George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

Maggie Tulliver breaks the mold of the ideal Victorian child, she’s impulsive, prone to accidents, has her own opinions, and is quite a contrast to her fair-haired and obedient cousin Lucy. She wants to please but pleasing her mother means being passive– she isn’t. In one scene after she’s chided by the dreaded Aunts about her hair, a perpetual trouble to her, she goes upstairs and cuts it. Her father lovingly calls her ‘the little wench.’ He recognizes her quickness and admires her bold ways and opinions but knows she’s restricted by the domestic expectations of her era.

I think there are stores laid up in our human nature that our understandings can make no complete inventory of. Certain strains of music affect me so strangely— I can never hear them without their changing my whole attitude of mind for a time, and if the effect would last, I might be capable of heroisms.

When she grows up and tries to suppress her passionate nature the writing begins to blossom. Maggie’s very perceptive to emotions. She wants to be loved wholeheartedly, unconditionally. The pure unwavering love of her brother Tom is the foundation she’s longed for but he’s often abrupt, cynical, or irritated by her intelligence. Phillip Wakem’s devotion to her is like a balm to her hope but it matures into a romantic love that Maggie doesn’t reciprocate. She realizes this when she meets Stephen Guest. There’s a mutual attraction but he is engaged to her cousin Lucy.

Divided between her emotions and conscience, she feels trapped. How can she hurt Phillip and Lucy? If she marries Stephen, she will betray Lucy and deeply hurt Phillip. But her reasoning is flawed. How can her cousin Lucy’s happiness be secured by a man that doesn’t love her? Maggie would scorn such a marriage herself and if she looked deeper she’d realize that’s the position she’s in with Phillip. She fears deceiving and betraying Lucy but she’s doing so by wanting Stephen to continue their engagement. It’s contradictory and torments her.

If she marries Phillip, Tom will never be part of her life because there’s a deep tangled history between the Wakems and Tullivers. Tom won’t let go of a wrong oath his father pressed him to against the Wakems, he becomes hard, stubborn, and prejudiced. He’s focused on bringing material comfort back to his family (and does a successful job of it) but is ignorant to the beauty of emotions and culture, they are suppressed and set aside– useless, like geometry and Latin from his school days, he finds them impractical. He closes his heart and his world becomes tragically narrowed.

If you were in fault ever— if you had done anything very wrong, I should be sorry for the pain it brought you; I should not want punishment to be heaped on you… You have no pity: you have no sense of your own imperfections and your own sins. It is a sin to be hard; it is not fitting for a mortal— for a Christian. You are nothing but a Pharisee… You have not even a vision of feelings by the side of which your shining virtues are mere darkness!

Worse, he doesn’t stop to think below the surface of his sister’s actions– doesn’t try to understand or comfort her, only judges. It’s not until Maggie comes with tremendous effort to save him during the the flood that he realizes his error and wakens. Tom is presented with shadows of another side to him but they’re shapeless. What feelings were being suppressing? It’s implied he’s in love with Lucy. Was part of his wrath towards Maggie because she’d hurt Lucy?

I struggled with the idea of Stephen as Maggie’s romantic interest, his character is like a means to an end in the plot, we know so little of him. He’s witty, and handsome but reaps from people for his own happiness and thinks little of anyone else’s. Maggie’s emotions are so fragile, teetering on the extremes. She would have been a fabulous poet and I wish she’d such an outlet to help her inner turmoil. Maybe that is part of the point Eliot tries to make?

It’s not a romantic love she needs to find fulfillment but an accepting love and a purpose. St Ogg’s is constricting, not because it’s small and in the country, but because she’s smothered by expectations for her to be ordinary. Few appreciate her individuality. Phillip did, but his love for her became a source of anxiety because she didn’t want to hurt him. To think, how different the story could have been had Maggie a true friend who wanted nothing.

I prefer character-driven writing but had difficulty with The Mill on the Floss, it’s overall tone was a deep-rooted melancholy. The kind that permeates the novel and leaves little room for hope and whenever there was a glimmer it quickly faded.

Memorable Quotes

There was no indulgence, no fondness, such as she had imagined when she fashioned the world afresh in her own thoughts. In books people were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt; it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love, and that did not belong to them. And if life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie?

Does not a supreme poet blend light and sound into one, calling darkness mute, and light eloquent? Something strangely powerful there was in the light of Stephen’s long gaze, for it made Maggie’s face turn towards it and look upward at it—- slowly, like a flower at the ascending brightness. And they walked unsteadily on, without feeling that they were walking—- without feeling anything but that long grave mutual gaze which has the solemnity belonging to all deep human passion. The hovering thought that they must and would renounce each other made this moment of mute confession more intense in its rapture.

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3 thoughts on “George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

  1. I haven't read anything by George Eliot yet and somwehow I feel I need to, but I can't find any fellow bloggers who love her works and recommend them to everyone.

  2. @Elena: I always assumed I was going to love her works and was surprised that I didn't. I'll probably be reading her Silas Marner next (within the next month or so) and will let you know how it is.

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