The end of “The Mill on the Floss” is the most controversial issue of the novel. It has been subjected to biting criticism as it is alleged to be illogical, unnatural and rapid. Lytton spots that “the end is weakly prepared”. To Henry James, the end is ‘defective and shocking’. Bennet views that ‘the end indicates the novelist’s desire to bring about poetic justice’. Eliot ‘cut the knot she was unable to unravel’. To be curt, the critics blame that the end seems abrupt and imposed and does not flow from incidents.
The end may have some defects; yet it can be defended and justified on subsequent levels.
Firstly, the end can be justified at an allegorical level. The novel is, in fact, written in the retrospect. In 1850’s, Eliot portrayed the simple and pure life of 1830’s, which was no longer in Eliot’s age. In the span of twenty years, its purity was greatly affected by urbanization and materialism. The Tulliver stands for that pure life of 1830’s. With the extinction of the Tullivers, she showed the death of an epoch and introduced material age through Wakem who is the representative of the materialistic age.
At an allegorical level, the end also implies that lack of harmony in human personality is fatal. Maggie was torn amid two extremes – impulsiveness and sense of duty. Maggie should have been given a chance to make a moral choice. But the conflict of her mind had become so strong that she couldn’t go either way. Her impulsiveness swayed her to marry Stephen but her sense of duty asked her to be faithful to Philip and Lucy. If she married Philip, she would be disloyal to her family. So she had to pay for the disharmony in human nature through death.
The end is valid at the symbolic level, too, where River Floss stands for the cause of sustenance as well as ruin for the Tullivers. Some critics view that despite being drowned in the Floss, Maggie could have been killed by some other way. But it couldn’t have been credible enough. Had Tom killed Maggie, it would have been sensational and against the theme of the novel i.e. emotional self-control. Had Maggie committed suicide, she would have been reduced to a foolish sappy girl which Eliot didn’t like. Natural death would have been least artistic. Eliot also wanted to reunite the brother and the sister before death which would have been impossible in normal situation. She also wanted to show that the Floss which gave birth to whole of miseries, itself put an end to all the sufferings.
Like Fielding, Eliot wrote to inculcate the moral into the people. Maggie gave up the virtues of Christian charity for the impulses of the flesh. Through Maggie’s death, Eliot showed that the love of the flesh was socially as well as morally explosive and led to the valley of death.
Like Austen, Eliot, too, does not set up fanciful ideals in her novels. She wants to teach that when ideal is lost, the penalty is death. Maggie wanted to be, all at once, dutiful and true to her love, which has a fanciful ideal; it did break and she met a tragic death.
She also wanted to make us aware of the threat of temptation. Maggie could not resist the temptation towards Stephen and went out for boating with him which resulted in her death.
From the personal point of view the end can be easily defended. Eliot had an indecent life with Lewis for about 24 years but she never accepted such a life. She never allowed her women to repeat such a lapse and punished them for the slightest slip. Maggie had biographical similarity with Eliot. Through pushing her, she, in fact, pushed herself.
The end is equally defendable at the social level. Eliot wanted to tell that when one is socially disreputed and humiliated, it is impossible for him to live a happy and reputable life in the society. Maggie had to meet death for she had already socially died.
Lastly, we may justify the end from the structural point of view. Eliot’s notion of unity is unlike other novelists. In Eliot’s case, complex and interdependent relationship is responsible for creating unity. But after creating such relationship, she is usually unable to untie and resolve it because it becomes inextricable. Then she cuts the knot, she is unable to unravel. She involved Maggie in inextricable relationship together with Tom, Philip, Lucy and Stephen to invest the novel with unity but when she found herself at a loss to resolve it, she achieved her object through the death of Maggie, for, after all, the novel had to reach its end.
It concludes that the bitter criticism with reference to the end of the novel is quite unqualified. It is mainly on the part of the 19th century. Today, in the 21st century, the critics are all praise for her. The end of the novel could be none, they view, but what she conceived.