with those results.