The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot

Mill on floss cvr

George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss was first published by Blackwood and Sons in 1860.  It deals with the fortunes of the Tulliver family, occupants of Dorlcote Mill on the river Floss, exploring the joys and pains of family relationships as it examines complex and intertwined themes of loyalty, forgiveness, class, and social acceptance versus individual self-determination in matters of the heart.  Primarily the novel charts Maggie Tulliver’s difficult relationship with her brother Tom, the complications created by the family’s misfortunes, and the romantic triangle created by Maggie’s relationships with Philip Wakem – detested by Tom through no fault of his own – and Stephen Guest, smooth but without Philip’s depth of character.

The first half chronicles Tom and Maggie’s childhood, Tom’s schooling, where Philip is a fellow pupil, and the loss of the mill and bankruptcy through unwise legal actions by Mr Tulliver.  The mill is bought by Philip’s father, whom Mr Tulliver and Tom unjustly hold responsible for their misfortunes.  The second half revolves around Maggie, her two suitors Philip and Stephen, the latter son of Tom’s later employer.  Philip and Maggie had formed a deep attachment that is constrained by family circumstances, notably Tom’s vehement opposition to the relationship which consequently has to be conducted in secret.  Stephen has an understanding with Maggie’s cousin, Lucy Deane, a good-natured but not deep individual, whose voice is a ‘pretty treble, like the low conversational notes of little birds’.  Stephen is attracted to Maggie, who is torn between reciprocating his feelings and her loyalty to both Lucy and Philip.  Stephen and Maggie commit a foolish act that, while she is blameless, compromises Maggie’s reputation in the eyes of society, but rather than leaving the area she braves the social opprobrium, having nothing of which to be ashamed.

Maggie has an impulsive streak she often regrets, as indicated by the moment when as a child she cuts her hair, and she struggles between sense and sensibility. On several occasions she is referred to as dark-skinned, signifying a wild, uncivilised streak that will run free from the civilising constraints of society.  Her introspection is contrasted with Tom’s lack of a meaningful interior life, and each is shown to have its strengths and weaknesses.  Tom, more pride and prejudice, has little imagination, but he is intensely practical and digs the family out of its financial hole.  Maggie is the more intelligent sibling, but Tom is given the education that would have suited her much more – a drawback of being female in a patriarchal society.

Eliot highlights the tragedy of able bright girls not being give a decent education because they are not seen as a good investment, while money is wasted on Tom’s when he is unable to take full advantage of it because of his limited intellectual horizons, made to undertake it simply because of his father’s snobbery.  Having to fall on her own resources, Maggie is unable to balance her emotional needs with her feelings of obligation to others, reconciling passion and duty only by suppressing the former.  She is torn between head and heart and eventually sacrifices her own happiness with Philip for the good opinion of her brother, a pointless sacrifice because Tom’s estimation of her is always less than hers of him; and it revolves around Philip, who had no responsibility in the ruin of their father, whose downfall was all his own doing.

Maggie, unable to fulfil her desires and under the influence of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, denies herself earthly pleasures in her effort to maintain a family harmony that only operates at her expense.  She sees her happiness and that of those around her as mutually exclusive, and her own only attainable by the ‘sacrifice’ of others.  Eliot subtly points out the baleful influence of this book on Maggie, particularly its advice to resist desire and submit humbly; her tragedy is that she willingly constrains her imagination under the book’s influence, thereby cutting off the best in herself.  However, her fear of alienating those she loves by pursuing her own desires is bogus and ultimately masochistic because the high-handed views espoused by Tom – blaming the son for perceived injustice meted by the father – are unfair, but she does not consider them unworthy to be taken seriously.  She refuses to sanction her own self-determination because others would ‘suffer’, ignoring that any suffering would be caused by their own rigidity.  The underlying irony propelling the second half of the novel is that if Maggie had ignored Tom and married Philip, she would not have acted on her attraction to Stephen and would have prevented much pain to herself and others, particularly the blameless Lucy.

However, individuals are not free agents but are constrained by the actions of others, above all family, and here the respective families of Tom and Maggie’s parents are contrasted.  Though financially ruined, Mr Tulliver will not call in a loan from his brother-in-law because of loyalty to his sister.  By contrast, Mrs Tulliver’s married sisters, from unsentimental Dodson stock and considering themselves a cut above the Tullivers, are fiscally prudent but cold-hearted and, while talking positively about family, believe relatives should not expect unearned generosity.  For them, loans are always with interest, and even when Mrs Tulliver is complaining about her effects being sold at auction, nobody offers to buy them back for her.  Mrs Tulliver’s distress at the loss of her possessions through her husband’s imprudent actions in causing his bankruptcy is profound, and she is always made to know her reduced circumstances by her sisters.  Yet the actions of even so ineffectual a person can have far-reaching consequences, as she is the cause of Wakem buying the mill.  Unintentionally, by going to see him and inadvertently giving him the idea, she creates the situation whereby, although she had acted with the best of intentions, her husband is reduced to the position of Wakem’s manager.

Eliot’s major interest is in the maturation of her two main characters; most consideration, excessive one might say and acknowledged to be a structural fault by Eliot herself, is given to Maggie and Tom’s childhood and the ways they cope with adversity.  This leisurely treatment is at the expense of the novel’s rushed, though gripping, ending.  The plot, like the river in flood, accelerates, the water that was so much a part of their lives claims them, Maggie’s sorrows are finally washed away, and she finds the solace of death in the everlasting company of the person she loved above all others.  In the ebb and flow of human actions, much is contingent.  There is a contrast in the novel between the permanence of the river and the ephemerality of the individuals who live on it, but it is a portrait of a changing world, water-driven mills superseded by industrial production.  The Dodsons, for all their complacent satisfaction with their lives, are witnessing the passing of an age.

In her introduction to the 1979 Penguin edition, A S Byatt points out that George Eliot herself had a brother whom she idolised, but who did not reciprocate her affection: when she lived with the married G H Lewes her brother refused to see her, and when she finally married after Lewes’s death he merely sent a polite note of congratulation.  Eliot is working through in fiction her distress at this exclusion, but perhaps also perpetrating a kind of revenge in the depiction of Tom’s unreasonable rigidity.  By spending so long on describing Tom and Maggie’s childhood, Eliot is able to show clearly how Maggie’s fantasy life of sibling love damages her later life by robbing her of her sense of independence in the face of society’s constraints – ones Eliot herself ignored in her own life.


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