Thursday, October 23, 2008

Death is a Cop-Out

I just finished reading George Elliot's The Mill on The Floss, and I enjoyed it very much. I appreciated the morally ambiguous situations in which the main character, Maggie, found herself, and her struggles to do what she believed to be good and right while she was unsure that she was acting in the most virtuous way. I didn't like, however, that at moments when she was acting in a way contrary to her own morals, she also seemed to give up any will power or lay claim to her own actions - she becomes entirely passive and allows others to do the work of being interesting, disobedient, or transgressive for her. Thus, she is not only subject to the sexist opinions of her brother, his schoolmaster, and the entire society in which she lives, but she goes along with them in particular when she is tempted to do something that is in the wrong. Maggie is generally an independent-minded woman, though she does thrive on the love and respect of others, but she becomes entirely dependent upon the actions of others when she is in a situation where she is tempted to carry out something that is morally ambigious, such as continue a connection with someone she is forbidden to see. She relinquishes her sense of independance in order that she can be convinced by others to do what she wishes, and then when she changes her mind, she is able to say that she had no part in the actions that came before, and that she regrets and denounces them, placing the blame entirely on someone else. She is present in the situation, but the author is convinced that whatever happens in these situations, it is not Maggie's fault. This frustrates me to no end.
Most frustratingly, I want to express my opinion that death, at the end of a long and rich narrative, is a cop-out. Maggie gets out of making a decision, and the sense that there is a correct decision to make is entirely lost, because at the point when she must make a decision and face up to the consequences of it, catastrophe strikes, and she dies. I understand that the author is trying to make a point about the ultimate triumph of Maggie's notions of love over Tom's obsession over control, property, and social capital, and yet I think the point could be more subtly made without the total destruction of a flood, and death. Death can be meaningful at the end of some stories, but when death comes in the place of a character making real and difficult choices, the novel is left unfinished, in my opinion.
That shouldn't stop you from reading it. I liked it pretty much up until the very last few pages. It is rich in description, offers many different ways of understanding what it means to love, to sacrifice, and to be a part of a family. It also explores both a child's and an adult's perspective with competence and empathy. I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I'll be reading it again.

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