The Mill on the Floss By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Book 4: The Valley of Humiliation: Chapter 3 - A Voice from the Past

Summary

One afternoon in the spring Bob Jakin, carrying a pack and followed by a bull terrier, comes to the house. He has brought Maggie a gift of books, chosen mainly for their pictures, but with others comprised of print. Maggie thanks him, saying she hasn't many friends. Bob advises her to "hev a dog, [since] they're better friends nor any Christian." He says Mumps is good company and knows all his secrets, including his "big thumb." He explains that his broad thumb gives him the advantage of measuring out the yard goods he carries for sale. Bob cheerfully admits that this is cheating, but he only cheats those who want to cheat him.

Maggie's merriment soon dies out when Bob leaves. Her loneliness is deeper than ever; where she has always wanted more of everything, now there is nothing. She longs to go to some great man and tell him "how wretched and how clever" she is, so that she may be comforted. But she is always called back to the fact that her father's sadness is deeper than her own.

Maggie leafs through Bob's books. One is by Thomas à Kempis. She begins to read, and is thrilled by the words that promise that renunciation of the world's delights shall bring the death of "vain imaginations," of "inordinate love." Maggie clasps this as a means of conquest to be won entirely "within her own soul." She clutches at self-renunciation with "some exaggeration and willfulness, some pride and impetuosity," just as she has taken up sewing to help the family finances in a way calculated to give the most "self-mortification," rather than quietly. But she is sincere, and from this time her "new inward life" may be seen in her face and in her actions. But her "graces of mind and body" only feed her father's gloom as he sees his daughter being "thrown away" in the "degradation of debt."

Analysis

Bob Jakin is cheating but generous. He is made to appear far better than the Dodsons, with their close honesty. "I niver cheat anybody as doesn't want to cheat me, Miss" — the author makes this excuse sufficient. Note the images connected with Bob. He is a "knight in armour," and it does appear that with him "the days of chivalry are not gone." His life has a different standard from that of the Dodsons and Tullivers. Despite his low social standing, he is a distinctly knightly person.

Maggie's loneliness emphasizes her yearning for life and society. She wants love, knowledge, enjoyment. We are told that "even at school she had often wished for books with more in them." We are reminded of the strong emotions which music rouses in her. Music is made almost an image for her imaginative faculty. "There was no music for her any more" — this is significant of the atrophy of her inner life which is overtaking her now. She feels "the need of some tender, demonstrative love," but also "she wants some key that would enable her to understand . . . the heavy weight that had fallen on her heart." Her wish to go to "some great man . . . and tell him how wretched and how clever she was" contains a clear perception of her character at this point. She wants recognition of her good qualities and sympathy for her emotions. She expects these to be clear to a perceptive person. But she reveals a certain amount of arrogance — for example, regarding Bob "with his easily satisfied ignorance." This is part of the reason for her renunciation of the world. In Thomas à Kempis she finds "insight, and strength and conquest, to be won by means entirely within her own soul." She is egoistic about her own cleverness and self-sufficiency. Renunciation becomes satisfaction for her.

Maggie's viewpoint is used enough that the reader is likely to take her part, but in this chapter the author sets the reader at a sufficient distance to understand the mistake she makes. First it is hinted that she shows too much self-concern: "she was as lonely . . . as if she had been the only girl in the civilized world of that day who had come out of her school-life with a soul untrained for inevitable struggles . . . ." Then her feeling is put in perspective by the author's comment: "She had not perceived . . . the inmost truth of the old monk's outpourings, that renunciation remains sorrow, though a sorrow borne willingly." It is clear that Maggie's view is not the author's own, for we are told that she brings "exaggeration and willfulness . . . pride and impetuosity even into her self-renunciation." At last comes the ironic comment that even in abandonment of egoism we seek "the path of martyrdom and endurance, where the palm-branches grow, rather than the steep highway of tolerance, just allowance, and self-blame, where there are no leafy honours to be gathered and worn."

All of Maggie's yearnings and her renunciation are important to later developments. Her wish for love and for understanding are the driving force in her relationship with Philip. Her self-denial is a model of her later renunciation of Stephen, which is based on the belief that "love of thyself doth hurt thee more than anything in the world" and on repression of "inordinate love."

The emotional nature of Maggie's belief, even now, is betrayed by the image used — that à Kempis' words are to her "a strain of solemn music." Her emotional reactions are always associated with music. This occurs with Philip, and far more strongly with Stephen. Nevertheless, the passage from à Kempis is at the center of her final renunciation of Stephen, when she determines not to "inordinately love" herself.

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