Term Paper: Dark Spirituality as a Symbol

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[. . .] Here, the reader notes that the only way that they could be together, again symbolizing the relationship between the true intelligent woman and "man," as a group, is in death -- in other words, there is no real possibility of reconciling the "Maggie's" of the world with a place within society. The only option is complete obliteration of the "different" intelligent woman. Maggie dies in the murky depths, while Eliot, herself dies in name. There is no difference.

Interestingly, however, Eliot does not merely stop at telling a tale of tragedy without a representation of her fierce struggle with the social realities behind the tragedy. She does not merely satisfy herself with "she lives and she dies." On the contrary, however tragic the death of Maggie and Tom may be in and of itself, the real story is in the struggle Eliot demonstrates against this unjust reality within the motifs of darkness.

Clearly, Eliot demonstrates within the story the fury and injustice of the situation, both for her, and for Maggie (her symbolic representation of all women like her). She does this by infusing the essence of the real struggle (and, perhaps of her own struggle in life) within the many representations of dark, the gothic, the devil, and the occult within the work.

Of course, The Mill on the Floss is a tragedy. However, the real atmosphere of gloom, and of unease comes not from the mere tragic outcome of the story. Instead, the reader notes that from the beginning of the novel that the other characters view Maggie as an "ominous" figure. Her own father darkly predicts her future, her mother calls her a "wild thing," and "a Bedlam Creatur." Further, she is specifically linked with the image of "the devil" in her knowledge of "The History of the Devil," and in her own similarity to the "coloring" of the devil, himself. Although these aspects of the story certainly foreshadow the eventual doomed fate of Maggie, they also represent her spirit of rebellion (and the rebellion of all women), in her "wild" image -- and even in her association and knowledge of the devil.

However, the most striking and clear example of this type is in the reference to the Voodoo doll in chapter four -- its dark and sinister quality as communicated by the narrator, her abuse of the doll with nails and beatings (an expression of her anger), coupled with the death of Tom's rabbits due to her "forgetting them" -- an event, although unintentional, is highly symbolic of her resistance to her situation.

Interestingly, Eliot's use of the "voodoo doll" episode would have been calculated to evoke the greatest foreboding in her readers. After all, it was during this time that not only her contemporaries were becoming aware of the existence of Voodoo (Hurbon 14), the Caribbean and Haitian native religion, but were also becoming accustomed to other examples of "gothic" writing -- including Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wuthering Heights among others.

However, it is important to note that an extremely important aspect of Voodoo that Eliot and her contemporaries, perhaps adding to its image as dark, demonic, and ominous, is the particular power women as a group hold within its practice. In an extremely patriarchal society like the one in Victorian times, one in which organized religion reinforces the subjugated nature of women trough its doctrines (Adam and Eve, Augustinian thought, male clergy, among countless other examples), the concept of a religion in which women could not only full participate, but were equal with, and sometimes more powerful than, men was patently threatening.

Not only was Eliot well aware of this aspect of Voodoo, but in placing the most infamous representation of that religion in the hands of young Maggie, she demonstrated, not only Maggie's desire to have more control over her life (remember, her mother had just prevented her from going to see Tom), but her terrible and acute frustration that she is unable to unleashed in her real life -- even as a child -- against those she loves yet oppress her. She abuses the doll -- a symbol of the freedom she will never have, in the place of her loved ones, and in protest against an unjust world.

In addition, as previously mentioned, Maggie, herself is far removed from the "norm" of womanhood in her society. Not only is she extremely intelligent, but she is also described as having "dark" features -- hair, skin, and eyes. Although these features are considered in the end to be attractive to men, her mother and father are clearly disturbed by them. In particular, Mrs. Tulliver clearly sees them as negatives, saying she looks like a "mulatter." Yet, the root of this feeling of "wrongness" in the dark appearance of Maggie, is, like the voodoo doll, rooted in the Victorian sense of "goodness" and light. Not only does Maggie not conform (although she tries) to the norms of womanly society in her day, but her very appearance echo's tragedy, darkness, and doom.

A further example of the dark/voodoo/gothic theme is contained in the various references to the devil in the book. Although Maggie does seem to be quite religious -- and affected by images like "the prodigal son," (an image she directly attributes to herself in her role in the death of the rabbits), as well as in her reading of Thomas a Kempis' work on sacrifice and self denial, the fact that her embarkation on the road of self sacrifice does not save her from suffering. On the contrary, when she progresses into adulthood her natural "dark" beauty comes into full bloom, representative of her unavoidable nature. The reader sees that she can no longer deny her tendencies -- that the road of sacrifice and self denial are not for her.

This fact, this almost completely inevitable nature of Maggie's fall into doom, even in spite of her best intentions, perhaps echo's Eliot's own experience with religion, and her realization that organized religion of her childhood could not support her own "nature" and outlook on life. Indeed, one notes that Eliot's movement in her own life toward a more "general spirituality," unfettered by the bonds of predominant Victorian religious sensibility, in some way is reflected in Maggie's inability to follow the same norms in the novel. In fact, one wonders if the fact that Eliot did not find her "place" in the organized religion of her childhood and family, prompted her to not allow Maggie to find her path within a tome of organized Christian theology.

It is extremely important when considering this question of whether Eliot's own personal experiences prompted her to craft the story of Maggie in the way that she did, it is important to note the parallels between Maggie and Eliot, herself. Although this is a common component of most feminist criticism of literature, and is a specifically strong trend in the interpretation of Eliot's work in particular, it is principally telling when one notes the way in which critics more contemporary to Eliot view her as an individual, and as an author. Note the following words in the article by Virginia Woolf, first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 20th November, 1919.

To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one knows about her. It is also to become aware of the credulity, not very creditable to one's insight, with which, half consciously and partly maliciously, one had accepted the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself. At what moment and by what means her spell was broken it is difficult to ascertain. Some people attribute it to the publication of her Life. Perhaps George Meredith, with his phrase about the 'mercurial little showman' and the 'errant woman' on the da s, gave point and poison to the arrows of thousands incapable of aiming them so accurately, but delighted to let fly. She became one of the butts for youth to laugh at, the convenient symbol of a group of serious people who were all guilty of the same idolatry and could be dismissed with the same scorn. (Woolf)

Here, Woolf specifically touches on the nature of the "Victorian reader." Even more, she touches on the Victorian sensibility as presented in the novel, itself. Of particular importance is her observation that the late Victorian "version of a deluded woman" is half conscious and partly malicious. Indeed, this is the very reality that Eliot speaks of through Maggie. For Eliot certainly suffered as a result of her intelligence and ability every bit as much as her character in The Mill on the Floss. Take, for example, Woolf's example of the criticism leveled at Eliot by George Meredith -- "mercurial little showman...errant woman on the dais." Woolf notes that this attitude about women like Eliot (and Maggie) was the norm. The only reason more examples weren't published was they were "incapable of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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