The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot (pen name for Mary Ann Evans) is her second novel, published in 1860. The Floss in the title is the river which powers the mill. The mill is owned by a Mr. Tulliver, having been in his family for several generations.
Tulliver has two children, Tom and Maggie, and most of the novel’s action revolves around them. Tom is not very academic, but he’s bright in other ways. He’s pretty sure of himself, doesn’t much question whether he’s in the right, and lives by a rigid moral code.
Maggie, by contrast, is bright, affectionate, and impulsive. She’s continually misunderstood by everyone except her father, who always takes up for her and lovingly calls her “the little wench.” Her mother just thinks she’s naughty. Her coloring is darker than what’s regarded as beautiful in that day, at least by the proud Dodson family her mother comes from. Her impulsiveness gets her into trouble, even when she’s trying to do the right thing. For instance, once her aunts were all telling her mother she should do something with Maggie’s mass of hair. So Maggie goes into another room and cuts her hair herself — which horrifies the Dodson sisters. But Maggie’s no saint, as evidenced by pushing her pretty, petite, perfect cousin, Lucy, into the mud when Tom plays with Lucy instead of Maggie. Maggie especially seeks Tom’s love and approval:
Her brother was the human being of whom she had been most afraid from her childhood upward; afraid with that fear which springs in us when we love one who is inexorable, unbending, unmodifiable, with a mind that we can never mould ourselves upon, and yet that we cannot endure to alienate from us
As the children grow up, Mr. Tulliver loses a law suit that he has fought for years, plunging the family into financial ruin and himself into poor health. Tulliver blames the lawyer of his opponent, a Mr. Wakem, for his troubles and declares he’ll never forgive him. He makes Tom write in the family Bible “you’ll remember what Wakem’s done to your father, and you’ll make him and his feel it, if ever the day comes.”
Both children drop out of school to come home and help.
They had gone forth together into their life of sorrow, and they would never more see the sunshine undimmed by remembered cares. They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had forever closed behind them.
Tom finds a position, works hard, and engages in some trading on the side. Maggie, leafing through some of the few books they have left, comes across one by Thomas a Kempis urging a defeat of self-love by self-denial. She takes this attitude to an unnatural extreme.
One day she runs into Mr. Wakem’s deformed son, Philip, whom she had met years earlier when he was in school with Tom. Philip had developed something of a crush on her and wants to see her. Even though she thought her father was wrong in his attitude toward the Wakems, she can’t defy him. But she can’t be unkind to him, either. Philip convinces her to walk with him in an out-of-the way area and also convinces her that her self-denial, even of the pleasure of good books, is unnatural and extreme. They spend about a year meeting in private, talking about books and other things — until Tom finds out and harshly rebukes them both.
After her father’s death, Maggie takes a position away for a few years, and then comes back to town. Her mother now keeps house for her sister’s widower, Lucy’s father. Lucy wants Maggie to experience some rest and enjoyment and asks her fiance, Steven Guest, to come over for some singing and to bring his friend — Philip Wakem. Maggie explains that she can’t see Philip, but then Tom consents for her to do so in that setting. Phillip loves Maggie, but Tom has said if she chooses to marry Philip, he’ll cut ties with her.
Maggie and Stephen find themselves oddly attracted to each other. They try to fight it, mainly for Lucy’s sake. Maggie wonders if her life will always be miserable.
We can’t choose happiness either for ourselves or for another; we can’t tell where that will lie. We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that, for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us,–for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives. I know this belief is hard; it has slipped away from me again and again; but I have felt that if I let it go forever, I should have no light through the darkness of this life.
Eliot’s great strength is getting the reader inside her characters’ heads. One source called this “psychological realism.” In the first few chapters the minute play-by-play action of everyone’s thinking is a bit much: I think Eliot refines this to a better balance in later books. But the thoughts and interactions do establish everyone’s character and set us up for what’s to come.
This book is said to be somewhat biographical. Maggie’s circumstances were different from Eliot’s, but they were alike in having morally upright brothers who disapproved of their actions. Neither was considered physically attractive (at least in childhood – Maggie was deemed a striking as an adult). Both were intelligent, though Eliot received much more education. Both grew up in rural villages with an evangelical upbringing. Eliot turned away from the faith as an adult but “she had respect for religious tradition and its ability to maintain a sense of social order and morality” according to Wikipedia.
I’ll forewarn you that the book has a sad ending. Conflicts are finally resolved, but in a tragic way. When I first began to suspect the book might be headed that way, I was dismayed and hoped I was wrong.
The sad ending made me wonder what the point of it all was. Some sources suggest one aspect is the struggle between destiny and choice. Some characters and situations seem drawn toward and inexorable conclusion, but, in Maggie’s case, she valiantly fights against temptation and does what she considers the right thing. Then she’s persecuted by society worse than if she had succumbed. Another source suggested that dealing with small-town persecution is another theme. Perhaps the similarities between Maggie and Eliot were Eliot’s way of venting. Some say it’s a book about growing up.
Though this book will never rival Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda as my favorite Elliot books, and though I didn’t like the ending, I’m still glad to have read it. Her rich characterizations, depiction of rural life, and delving into the deepest of her characters’ thoughts all make for good reading.
I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Laura Paton. I esocially liked the way she portrayed two of the aunts: the imperious, self-appointed head of the Dodson clan, Sister Glegg, and the gloomy hypochondriac, Sister Pullet. I also read several chapters and a few other section in the Kindle book. This book is my 19th Century classic for the Back to the Classics challenge.
Have you ever read The Mill on the Floss? What did you think?