The Mill on the Floss By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Book 7: The Final Rescue: Chapter 2 - St. Ogg's Passes Judgment

Summary

It soon becomes known that Maggie has returned, and since she is unwed, all the blame falls on her. If she had returned as Stephen's wife, the affair would have been "quite romantic," and to refuse to associate with the couple would be nonsense. But since Maggie returned unwed, it was evident that her conduct "had been of the most aggravated kind." "Public opinion, in these cases, is always of the feminine gender — not the world, but the world's wife . . . ." The world's wife assumes that Stephen refused to marry Maggie and recalls that Lucy and Philip have been treated badly. It is hoped that Maggie will leave "so as to purify the air of St. Ogg's . . . ."

Maggie is filled with remorse and is unable to see either Philip or Lucy. She intends to take employment to support herself. She decides to carry her problems to Dr. Kenn. He is quietly kind and tells her that "the Church ought to represent the feeling of the community," but that Christian brotherhood hardly exists in the public. He says she probably does not anticipate the injustice she will receive; but she has begun to experience that already. A letter has arrived from Stephen, Dr. Kenn informs her. He has gone abroad and has written back to say that Maggie is blameless. However, the evidence is insufficient to satisfy public opinion. He advises her to "take a situation at a distance," but Maggie wishes to remain there. Dr. Kenn promises to try to find Maggie a position. After she leaves, he stands "ruminating." He has begun to feel that a marriage between Stephen and Maggie is "the least evil," but he appreciates that Maggie must regard it as "a desecration." He hesitates to intervene, for he realizes that life is too complex to be guided by general rules, and the special circumstance of Maggie's feeling would overturn a conclusion arrived at by "any balancing of consequences."

Analysis

"The world's wife" is the personification of public opinion. She appears to express the worst side of human nature, but the ironic treatment she receives makes her appear humorous as well as spiteful. Still, her conclusions are all the wrong ones; hers is an entirely superficial view. Maggie is considered to be "extremely dangerous to daughters [through] the taint of her presence." The world's wife is a quick and effective way for the author to put across the effect on St. Ogg's society of Maggie's escapade. She is a perfect vehicle for the author's comments on that society.

Young Torry once again epitomizes the masculine side of society's reaction to Maggie. He treats her "with the air of nonchalance which he might have bestowed on a friendly barmaid."

Maggie then realizes for the first time "that she would have other obloquy cast on her besides that which was felt to be due to her breach of faith towards Lucy." She has once again failed to see the consequences of her acts. She realizes her weakness, perhaps for the first time; but her main hope is for "something to guarantee her from more failing." This is one sign that she is still not fully ready to face life, for such a guarantee is impossible.

The reader is likely to feel, as does Dr. Kenn, that "an ultimate marriage between Stephen and Maggie [is] the least evil." Dr. Kenn sees as clearly as may be the difficulties in the case, but he has no very definite idea what to do. The author obviously intends this to be a difficult problem. "The great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it." It is clear to the world's wife, but only because the world's wife cannot appreciate the difficulty. The same may be said of Tom. It has been demonstrated, as Dr. Kenn says, that "the persons who are the most incapable of a conscientious struggle such as yours, are precisely those who will be likely to shrink from you; because they will not believe in your struggle." And it is true that "the ideas of discipline and Christian fraternity are entirely relaxed — they can hardly be said to exist in the public mind" — that is, in the mind of "the world's wife." Dr. Kenn interprets for the reader the complexities of the problem and establishes a moral norm to set them against. Nevertheless, he is not a mere personification, such as the world's wife is. As will be seen later, he has human failings of his own.

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