Summary and Analysis
Book 7: The Final Rescue:
Chapter 5 - The Last Conflict
Rain has fallen continuously for two days, and the old men are reminded of the weather which preceded the great floods of sixty years before. It is past midnight and raining heavily as Maggie sits alone in her room "battling with the old shadowy enemies." Two days earlier, Dr. Kenn was forced to release her from her position as governess because of the "gossip and slander" which had arisen. He has advised Maggie that it would be best for her to go away from St. Ogg's. Now Maggie has received a letter from Stephen, saying that two months have "deepened the certainty" that he can never care for life without her and asking her to write to him to come. Her longing for him and her misery combine to make her desire to write, and the thought that Stephen is miserable makes the desire stronger. But she recoils from that, and hours of prayer make her resolve to bear her burden. She burns the letter, vowing to "bear it till death," and wondering how soon death might come.
At that moment Maggie feels water about her knees. She starts up, knowing at once that it is the flood. She runs to wake Bob and hurries down to help him ready the boats. Maggie is swept away in one boat into the darkness. She floats out over the flooded fields, and in the growing twilight she sees St. Ogg's. She paddles to reach the mill, where the house stands "drowned up to the first story." Maggie calls, and Tom comes to the window. Their mother is away at Garum Firs. Tom climbs out into the boat. When they are alone on the flood the meaning of this rescue comes to him in "a new revelation to his spirit, of the depths in life, that had lain beyond his vision . . . ." They set off to try to find Lucy, but below the wharves huge fragments are floating. People in a boat shout a warning, but Tom and Maggie are borne down by the drifting masses. They disappear "in an embrace never to be parted."
Dr. Kenn must face his own difficult moral problem. His answer, unlike Maggie's, is to succumb to necessity. "He was finally wrought upon by the consideration of the peculiar responsibility attached to his office, of avoiding the appearance of evil." This, it seems, he places above acting in accord with his conscience. The author never makes this central to Maggie's own situation, but it is certainly to be taken as a reflection on her choice of continued renunciation. A further comment on this is Dr. Kenn's belief that "conscientious people are apt to see their duty in that which is the most painful course." Certainly this is the case with Maggie.
Stephen's letter presents the greatest possible contrast with Philip's. Where the contrast of physical strength has been favorable to Stephen, here the moral contrast leaves no doubt as to Philip's superiority. Stephen's letter is entirely a statement of self-concern; it is the negation of the self-sacrifice which Maggie strives for.
The flood comes as the solution to Maggie's problems. The author has been preparing for this: there have been many hints and foreshadowings. But the flood is not a satisfactory solution, because it does not arise out of the situations or characters of the novel. Eliot has prepared for it, but not properly. It should be compared to the sudden end of the lawsuit with Pivart. That event was prepared briefly, but skillfully, and kept at the back of the reader's mind through frequent reminders. When it came, it seemed natural. Eliot tries to do the same with the flood but fails in this more important attempt. The reason is that the flood is completely external — it has no relation to Maggie or her problems — while the lawsuit was a result of Tulliver's character, and some occurrence of that sort could hardly have been avoided. While the lawsuit and its outcome were functional parts of the novel, the flood does not serve its purpose. Maggie has been brought into a final relationship of one sort or another with Philip and Lucy, but not with Stephen or Tom. The flood is used to bring about her final reconciliation with Tom, but it is not a satisfying one. And Stephen is merely passed off. Maggie's quick death is not poetic justice, but a quick way out. The results of her moral decision are never seen. The reunion with Tom is oversimplified. In contrast to the full treatment of their early lives, this section passes over things of the utmost importance. The author herself wrote, "I could not develop as fully as I wished the concluding 'Book' in which the tragedy occurs, and which I had looked forward to with much attention and premeditation from the beginning." The real failure is that the flood is an evasion of the moral problems raised, and that Maggie's life ends just as she is reaching a significant stage in her development. Tom's conversion too, this "new revelation to his spirit," comes too suddenly to be meaningful.