Summary and Analysis
Book 4: The Valley of Humiliation: Chapter 1
The great ruined castles to be seen on a Rhine journey are contrasted by the author to the "angular skeletons of villages" on the Rhone, villages which lend a feeling that "human life . . . is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence . . . ." Family life on the Floss may strike the reader much the same way through its conventionality and "oppressive narrowness"; but it must be felt if the reader is to understand the lives of Tom and Maggie and other "young natures in many generations."
The religion of the Dodsons and Tullivers is "of a simple, semi-pagan kind." It consists of "whatever was customary and respectable." The Dodson character is "a proud, honest egoism" that dislikes anything which is against its own interest. It will not allow kin to "want bread, but only require them to eat it with bitter herbs." The Tulliver character is much the same, but with a dash of rashness and affection. Such were the traditional views of the Dodsons and Tullivers, and their society contains no modifying influences.
Since pagan ideas are freely held, it should be no surprise that Mr. Tulliver "recorded his vindictiveness on the fly-leaf of his Bible, [for] church was one thing and common-sense another."
The chapter is devoted to analysis of the people and the society which have been presented. The author states her intentions plainly: she wishes to impart "this sense of oppressive narrowness" of their lives so that we may understand "how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie — how it has acted on young natures in many generations . . . ."
The narrowness in these lives has been demonstrated, and we are now told how it came about. The specific situation is related to the social structure, and the whole is connected, through the narrator, to the world of the reader. The analysis gives a sense of intimacy with this society as deep as the intimacy with characters produced by the dramatic portions of the novel.
Some of the main points of the analysis are that religion had "no standard beyond hereditary custom"; "vices and virtues alike were phases of a proud, honest egoism"; that life was rigidly controlled by custom. Moral and religious principles are not distinguished from social convention. The summit of respectability is a proper death and a proper will: "To live respected, and have the proper bearers at your funeral, was an achievement of the ends of existence . . . ." Nevertheless, theirs was "a wholesome pride in many respects," and there is a core of soundness in the Dodson strictness. This has been demonstrated once, for a Dodson would never fall into the misery of bankruptcy through rashness. It will be seen again later when Mrs. Glegg stands by Maggie in her disgrace.
At the center of the work is the clash of the Dodson and Tulliver elements of character, the prudent caution and the "richer blood, having elements of generous imprudence, warm affection, and hot-tempered rashness."