In her first major novel, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot created a situation between Maggie Tulliver and Stephen Guest that brings to the fore the conflict between love and duty — a strangely Victorian struggle that might be alien to most of us in the twenty-first century. For Eliot, it is the struggle within the heart of a young woman between her love of a man (Stephen Guest), including the financial security marriage to Stephen would bring, and her duty to those who love her and whom she loves in return – her cousin Lucy Deane (who is engaged to Stephen) and Philip Makem, who would like to be Maggie’s lover. After arranging to take Maggie on a boat ride down the Floss, Stephen allows the boat to drift past their destination and eventually draws Maggie’s attention to the fact that they are destined, in his view, to be together. Though the event seems to have been accidental, it is, of course, what he wants and has perhaps even allowed; it is what Maggie wants but fears. Stephen puts his case forcefully:
“See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking – in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again: it has all been done by others. . . . . It is the only right thing, dearest: it is the only way of escaping from the wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves.”
Maggie is torn and engages in a dialogue with Stephen that progresses for several hours and many pages,. Stephen equates “the only right thing” with what he and Maggie most dearly want. Maggie, on the other hand sees things differently: “I will not begin any future, even with you. . . with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you [previously] I feel now: I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted for ever then. But we must part now.”
Note that even at this point, because of the time spent alone with this engaged man, Maggie’s reputation in those Victorian days, will have been ruined – as was Mary Ann Evan’s reputation when she ran off with the married George Lewes. That is of no concern to Maggie – though as things play out, it becomes a burden with tragic consequences. Instead, she experiences the pangs of an active conscience:
“I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . . Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”
We are told these days that guilt is a terrible thing, a burden we ought never be forced to bear and Maggie’s speech may seem like the most blatant romantic nonsense to the modern ear that knows without doubt that “love conquers all.” Yet, in Eliot’s mind the guilty conscience is what leads people like Maggie toward the right course of action, her duty to others to whom she is bound by ties of friendship and love — despite the fact that it is directly opposed to what she so dearly wants. Indeed, throughout her writings, Eliot is consistent in attacking those who, like so many of us today, regard “what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves” as the highest good. In Eliot’s world doing the right thing is sometimes terribly difficult and frequently directly opposite to what “is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves.” But always giving in to what we want to do is often a sign of weak character and lack of moral fiber, ignoring “whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.” One abandons principles and duty others at great risk. Strange lessons from bygone days.