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Deus ex flumine

October 22, 2009

A touch of background: this week in my Victorian Lit seminar we discussed The Mill on the Floss, and in the last few minutes of the session, when Dr P. asked for thoughts about the book’s ending, I ended up breaking the ensuing silence despite lingering feelings of foreboding.

A word of warning: do not read on if you have a) not read The Mill on the Floss and b) would like to do so without knowing the ending in advance. If you’ve read it before, or don’t care, or are willing to take the risk, then please proceed.

Right? Okay.

Let’s put this as bluntly as possible. The ending of Mill on the Floss is a stonking great deus ex machina; a four-star, fur-lined ocean-going fail. It was only by a massive effort of will that I stopped myself referring to it in seminar as River Floods Everyone Dies, because that is literally what it is. It’s the oh-crap-I’ve-written-myself-into-a-corner moment. It’s George Eliot metaphorically throwing up her hands and saying “Screw this.” 520 pages of carefully detailed and interwoven plot are abruptly terminated over the course of about 10.

I’m going to go back a moment and clarify exactly what about it drives me up the wall. The term ‘deus ex machina’, Latin for ‘god from the machine’, comes from Classical drama, where seemingly irresoluble dilemmas would be solved by a god descending from the flies via some whizzy stage machinery and sorting everything out. Very few works of literature since go so far as to actually bring on some sort of deity (As You Like It comes to mind as one of the few post-Classical works that do) but the principle, of having the plot miraculously solved (or simply ended) in an unlikely and un-foreshadowed fashion, remains the same. The issue is not the resolution, but the manner in which it is accomplished.

There is an argument for Maggie Tulliver’s death in The Mill on the Floss: the corner Eliot has written her into is seemingly inescapable, and it seems obvious that she will never be accepted in St Ogg’s again, so death or permanent removal from the place are viable solutions. That said, with Mrs Glegg’s championing of her, the assistance of Dr Kenn, and Stephen’s letter, it’s equally arguable that, given time and angst, Maggie could have cleared her name and ended happily. Perhaps Eliot simply didn’t want to spend yet more time and angst on a novel already 530 pages long.

But the flood. The flood. It just happens, with no kind of lead-up; one moment nothing, the next Maggie’s ankle-deep. She goes to find Tom in the boat (handling both oars on a swollen current how?), rescues him, and then . . . the two of them collide with a massive floating pile of “wooden machinery”. Quite which bits of a mill’s internal systems are “wooden machinery”, and why fragments self-evidently light enough to float would capsize a boat (given that the size differential isn’t exactly going to be iceberg-Titanic here) and a number of other things are never explained.

However. (There is always a however.) The fact that the ending of The Mill on the Floss is crashingly stupid does not make it unreadable. It doesn’t even make it bad. It’s an excellent book, and I would recommend it to anyone, particularly for George Eliot’s minutely detailed observation of bourgeois rural life – there are few authors (Dickens is perhaps another) who have such an eye for the mundanities of life, the details that make things real. It’s in light of this excellence that the ending is such a frustration: you really wish it could live up to the standard of what went before, and it fails like a fish doing a driving test.

This is a problem I’ve noticed elsewhere, particularly in series: I recently read Kevin J. Anderson’s Saga of Seven Suns, which I would recommend to anyone who likes their space opera big, colourful and unlikely. The plot he constructs over the course of the septet is insanely complex, with dozens of characters who are all linked in some strange way, action happening on twenty or thirty planets, and no fewer than seven species tussling for control of the Spiral Arm. And, like in The Mill on the Floss, the ending doesn’t do it justice. No deus ex machina is involved, but it’s still something of an anticlimax – inevitable perhaps, because given the planet-busting, sun-making, titanic space battles and occasional acts of genocide peppering the first six books, it’d be bloody hard for an ending not to be anticlimactic.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post was, other than for me to vent about how annoying the ending of The Mill on the Floss is. But I suppose I can finish up with a couple of morals of the story: first, avoid dei ex machinis whenever possible; second, do not plot yourself into a corner, and specifically do not complicate the plot so far it becomes incapable of plausible resolution.

Also, I think that this, coming after my Dickens nitpickery (really not as liberal as he’s painted), championing of Engels, and lukewarm reaction to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has firmly cemented my reputation as the unnecessarily cynical and contrary one in my seminar group. Oh well.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. S. G. permalink
    October 23, 2009 2:16 pm

    Dickens was as leftwing as he is painted, and perhaps more so. Naivety and mediumlevel chauvinism are another question. In any case, one could argue that his overlyneat plot resolutions are actually a Brechtian way of highlighting the fact that real life poor people didn’t get to have the kind of bolt from the blue that he sent giftwrapped to his characters.

    But never mind that ageold dispute. What I meant to say was, excellent post title, and also how do you like the term Diabolus Ex Machina?

    [Hyphens excluded from this comment due to an overdose of James Joyce.]

  2. wickedday permalink
    October 23, 2009 4:25 pm

    I think I may be more than usually jaundiced about Dickens after dealing with people who think he’s dangerously radical for two seminars. And I suppose there’s a fair argument that Oliver Twist balances the massive dei ex machinis that are Oliver’s rescue and Fagin’s hanging (he never commits a capital crime) with more realistic things like the death of Nancy.

    Liking the diabolus ex machina. I don’t think Mill on the Floss counts, though; the way I read the tropes, a diabolus e.m. is not simply a deus e.m. with bad results; rather, a deus ex machina is there to resolve the irresoluble, and a diabolus ex machina is there solely because the author is being a dick.

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