Female Sexuality and Triangular Desire in Vanity Fair and The Mill on the Floss

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Date: Fall 1999
Publisher: Southern Illinois University
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,616 words

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The author examines works of novelist Rene Girard. Topics include female sexuality, suppression of women, love triangles, and rivalries.

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In Rene Girard's structural paradigm of triangular desire, set forth in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, female sexuality is an organizing theme. Girard's triangle is a metaphor for relations in which the mediator inspires the subject's desire for the object. Intense rivalry compounds the mediation as it augments the prestige of the idolized Other and strengthens the bond between mediator and subject, forcing the mediator to affirm his own right or desire of possession. The object of desire is, in effect, emptied of its concrete value and enclosed in an aura of metaphysical virtue. Reality is consumed by rivalry and, often, hatred (13-14, 83-85, 99).

If triangulation is inevitable, as Girard claims, it is also complex and variable. Opposing the notion of symmetrical sexual relations, Eve Sedgwick points out that Girard traces a "calculus of power" that is "structured by the relation of rivalry between the two active members of an erotic triangle" (21). The triangles Girard describes are generally those in which two active males are rivals for an unspecified and apparently passive female. Sedgwick argues that a dialectic of power ignoring the male/female dichotomy fails to represent the asymmetrical power relations that fuel triangular desire (22). Following Girard, Sedgwick introduces the concept of male homosocial desire, with which she examines the structure of men's relations with other men. For Sedgwick, the interactivity of sexuality, power relations, and gender asymmetry structures male homosocial bonds "throughout the heterosexual European erotic ethos" (16).

Influenced by Catherine McKinnon's analysis of gender inequality that "sexuality is construed by men as the eroticization of submission" (130), I initially expected to argue that triangular desire is linked to the eroticization of female submission in a process that invariably diminishes and objectifies women. However, after examining the instances of triangular desire in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, I modified my argument. Though at times the women in these novels are passive objects of masculine desire, they resist and revise their roles as objects, assume the active position of desiring subject, and struggle to escape the male-initiated bonds of sexual desire. Thus, I would suggest not only that female sexuality is an organizing theme but also that it actually founds triangular desire.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair is a novel without a hero; happily, it has a heroine. Initially, the narrator equivocates: Amelia Sedley need not be described "as she is not a heroine" (5). When Becky Sharp is in disgrace, however, the narrator turns once again to Amelia, now a widow, living quietly in poverty: "So, never mind, whether she be a heroine or no," Amelia's gentle hand and ready smile are a consolation to her old father and a source of satisfaction to the narrator as well (648).

The narrator's ambivalence about heroic characters suggests that Amelia will be an imperfect heroine. In her analysis of female discursive strategies, Lisa Jadwin observes that "Amelia believes wholeheartedly in the totalizing myth of female inferiority" enforced by "submissive, self-abnegating behavior" (664). If gender is performative, however, as at least one feminist critic has claimed, Amelia's submissive, self-effacing behavior may conceal a more complex personality.1 Girard's configuration of triangular desire eclipses the role of women, but in the course of the novel Amelia emerges from the shadow cast by the men who love, and hate, her.

The form of desire that Girard terms "triangular" is a hierarchical arrangement: Amelia is the object of desire in a triangle formed by herself, George Osborne, and Mr. Osborne. In the model, Mr. Osborne functions as the mediator of desire. A match between George and Amelia has long been assumed: Amelia "was bred from her childhood to think of nobody but him" (242), and George "has loved Amelia Sedley ever since they were children" (243). Thus, there appears to be a straight line between subject and object of desire. However, "the mediator is there, above the line, radiating toward both the subject and the object" (Girard 2). At present, the senior Osborne is glowering rather than radiating: he is angry over the impending ruin of Amelia's father, a stockbroker.

Although Osborne has ordered George to marry Amelia, he demands that his son terminate the relationship once her father's bankruptcy is confirmed. George, who has courted Amelia at the urging of his friend Dobbin, forming yet another triangle, responds to Osborne senior: "Who told me to love her? It was your doing. I might have chosen elsewhere . . . but I obeyed you" (227).

Osborne, who controls his son through the bonds of mediation and the careful doling out of allowance, is confident that his hold over George is secure. George, however, is the mediator of Dobbin's desire for Amelia and, as such, he asserts his superiority by moving closer to the object and openly declaring his passion and possession: "I'll marry her tomorrow," George declares. "I love her more every day, Dobbin" (228).

In obedience to his father, George discards Amelia. Dobbin, however, visits the neglected girl, whose anguish over the loss of her lover could represent an opportunity for this undeclared rival. According to Girard, the mediator shows his disciple the object and forbids him to obtain it (7). Not only is Dobbin forbidden to reveal his love for Amelia, he cannot desire what his mediator has devalued; so Dobbin comes away from Amelia's house "as if he [were] a criminal after seeing her" (195). If Dobbin feels like a criminal it is because he has betrayed his mediator through his undiminished love for an object George no longer desires. If Dobbin is to continue loving Amelia, George must re-invest her with value and desirability. George, however, is under the influence of his father's mediation as well.

In order not to let his idol topple, Dobbin must reunite George and Amelia, an action that will enhance George's prestige and Amelia's worth:

Without knowing how, Captain Dobbin found himself the great promoter, arranger, and manager of the match between George Osborne and Amelia. But for him it never would have taken place . . . and having made up his mind completely that if Miss Sedley was balked of her husband she would die of the disappointment, he was determined to use all his best endeavors to keep her alive. (208)

Enjoying his role as mediator/idol, George is willing to be led by Dobbin.

When George weds Amelia, Osborne banishes and disinherits his son. As Osborne is no longer the mediator of desire, his devaluation of Amelia should count for nothing. However, it is virtually impossible to break the bonds of mediation, and George finds himself unable to desire Amelia without his father's mediation.

George finds a temporary mediator in Rawdon Crawley and is soon "carrying on a desperate flirtation with Mrs. Crawley" (314). At the Duchess's grand ball, George deposits Amelia on a bench: "While her appearance [is] an utter failure . . . Mrs. Rawdon Crawley's debut [is], on the contrary, very brilliant," and George's mind throbs with "triumph and excitement" as he plans to elope with his new love and abandon his old (318). George's admiration for Rawdon is genuine, as is always the case in triangular desire, and his passion for Rawdon's wife is irresistible. George's capricious passions may seem outrageous: a newly wed husband about to abondon his bride for an accomplished flirt. The bonds of mediated desire, however, are only impulsive in that they rely on the whims of men. Caught in the hierarchy of desire, George must be both idol and idolater, husband and scamp.

There is an aggressive quality to Amelia's relations with men during her widowhood. Earlier in Amelia's life, only George and Dobbin were in love with her, and George not consistently. Now, every one of the men she encounters falls in love with her:

Wherever she went she touched and charmed every one of the male sex, as invariably as she awakened the scorn and incredulity of her own sisterhood. I think it was her weakness which was her principle charm-a kind of sweet submission and softness, which seemed to appeal to each man she met for his sympathy and protection. (435)

What is this woman doing? She systematically presents an erotic "kind of sweet submission and softness" to men, but Amelia is "not brilliant, nor witty, nor wise overmuch, nor extraordinarily handsome" (435). In a social milieu where the subjugation of women is the norm, why is Amelia's representation of that role so provocative? This question is particularly vexing because Amelia's "soft submission" is not submission at all; she does not submit to any of these infatuated men.

Amelia's stimulating behavior falls into the category of coquetry. Girard has defined "coquetry" as a form of mediated sexual desire in which the beloved concurrently inflames and rejects the lover's desire. The coquette, who needs the desire of the lover in order to feel valued, does not merely feign indifference; she feels no desire. Were she to surrender herself, she could no longer regard herself as desirable. Thus, the coquette must continually provoke desire in a lover or lovers (Girard 105-06). Amelia, throughout her widowhood, has been explicit: she has no desire to marry. In fact, she has no desire at all. She is clearly indifferent to the desire her soft submission evokes in all of the men who come near her. Nonetheless, she continues to excite a passion that might otherwise alarm such a timid soul as Amelia, who does not regard herself as a siren.

As Girard explains, the lover's desire produces a second desire, which is fixed on the same object as the original desire (105). Amelia's desire is for herself, and it can only exist while she is the object of another's desire. Were her coquetry to cease, were she not to provoke desire, she could not regard herself as "precious," to use Girard's term. This affirmation of self-worth is essential to Amelia. As each man responds to her appeal for "sympathy and protection," Amelia moves closer to eradicating the memory of her honeymoon, when George precipitously withdrew his sympathy and protection, abandoning Amelia to "despair and remorse" (265).

In sexual desire, the beloved's desire is a desire for the self. The senior Osborne's desire is a narcissistic wish for self-affirmation through the prestige of his son:

[George] should go into Parliament; he should cut a figure in the fashion and in the state.[Osborne's] blood boiled with honest British exultation as he saw the name of Osborne ennobled in the person of his son, and thought that he might be the progenitor of a glorious line of baronets. (220)

But his son thwarted that desire, first by marrying Amelia and then by dying. As Girard notes, "Only someone who prevents us from satisfying a desire which he himself has inspired in us is truly an object of hatred" (10-12). By his untimely death, George has prevented the senior Osborne from gratifying his ultimate desire. As the desiring subject hates the mediator who deprives him of his beloved object, Osborne hates his son for cheating him of the idealized son for whom he anticipated a distinguished career. Osborne is consumed with impotent rage.

Amelia, the passive object of desire in the triangular relations between Osborne and George, and between George and Dobbin, becomes the object of Osborne's stymied rage. He hates her: "It is she who has tumbled my hopes and all my pride down" (398). He punishes Amelia by refusing to acknowledge her as George's widow and, in effect, turning her out of his house.

Without Osborne's sanction, Amelia remains in a social and juridical limbo. For the Osbornes and polite society, she does not exist. Under the law, her claim to legitimacy is recognized; she and George were married in church. No law, however, compels Osborne to support or recognize the widow and her son Georgy. Amelia's status is that of a cast-off mistress, her future as secure as that of her broken and bankrupt father, who assumes responsibility for his unclaimed daughter.

As Sedgwick notes, all social institutions and bureaucracies are maintained by homosocial relations between men. The law that does not assist Amelia, the church that officiates at her wedding but has no further connection with her, and the military that welcomes her as George's wife are all examples of male-dominated institutionalized power relations that maintain and support gender inequality. It is not surprising, therefore, that only a man can rescue Amelia from social invisibility.

If Dobbin is responsible for Amelia's marriage to George, he is equally responsible for her rehabilitation. Shortly before Osborne's death, the old man agrees to a reconciliation. Dobbin and Georgy, two males, have mollified Osborne: "If she took your son away from you, she gave hers to you" (692). Amelia did not take George from his father, but she must make restitution for his loss.

For Dobbin, the triangular relation is still in force. His reverence for the memory of George continues to mediate his desire:

Our honest friend had but one idea of a woman in his head . . . a gentle little woman in black . . . a soft young mother tending an infant and beckoning the Major up with a smile to look at him; a rosy-cheeked lass coming singing into the room in Russell Square, or hanging on George Osborne's arm, happy and loving. (489)

The images of Amelia as the youthful object of George's desire, as George's wife and then his widow, and as the mother of George's son haunt Dobbin's memory. If there is no unmediated Amelia, neither is there a position in Girard's model that does not strip the object of desire of an identity unmarked by masculine sexual desire: "object of desire" is never the subject position of authority or agency.

When Dobbin returns to England, his first impulse is to "take [Amelia] in his arms, and swear that he would never leave her. She must have yielded, she could not have but obeyed him" (662, italics mine). Dobbin has never applied the vocabulary of dominance-submission to his love for Amelia until now. Clearly, he is prepared to become the possessor of the object. (Does the object wish to be possessed?) According to Girard, when the distance between the subject and mediator is sufficient to eliminate any contact between the two, rivalry is nonexistent (9). Since distance is always a spiritual dimension in Girard's triangle, George's death represents the elimination of the rival but does not diminish the prestige of the mediator. Rather, as Dobbin's more aggressive language indicates, Amelia had become a real, accessible woman whom Dobbin can embrace, and command, in the absence of a forbidding rival.

Every female character who considers Amelia's feminine charms concludes that "she is but a lackadaisical creature, and . . . has no heart at all" (437). For Dobbin, however, Amelia's is the "image that filled our honest Major's mind by day and by night, and reigned over it always" (489). Girard finds that as the mediator draws nearer to the object of desire, passion becomes more intense and the object is emptied of its concrete value and invested with metaphysical virtue. The jealous rival becomes "less capable than ever of giving up the inaccessible object. . . . Other objects have no worth at all in the eyes of the envious person" (Girard 13-14, 85).

Dobbin's love for Amelia "remains fresh as a man's recollection of boyhood" (490). The narrator's comment is extremely acute. It is his youthful love for Amelia and her youthful image, as mediated by George, that compels Dobbin's imagination. Mediation does not recognize real distance or time and rarely encounters spontaneous desire. Only the rival's tenacity and despair are genuine.

Dobbin realizes he has invested Amelia with metaphysical virtues that she in fact does not possess. After fifteen years of devotion, he admits "I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning" (763). Despite the erotics of Amelia's sweet submission, she has never aspired to greater wit or brilliance than she actually possesses. It is George and, in imitation of his idol, Dobbin himself who attribute to Amelia virtues she does not possess. If the prize was not worth the winning, who determined its value? If Dobbin has been "a fool, with fond fancies" (763), who has fueled these fancies? Not the little widow. Poor Amelia has a very limited repertoire of gender behaviors, which, admittedly, she exploits to the best of her ability. Her charms, however, are empirical rather than transcendent.

Critics have characterized Amelia as emasculating, "unworthy of the cult that Dobbin has built around her" (Herbert 93), and full of selfish vanity (Levine 140). However unworthy she may be, Amelia must be defended. Dobbin, who has carried Amelia's shawl since Vauxhall, is serving George as much as Amelia through his devotion, just as he was then.

If Dobbin loves the widow of his admired friend, Amelia is not compelled to love him in return. Had she overlooked or devalued that "beautiful and generous affection," or insulted that "constant and kind heart," her behavior would be indefensible (694). Had selfish vanity prevented her from feeling and expressing her gratitude to Dobbin, whose bounty "supported her in poverty" and who "gave her her husband and son," she would rival Becky Sharp's greedy vulgarity (VF 694). Amelia, however, has been neither crass nor calculating.

It appears that Amelia has struggled not to love Dobbin better, but to love her freedom less. To enact sweet submission is one thing, to submit another: "A hundred times on the point of yielding, she [has] shrunk back from a sacrifice which she [feels is] too much for her" (760). The sacrifice she cannot make is not of her freedom per se, but of control over her own sexual destiny. She has not recovered from the earlier sexual rejection by her husband.

If Amelia is unworthy of Dobbin's adoration, which she is, the captain's slavish devotion robs her of any genuinely human characteristics. The dynamics of triangulation are expressed in terms that reify the object of desire much as Freud's vocabulary codifies female sexuality as passivity and lack rather than active, human desires ("Femininity" 359; Three Essays 61). In the mediation of desire, "the impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator" (Girard 10). As the relation of subject to mediator intensifies, the object of desire remains passive, as does the woman in psychoanalytic theory, as do all women in relations of dominance-submission. In the relations between Osborne and George, and between George and Dobbin, Amelia is the passive receptor. Even Osborne's rage is directed at a passive Amelia.

At least since John Stuart Mill's 1869 The Subjection of Women, it has been a commonplace that women are required to marry despite their anticipated subjugation within marriage. Amelia is a perfect example. She has been bred to need a husband and to comply with the expectation of an institution that confines and silences women. Given the dictates of such a system, the preferred female is one who does not actively experience sexual desire but rather simply responds to the desire of others. Thus, Amelia represents the sexual norm.

The Mill on the Floss

In The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot revisits her own predicament as a restricted, poorly-educated female child in a male-dominated culture. From the outset, however, Eliot's portrayal of the passionate, intelligent Maggie Tulliver is problematic: the heroine's struggle to construct and defend a sense of self is overcast by a dark certainty that familial and communal life cannot accommodate this "small Medusa" (88); the text cannot digest and so must somehow expel the monster it has created. The right to sexual self-definition is not conferred on individuals in an ungendered social arena, as Maggie learns in this Bildungsroman.

In the discussion of Vanity Fair, Girard's model of mediated desire is employed in an analysis of the triangular attachments of Amelia Sedley, George Osborne, and William Dobbin. Girard's triangle of desire will also be used to untangle the rivalries and relations between Eliot's heroine and the three men who love her.

At the time of Maggie's second visit to Mr. Stelling's school, her brother, Tom, and Philip Wakem are rehearsing their roles as rivals in triangular desire: "Their natural antipathy of temperament [makes] resentment an easy passage to hatred" (157). Unaware of this enmity, Maggie sits "on a low stool at nearly a right angle with the two boys, watching first one and then the other" (158). The spatial metaphor here is a triangle. As the visit progresses, it becomes apparent that Tom is the mediator, Philip the desiring and envious subject, and Maggie the object of their affections.

During this visit, Philip asks Maggie if she could love him as well as she does Tom. "O, yes, better," the passionate creature answers (163). On reflection, Maggie decides that her love for Tom is paramount. But Philip, who can sing and play, and teach her "Greek and everything," would never despise her love of learning; nor would the crippled youth exclude her from his boyish adventures: "You would stay at home with me," Maggie tells Philip, " when Tom went out" (163). Maggie wants to love and be loved by both boys. Her capacious appetite for affection transcends the rivalry that excludes the female. "I do love him," Maggie tells her father when she parts from Philip and Tom (164).

When Maggie next encounters Philip after an interval of several years, she is under a double prohibition: Tom has forbidden her to speak to Philip, and she has forbidden herself to "long for a full life" (267). Philip tempts her with talk of music, poetry, art, and books, and Maggie reaches for the forbidden fruit.

During their year of meetings, Philip is the mediator of Maggie's desire for a full life. The objects of desire consist of "the talking together, and the books," and the feeling that Maggie has their walks to look forward to (293). At the same time, the original triangulation is still in force, with Tom as the mediator of Philip's desire. Philip, however, no longer wants to be loved as a brother; he wants to be Maggie's lover.

When Tom discovers the secret meetings he is outraged: "A love for a deformed man would be odious in any woman-in a sister intolerable" (298). If a deformed man is sexually repugnant to Tom, Maggie's love for a deformed man disgusts him. As a "son and brother," Tom has a proprietary interest in Maggie (301). While Maggie must be punished, "the impetus of his indignation [is] diverted toward Philip" (310). Linking Philip's deformity to his sexual adequacy, Tom informs his rival that he is not a "fit husband" for a "fine girl" (302). Like the old mill, Maggie is the material condition of Tom's antagonism toward the Wakems.

The bond between mediator and subject is not easily broken, even when the subject, like Philip, sees himself as the victim of an atrocious injustice. The degree to which their rivalry is rooted in the original mediation becomes apparent when Philip returns to his old grievance: he values Maggie more "than a coarse and narrow-minded brother, that she has always lavished her affections on" (303). Although Tom and Philip will not meet again in the novel, each will continue to be present to the other through Maggie, who is a conduit for their relations.

Furious at Tom for his brutality to Philip, Maggie tells him, "I will submit even to what is unreasonable for my father, but I will not submit to it from you" (304). When Tom finally tells her, "If you think of Philip Wakem as a lover again, you must give up me," Maggie does submit (342). Feminist literary theorist Margaret Homans attempts to explain Maggie's inability to transcend her love for Tom: "She gives up visionary aspirations (that are perhaps in any case untenable in the world of the novel) in favor of the love of a . . . more practical-minded brother that makes childhood last forever" (126). Homans concludes that "what [Maggie] wants from childhood is its pain, and her wish to turn backward to childhood is . . . a death wish" (129).

Homans's depiction of Maggie is disturbingly partial. To suggest that Maggie is locked into a regressive, masochistic relation with Tom is to discard textual evidence of Maggie's untiring efforts to establish her autonomy in the face of diminishing options, including those that Tom, Philip, and Stephen systematically reduce through their desire for Maggie. In contrast to Homans's conclusion, Maggie evinces a "life wish" throughout the novel rather than a "death wish" until, in desperation, she believes she prefers death to a lifetime of grief and exile. Within the context of the final chapters, Maggie's attempt to recreate her childhood is tantamount to an abdication of sexual desire.

While the question of Maggie's submission to Tom's ultimatum that she choose between him and Philip remains unanswered, Tom's first prohibition is fortuitous, as it follows Philip's declaration of love. Maggie is "conscious of a certain dim background of relief in the forced separation from Philip" because the prospect of a sexual relation with him is repugnant to her (305). Consider this exchange with her cousin Lucy:

"Maggie, is it that you don't love Philip well enough to marry him?-tell me-trust me."

Maggie held Lucy's hands tightly in silence a little while. Her own hands were quite cold. But when she spoke, her voice was quite clear and distinct.

"Yes, Lucy, I would choose to marry him. I think it would be the best and highest lot for me-to make his life happy . . . . But I can't divide myself from my brother for life." (384)

Maggie has not answered Lucy's question. From the moment when Philip declares his love, she is torn between gratitude and affection for Philip, who has given her a fuller life, and the inability to return his passion. The child Maggie returned Philip's love eagerly, but sexual desire has complicated the triangular relation. Once Maggie experiences the erotic fascination of Stephen, she can only envision a marriage to Philip as sexual sacrifice, as the passage quoted above indicates. While Tom's authoritarian decree rescues Maggie from the dilemma of sexual choice, his proprietary and inflexible manner trouble the sibling relation.

We are told that Maggie always writhes under Tom's judgment; she rebels and is humiliated in the same moment: "And yet, all the while, she judge[s] him in return" (343). Maggie says inwardly that Tom is "narrow and unjust" (343). This unjustice, which Homans sees as essential to Maggie's desire for punishment, appears to separate rather than to unite the two. Tom repeatedly criticizes his sister because she "will not submit to be guided" (342). The submission Tom requires of Maggie has led her to seek employment in a third-rate school, with tedium and drudgery for companions, rather than remain under Tom's control.

Consider Maggie's remarks to Philip: "I can't live in dependence-I can't live with my brother-though he is very good to me. He would like to provide for me; but that would be intolerable to me" (361). It is ironic that Maggie, whose insatiable need for love produces the very dependence that she now regards as intolerable, should be criticized for her independence. Maggie may be emotionally bonded to Tom, but she is struggling to create a space for herself in which she is not merely the object of desire.

I do not intend to dismiss Maggie's claim that she cannot divide herself from her brother forever. Tom is the mediator of Maggie's intense love for certain objects: the "dear old Pilgrim's Progress" and "that picture of Pilgrim with a mantle on, looking just like a turtle" (212); the old mill "with its booming" (37); "their own little river, the Ripple" (37). Each of these objects has a metaphysical value for Maggie; each is consecrated by childhood associations with Tom. Maggie's earliest memory is "standing with Tom by the side of the Floss while he [holds her] hand" (268). Similarly, Tom colored the pages of Pilgrim's Progress "with [his] little paints" (212). It is on these objects, and these alone, that Tom has conferred his prestige, and objects having no connection with Tom have no worth at all. Thus, while critics have deplored Maggie's decision to return to St. Ogg's after her flight from Stephen, her determination to remain among these familiar objects illustrates the binding power of Tom's mediation. As a true Dodson, Tom values objects and property; as a Tulliver, Maggie is associated with loss of property and with Aunt Gritty's disregard for dirty shoes and torn frocks. Though Maggie's "innate delight in admiration and love" normally supersedes her interest in possessions (262), imitation of the mediator's desire-of Tom's desire-is inevitable and invincible, even when resentment and alienation have impeded any other relations between Maggie and Tom. Thus, Maggie cannot divide herself from Tom or those beloved objects.

In the romance between Maggie and Stephen Guest, it is Philip, not Tom, who plays a direct role-that of mediator. When explaining her abandonment of Scott's The Pirate, Maggie admits she is unable to imagine a story in which a dark heroine triumphs: "I made several endings; but they were all unhappy," she tells Philip (267). She later asks Philip to give her a story "where the dark woman triumphs" because she wants to "avenge" all of the "dark unhappy ones" (291). Philip gives Maggie the story she desires and makes her its heroine. He is the author of her desire, the mediator of her new passion:

You will avenge the dark woman in your own person, and carry away all the love from your cousin Lucy. She is sure to have some handsome young man of St. Ogg's at her feet now: and you have only to shine upon him-your fair little cousin will be quite quenched in your beams. (291)

This story is rather troubling: it seems uncharacteristic of the gentle Philip to envision causing anyone pain. Additionally, he is a friend of both Stephen and Lucy.

Stephen Guest defies his father's wishes and falls in love with Lucy, Maggie's cousin, an act he believes indicates his sense of independence. There is not a dyadic relationship in which Lucy is the object of mutual desire, for Stephen has formed no bond with another male, either as mentor or rival. Although the adoring and passive Lucy cannot perceive her lover as lacking passion, Stephen is, in fact, cut off from the wellspring of desire. This deficit, however, may explain Stephen's willingness to forsake Lucy.

When Stephen and Maggie meet, he is "so fascinated by [her] clear, large gaze" that he forgets "to look away from it occasionally towards Lucy" (332). Within a fortnight, Stephen acknowledges that it is "becoming a sort of monomania with him, to want that long look from Maggie" (354-55). Philip's desire is that Maggie find a handsome man at her cousin's feet, and Maggie does imagine having "Stephen Guest at her feet" (382).

Philip's story has literally come true: Maggie has carried away the love from her cousin. But the mediator is no fairy godmother. Philip is filled "with a vague anxiety" as he watches for signs of "any unusual feeling between Stephen and Maggie" (366-67). Fearing that Maggie will be "beguiled into loving Stephen Guest," Philip begins to justify his own claim to Maggie's love (367). At once mediator and despairing rival, Philip compares his love to that of Stephen, as he earlier measured his ability to value Maggie with that of her "coarse and narrow-minded brother" (303). Even the well-intentioned Philip cannot avoid the jealous envy that links one man to another.

Feminist critics view Maggie's repudiation of Stephen with particular interest as that act of self-denial represents a self-imposed repression of female sexuality. Women's Studies author Mary Jacobus depicts Maggie's final resignation of her lover as an act of submission to "the invisible teacher," Thomas a Kempis: "The morality of submission and renunciation is only a sublimated version of Tom's plain-spoken patriarchal prohibition" (48-49). The monstrous voice that whispers in Maggie's ear is the antithesis of desire. Her acceptance of "this inherited morality of female suffering" signals "the death of desire for Maggie" (Jacobus 48-49).

Homans, too, perceives Maggie as an obedient reader who has lost her childhood capacity for inventing original stories. In her renunciation of Stephen, Maggie becomes "a ready voice for the words of Thomas a Kempis" (Homans 124). Homans tells us that this literal repetition of a male text "results from, and in turn reinforces, the self-suppressing submissiveness that is identified . . . as feminine. To learn how to read as a repeater of others' words" is to submit to the " laws of cause and effect and therefore to reach the unhappy end predicted for all dark heroines" (125). Both Jacobus and Homans consider Maggie's acceptance of self-suppressing submission as a harbinger of her death, while Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar find Maggie "most monstrous when she tries to turn herself into an angel of renunciation and self-denial" (491).

Maggie's literal acceptance of Thomas a Kempis may signal the death of her desire. But, in fact, Tom, Philip, and Stephen have systematically limited Maggie's few options with their desire and rivalry. For Maggie, sexual desire is forever intertwined with pain and regret. Unhappily, Maggie believes it is her own desire that has caused so much turmoil in her life; I think she is wrong. Further, I do not agree that her acceptance of Thomas a Kempis portends Maggie's death. If reunion with Tom is tantamount to death, the problem may reside in Tom's psyche and not Maggie's. Perhaps repossessing the old mill does not satisfy Tom unless he also possesses a docile and devoted sister to make "his housekeeper, and punish her when she [does] wrong" (36). Years of "abstinence and self-denial" have warped Tom's character in ways that are never revealed to the reader (270).

While my own reading of the final chapters is enriched by Homans in particular, I offer another interpretation of Maggie's rejection of Stephen, one that focuses on the lovers themselves to a degree that other critics have not done. The pivotal moment in the final chapters occurs when Stephen rows or drifts beyond their destination. Maggie, who has "never in her life spoken from the lips merely," is outraged (329): "You have wanted to deprive me of any choice" (408). This outburst is not the litany of "self-suppressing submission"; Maggie's defiant, honest voice rings out and leaves no doubt that Stephen's abduction of her effectively severs their relation. While her passion for this man and her sensitivity to his suffering will continue to haunt Maggie, indeed to torture her, the "irrevocable trespass" rekindles her resistance to a man who, like her brother, would deny Maggie's right to sexual self-determination (409).

In the hotel at Mudport, Stephen assures Maggie: "There is nothing in the past that can annul our right to each other" (418). But he is wrong on two counts. First, in addition to objects and locations from the past that are "sacred relics" (420), "there are memories, and affections," Maggie replies, "that have such a strong hold on me" (418). Second, Stephen's notion of "our right to each other" is a misrepresentation. Having demonstrated his right to Maggie, Stephen urges her to affirm that right by surrendering herself to him. When this logic fails, he tells Maggie, "In a few hours you will be legally mine" (419). Stephen expects to gain legal possession of that which he has already appropriated. Marriage, as Sedgwick states, is an example of institutional homosocial bonds, as are most social institutions based on gender inequality (19).

Reminding Maggie that his behavior has irrevocably altered her position, Stephen demands, "How can you go back without marrying me?" (a question literary critics continue to echo) (420). Again, Maggie's response is free of self-eradicating submission: "My whole soul has never consented-it does not consent now" (420). Earlier, her soul recoiled from a union with Philip, though her mind was united to his. Stephen has never had a claim on Maggie's mind, and now her soul revolts.

In addition to his bitterness and "suppressed rage," Stephen's reference to a "duty" that cancels out all others and a "force" to which others "will submit" terrifies Maggie (419). This vocabulary of power is the same one her brother uses to control her. Although some critics see Maggie as the victim of Stephen, who is even occasionally compared with Richardson's Lovelace, she is by no means a seduced innocent (Haight xvi).2 Despite the suffering that follows her flight, there are compelling reasons to view her conduct as a determined effort to regain her personal and sexual freedom from Stephen.

In her review of Eliot criticism as it applies to Stephen Guest, gender theorist Susan Fraiman concludes that "the repeated assigning and analyzing of desire" can be interpreted as "an attempt to gain control over the specter of female sexuality raised by Maggie's elopement" (166n). Maggie's sexuality, however, particularly in relation to triangular desire, is most clearly an issue when the heroine first encounters Philip in the Red Deeps. His appreciation of her sensuous beauty delights Maggie. The notion of her body as the site of power and pleasure has not occurred to her before. Because Philip wisely urges that they become "friends in heart" (265), the specter of Maggie's sexuality remains quiescent until a year later, when Philip declares his love: "I had not thought of it," Maggie tells him in perhaps the first disingenuous words she has uttered (292). To accept Philip as a lover requires that Maggie make a conscious decision to repress sexual desire. Yet, Maggie's desire becomes a subtext for the remainder of the novel. Now we must ask, what are the consequences for Maggie of having usurped the masculine prerogative of sexual desire?

Maggie returns to St. Ogg's confident she will not marry Stephen but burdened by the need for "complete, submissive confession" to her inexorable brother (423). Tom, whose relation to Stephen is compromised by his anticipated partnership in Guest & Co., is hardly a disinterested confessor. Further, "in her deep humiliation under the retrospect of her own weakness-in her anguish at the injury she [has] inflicted," Maggie is incapable of discerning "any difference between her actual guilt and her brother's accusations" (423, 424). Thus, Tom's castigation brands Maggie as a fallen woman in her own estimation, and she is "haunted" by "visions[s] of hideous possibilities" in which she could commit further transgressions (430). She already believes that it is her desire, and not Philip's or Stephen's, that has poisoned so many relations.

Maggie's craving for "something to guarantee her from more falling" reinforces her sense of sexual self-revulsion, despite the fact that she remains chaste (430). The fallen woman is a familiar icon in Victorian art and literature; the language of Maggie's self-reproach is not accidental. The liberation of female desire is the cause and consequence of Maggie's fall. Maggie fits the definition offered by Nina Auerbach of the Victorian fallen woman: a grafting of "the doom of Milton's Satan onto the aspirations of his Eve, generating a creature whose nature it is to fall" (155). Maggie's aspiration for a fuller life has culminated in her fall. Philip's story has become a cautionary tale.

Maggie's reunion with Tom, moments before their death, is portrayed as a return to the "days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together" (465). For Maggie, this moment represents a total renunciation of sexual desire. If Tom will forgive and protect her, she will willingly forsake the painful choices and consequences of sexual autonomy; under Tom's guidance, she will never commit another "passionate error." Maggie has learned that there is "no home, no help for the erring" woman (449).

What happens when, as many critics have observed, the bond between sister and brother is sexualized? Claude Levi-Strauss has acknowledged that the incest taboo is vulnerable to individual transgressions but regards such behavior as socially rather than morally aberrant (481). As Levi-Strauss says, the commerce that binds men together in social relationships requires the inhibition of sexual desire for a sister or daughter and the willingness to exchange the sister or daughter for a woman of another group (484).

In Tom Tulliver we have a brother who is unwilling to exchange his sister for another woman. He would rather give her up totally than see her marry. Of course, Tom himself cannot marry if he fails to negotiate a reciprocal exchange. If Maggie will renounce sexual desire, however, and allow him to take care of her (and punish her when she is bad), Tom will suppress his own desire. He has already learned from his uncle Deane to value money rather than sexual desire. The triangle formed by Mr. Deane, Tom, and financial success is paradigmatic; it is Tom's desire for ultimate union with his sister that must be reconsidered by critics.

Despite the intense physicality of their adolescent love-play, Tom has become a man who repels his sister's affection. Thus, he envisions a celibate union with Maggie that has a rather traditional domestic power structure. While Tom has no mediating model of masculine sexuality since his father's death, he does have a desire for dominion. It is Maggie's submission and not her sexuality that he requires.

In defending any interpretive paradigm, it seems unwise to generalize about authorial intent. While Amelia is invariably the object of desire, I am reluctant to claim that Thackeray envisioned her as revising or resisting that role. Nonetheless, sufficient evidence in the text shows Amelia's evolution from submissive object of George's erratic desire to resistant object of Dobbin's marathon desire. In addition, Amelia's display of helplessness and submission is sexually provocative without sexual intent. I cannot claim, however, that Thackeray intended the young widow to be seen as a coquette.

Thackeray's version of triangular desire thwarts Amelia's desire for sexual autonomy and agency. Even when she chooses to preserve her sexual freedom (or freedom from the responsibility of sexuality), the young widow can only react to the actions of others. No matter how often Dobbin importunes her, she can only refuse him. She cannot dismiss or silence him; she cannot send him away. In a sense, she remains under siege. When Dobbin discovers that he is no longer under Amelia's thrall, he acts; he leaves. Amelia can only react to his departure. As a consequence of her inability to act, Amelia is perceived as parsimonious. There is a meanness in her refusal to share Dobbin's ennobling passion. While Dobbin is not diminished by his fruitless pursuit of the widow, Amelia is seen as quietly and selfishly emasculating.

In the economy of homosocial desire, an emasculating woman must be punished. Despite Girard's precept, Dobbin's metaphysical desire is suddenly replaced by disillusionment and he departs. Bereft of Dobbin's loving constancy, Amelia discovers the worth of her suitor. Although the lovers are reunited and wed, Amelia must pay for having assumed control of her sexual destiny, and her husband must be restored to his rightful place in masculine sexual hegemony, a place of power.

Now that Amelia has surrendered herself, she can no longer play the coquette, whose inability to desire fuels the desire of others. As Girard would have it, Amelia's pursuit of her fleeing lover has cost the heroine her sexual status as the desirable but unattainable woman of Dobbin's dreams. Thackeray goes even further; for Dobbin, Amelia has lost her value: "Although he never said a word to Amelia that was not kind and gentle," Dobbin has wed himself to an unremarkable woman he has ceased to love (784).

Dobbin's final act of the novel is to embrace not his wife but "his little Janey, of whom he is fonder than of anything in the world" (784). Critics, who have seen in this daughter a future temptress, an apprentice to Becky Sharp, have failed to observe that Janey will be yet another woman who does not deserve Dobbin's love (Dyer 218; Jadwin 679-80). In Thackeray's novel, woman as object of desire is unworthy of desire.

Eliot's interpretation of mediated desire is diverse and revisionary. Even as a child, when Maggie offers to be the beloved of both Tom and Philip, she is never a passive object of desire. She disobeys Tom's edict forbidding speech with Philip, effectively positioning herself as the subject of Philip's beneficial mentorship rather than the object of an ugly rivalry between the two men. Her later activities also show her refusal to be the object. In Girard's model, the mediator claims possession of the object. In response to Tom's proprietary mediation, however, Maggie chooses self-imposed exile over submission.

In the triangular relation that briefly unites Maggie and Stephen, I have argued that Maggie is the desiring subject of Philip's mediation; Stephen is the object of desire. If we adhere to Girard's model, we must recognize Maggie as the initiator of sexual desire and Stephen as the respondent. Certainly Maggie bestows some stimulating gazes on Stephen during their first meeting. Philip's gift to Maggie, the story that empowers her as the agent of desire, can only be retracted by its author. When Maggie refuses to marry Stephen, she overturns the mediation and resigns her right to actively desire another. Her return to Tom is a regression to traditional hierarchical mediation: the painless, passive role of submission to an authoritarian male. Eliot's passionate heroine renounces passion.

In Eliot's novel, Girard's concept of triangular desire is not confined to sexual desire. The dyadic connection between mediator and subject is a power relationship. The Dodson sisters represent the consolidated power of prudence, thrift, and mortgages that yield four percent. As business women who understand the power of money and the value of respectability, they embody the ethos of the business community in the novel. Eliot is remarkable for having a matriarchal model of commercial power as well as for extending the concept of triangulation to material goods and behavior.

Mrs. Glegg, the eldest Dodson sister, is the senior incarnation of mediated desire. When Maggie returns to St. Ogg's following her abduction by Stephen, Mrs. Glegg staunchly defends her niece. She tells Mrs. Tulliver that Maggie "shall have a shelter in her house" and "she'll uphold [her] against folks as say harm of [Maggie]" (437). Not only can Mrs. Glegg restrain public opinion, she can set herself in opposition to Tom, who has publicly cast Maggie out of his home. The female body is frequently the site of contention between males. Eliot, however, has envisioned a form of triangulation in which a powerful and supportive female contends with an equally powerful but punitive male for ownership of the desired object. Aunt Glegg's form of ownership is as restrictive as Tom's, but it is based on trust and inclusion of Maggie as a woman and a Dodson.

In the concluding lines of the novel, Eliot reconstructs the triangle: Stephen, visiting the grave with his wife; Philip, author of Maggie's desire, a solitary visitor; and Maggie, for whom the consequences of liberated desire have been fatal. And above the text, the author herself mediates between her heroine and the reader. Eliot has sacrificed Maggie, perhaps unnecessarily, but she has recreated triangular desire in her own image, that of a strong woman.

Even if we reconstitute Girard's paradigm of triangular desire with women as agents rather than passive objects of desire, some questions of female sexuality remain unresolved in these novels. Amelia Sedley and Maggie Tulliver resist masculine sexual dominion, but they neither define nor express themselves sexually. The rejection of codified sexual behavior can create a space for sexual self-definition, not self-loathing and guilt such as Maggie's. Does this pattern mean that a woman who does not embody masculine desire dare not be sexual at all? Can she transcend the eroticization of domination and submission in a culture that defines submission as female sexuality? If, as occurs in these novels, a woman ceases to be the object of desire, must she relenquish all claims to a sustained sense of her own sexuality? I fear that Maggie's aborted passion for Stephen Guest and Amelia's refusal of Captain Dobbin suggest that female desire is depicted as the desire for renunciation of sexuality.

There is a lack of critical analyses of bonds between women that function to consolidate sexual power, as Sedgwick notes. We lack a method of analysis that challenges the notion that non-triangulated female sexual identity is notable only for its absence. While the mobility of women within hierarchal triangular desire is a welcome discovery, their lack of a sustained sexual identity remains troubling. Either these novels simply do not depict female sexual identity or we lack the critical tools to describe how they do it.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Dyer, Gary R. "The 'Vanity Fair' of Nineteenth Century England: Commerce, Women, and the East in Ladies' Bazaar." Nineteenth Century Literature 46 (1991): 196-222.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. 1860. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. Boston: Houghton, 1961.

Fraiman, Susan. Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the Novel of Development. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund. "Femininity." 1932. Freud on Women: A Reader. Ed. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. New York: Norton, 1990. 342-62

---. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. 1905. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic, 1962.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Girard, Rene. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literature. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.

Haight, Gordon. Introduction. The Mill on the Floss. By George Eliot. Boston: Houghton, 1961.

Herbert, Christopher. Trollope and Comic Pleasure. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Jacobus, Mary. "The Question of Language: Men of Maxims and The Mill on the Floss." Writing and Sexual Difference. Ed. Elizabeth Abel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980. 37-52.

Jadwin, Lisa. "The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 32(1992): 663- 89.

Levine, George. The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterly. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. 1949; rev. 1967. Trans. James Harlan Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

McKinnon, Catherine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women. 1869. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan, 1980.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero. 1847-48. New York: Random; Modern Library, n.d.

1 See, for example, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, 136.

2 The correspondence between Lovelace and John Belford is perhaps the most exquisite example of homosocial desire in literature.

Phyllis S. Dee has a Master's degree in English from Northwestern University. Her scholarly interests include the 19th-Century British novel and 19th-Century American women writers. She teaches at the College of Lake County and Columbia College of Lake County, Illinois.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A58163348