Our lecture yesterday was wonderfully insightful… but my god was it complicated! So much to think about on so many levels! I think my head will explode as I write this blog post.
The one thing I think I understood well enough to reflect on is the idea of evolution and how it is portrayed in the novel. Specifically, I’d like to focus on that very last slide that we were shown in lecture, the quote by Karl Marx, and how this relates to ideas in The Mill on the Floss.
Here’s the quote, for your convenience:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
The first thing that comes to mind through this quote is the idea of “situated freedom”. Yeah, that phrase didn’t come up until Beauvoir, but it nevertheless applies to The Mill on the Floss, and I think it’s useful to understanding how the concept of evolution applies.
So here we have Tom and Maggie, one who is kind of “thick” and the other who has unlimited intellectual potential. But because of their respective genders, they are both forced into different niches in the community. Tom (the “thick” one) is expected to do well in school and become the next breadwinner in the family. Maggie (the smart one) is not supported in her education because she is a girl, and has to be confined to her traditional role as a female. Their randomly inherited traits of gender and intelligence, as well as the environment they are born into, become their situation, under which I believe they can exert some control, or try to “adapt” their lives in a new direction.
It is interesting to contrast this view of the individual with the view of society at large under a similar light. Maggie especially, being more intelligent than most, is seen as an unexpected variation from the “emmet-like” (ant-like) people around her. They are said to operate with collectivity and instinct, as though they were mindless animals travelling on the path of evolution. Whereas they stick to tradition, Maggie is more willing to go against it, and thus would be a more adaptive person than others.
By all Spencerian logic, she should be among the “fittest” in her society – she is smart, literate, resourceful – and should therefore survive. But both she and her brother (who may be considered “unfit”) die in the flood, along with many other people. Were her traits undesirable? Was there no place for her in this world? No. It was just random, like Darwin said. Even though her variation made for a better individual, it did not survive in the greater population due to the chance happening of a disastrous flood.
So there we have it that the next generations would not have Maggie’s traits or her brother’s, but the traits of the others, who though individually worse-off, were collectively better-off in terms of number and establishment of their own niches.
Much like this blog post, it’s all just random…