The role of women in society is very different today compared to the role of women in Victorian society, in the 19th Century. Discuss this statement with reference to Maggie Tulliver in ‘Mill On The Floss’
Since the book ‘Mill on The Floss’ was written nearly two hundred years ago, it is no surprise that society has changed, especially for women. The fact that Mary Anne Evans had to use a pen name of ‘George Eliot’ as she was a woman and her works would not have been published otherwise, shows alone what the attitudes towards women were. That of sheer insignificance in the country and in the social circle. In Britain today women stand side by side with men, in the struggle for Independence, and are also playing a key role in the search for a lasting peace and consolidated democracy for the country.
Dramatic changes came mainly with women appearing in parliament, receiving the right to vote that is equal to that of a man. Women had scored some social victories as well, particularly the Law on Maternity, which provides for family planning, the recognition of consensual union as equivalent to marriage, equality of children whether born to a wedded or unwedded couple, and a cabinet office to promote women’s development.
Little by little the myth according to which women had to stay at home to carry out their “natural mission” of raising children, bearing children, and serving as an instrument of pleasure is dying out. Even though in small numbers, women began to be seen in some professions, up till then deemed “male,” as they dared to enter careers such as law or transport, breaking down barriers, taboos, and prejudices.
However these changes in attitudes towards women have not been shared across the world, countries such as Afghanistan still treat women with little or any respect and authority.
Women were extremely restricted in the 19th Century. Maggie Tulliver shows this in the Novel of Mill on the floss. Maggie is a romantic character and a dutiful daughter and sister she is devoted, tender and longing to give and receive love. Maggie is often read as Eliot’s critique of the opportunities available to women in 19th century. However, these readings tend to be overly autobiographical: they read Maggie as an avatar of Eliot herself.
As you read Maggie’s story, the connections we can draw between her life story – particularly its often-unfulfilled ambitions – and Victorian constructions of femininity. As Maggie Tulliver approaches adulthood, her spirited temperament brings her into conflict with her family, her community, and her much-loved brother Tom. Still more painfully, she finds her own nature divided between the claims of moral responsibility and her passionate hunger for self-fulfilment.
The effect that the immediate family has on a child has changed quite significantly, which may not always be for the best. Freedom of speech is expressed more openly and people are encouraged to express their individuality. Where as in the Victorian society it was quite the opposite. This can bee shown by looking at Maggie and her impetuous and violent behaviour has been likened to that of her fathers- stressing the theme of heredity and her anomalies as a woman with masculine character traits. Maggie’s anger can be seen as a symbol of feminist frustration and rage at the oppression of women in Victorian society.
Today at the discovery of intellect and knowledge, it would want to be perused and developed rather than ignored, as seen unimportant for a woman to have these qualities, which was a view of the past. In ‘Mill on The Floss’ Maggie’s family environment is central to her problematic sense of identity as a woman, for instance, although her father praises Maggie’s intelligence and quickness, he also maintains the socially conventional view that ‘an over cute woman’s no better nor a long tailed sheep.’ Similarly, his reasons for choosing Bessy for a wife re-enforce this sexist prejudice. Her mother and her aunts constantly bemoan Maggie’s lack of femininity, comparing her unfavourably with the epitome of the feminine ideal, Lucy Deane.
In her constant favouring of Tom, Mrs Tulliver repeatedly asserts Maggie’s inferior status. Tom asserts his superiority as a male and although they have had a similar view of the future (with Maggie as housekeeper to Tom) his assumption of the role of protector with the power to ‘punish her when she did wrong’ differs wildly from hers, where she will assume a conventionally male role as a source of wisdom. Maggie rejects the conventional definition of femininity in many ways, but her experience repeatedly defeats her striving for equality.
Maggie clashes with the world of St. Ogg’s in almost every way. But this environment enforces conventional gender ideals and encourages Maggie’s sense of duty and submission. Her contradictory unruliness and vulnerability can be seen as signs of the disjunction between her individual needs and the social demands and values placed on her as a woman.
Lucy is in many ways the angelic opposite to Maggie. In Victorian ideology and iconography women were dichotomously defined as either angelic- pure, passive and ideally feminine- or they were demonic- subversive or defiant in some way of feminine ideals and ‘fallen’ sexually. In literature too this opposition prevailed in that the fair and good women was rewarded- normally with the marriage to the hero, whereas the villain would suffer loss or even death, in the same way Maggie did.
The role of the outside family upon the immediate has also changed over centuries have past. The narrow society in which Maggie lives, that is epitomised by the Dodson sisters with their miserly materialism and strict and inhuman moral code, constrains Maggie psychologically, physically and spiritually. Like many other heroines trapped in a limiting social context, Maggie finds a way to escape. She forgets her reality by escaping into her imagination, which is stimulated by literature, and into a daydream state that is induced by the sound of the mill, the river and music.
Maggie also considers the conventional escape from mundane and limited home life for women through marriage to Philip or Stephen. However George Eliot will not permit this escape for her heroine and we realise that it would be a mistake for her to marry either, as both are not fully compatible to Maggie.
Eventually, this longing and need for escape becomes a destructive desire for oblivion, as increasingly the social pressures and Maggie’s own sense of what is morally right prevent the fulfilment of her desires and ambitions.
In today’s society it is a child right to receive a full education up to the age of sixteen for both sexes, however in the 19th century education was not compulsory and if the opportunity of education arised it was rarely for the women. Maggie would have gained considerably from the kind of education in which Tom fails. For her desire such an education is seen as an aberration and a defiance of her femininity. Victorian medical science considered women to be unsuited to extensive intellectual activity since their loss of menstrual blood meant vital loss of mental energy too. Maggie’s desire for ‘masculine’ knowledge is related using images drawn from the biblical story of Eve’s sinful acquisition of the forbidden fruit.
Eve-like, Maggie ‘began to nibble at this thick- rinded fruit of the tree of knowledge.’ This image conveys the extent of Maggie’s affront to social convention and the rebellious and sinful implications such as desire carries. In doing this ‘she rebelled against her lot’ and feared ‘it was not difficult for her to become a demon.’ Later, her hunger for pleasure, and for intellectual and sensual stimulation is channelled through her equally sinful sexual desire for Stephen.
The formal education that Maggie does not receive is glossed over, possible suggesting the triviality of the education considered appropriate to young ladies. Maggie’s social education is seen in all its painful detail. The warring with her mother over her hair and her dress, being hurt by Mr. Stelling’s sexist views of clever women, and her father’s collusion with dominant social conventions all educate Maggie into accepting her inferior status as a woman in a patriarchal society. This ‘training’ inhibits her development as an individual and leads to self-destruction and internal conflict.