The Mill on the Floss

I didn't think any character could frustrate me more than Persuasion's Anne Eliot, but Maggie Tulliver takes the biscuit. She cannot accept the amorous advances of either the malformed cerebral aesthete Philip Wakem (because her brother Tom holds a grudge against him) or the flash and sexy Steven Guest (because he is romantically involved with her cousin Lucy). Maggie is tied up by the bonds of kinship, so tight that she cannot move. Her sense of duty towards her family demands that she renounce every possible path towards her own happiness and fulfillment.

Maggie's passion and imagination inevitably attracts worthy suitors. Those same qualities make it difficult for her not to respond to their advances. Wakem offers her intellectual fulfillment and the fellow-feeling born out of shared ostracism. But he's no looker. I imagine Maggie will encounter a few problems running up that hill. When their Romeo and Juliet love affair is uncovered, she feels 'a certain dim background of relief in the forced separation from Philip', and the narrator questions whether this is just due to 'a deliverance from concealment'. Maggie's sympathetic nature compels her to return Philip's feelings, but she never really wanted him as a lover. He's not as exiting as the dashing heroes in the novels she reads.

But Guest is. He is Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Robert Downey Jr. rolled into one, with fire in his eyes and a giant shlong in his trousers. But that's not really why Maggie falls for him. In a conversation with Wakem about the novels they have read, Maggie says she 'always takes the side of the rejected lover'. When Wakem suggestively asks if she would ever have the heart to reject one herself, Maggie replies that she would 'if he were very conceited', but she would relent 'if he got extremely humiliated afterwords'. That's pretty much what happens when she meets Guest. At first, she is rather unimpressed with his dazzling demeanor. But when he breaks down and grovels about his love for her, she can't help but be swayed along. This time round there is a definite physical attraction, as well as the opportunity to live comfortably and achieve self-realization, on the cards. Maggie finds it much more difficult to walk away. But walk away she does.

Notice how in both relationships, Maggie is ultimately swayed by a predisposition to look after other people's happiness better than her own. When Wakem's loneliness is made manifest, she loves him. When Guest's (somewhat OTT) suffering is made manifest, she loves him. But to solve each problem, Maggie will inflict pain on either Tom or Lucy respectively. She's trapped. Every choice will inconvenience someone. In the end she choses Tom and Lucy over Wakem and Guest. Family over love. Why?

This is where all the rather plodding stuff in the first volume comes in. In laying out the central tragedy of the book, Eliot starts from the very beginning, when Tom and Maggie are still children. This is so we have a rounded understanding of the the way in which Tom and Maggie's natures have been molded by the environment they have grown up in. For example, both Tom and Maggie have been ceaselessly lectured on the importance of faithfulness to kin by their Dodson relatives, and while the Dodsons are pretty ridiculous themselves, their message is taken seriously.

But that's not all. Maggie capacity for sympathy is enormous, but her upbringing leaves her with no will to push at the world and get what she wants. Tom, being a boy, has heaps of willpower, and he also thinks girls are silly and should not be listened to. As an adult, he cannot penetrate other people's inwardness in the way his sister does, which condemns him to lead a lonely dogged existence. His industry restores his family's reputation, but he has no clue how to act on the feelings he has for his cousin Lucy (back then it wasn't weird).

Maggie and Tom's adult selves are molded by the prevalent preconceptions of what women and men should be like. The young Maggie's exuberant enthusiasm and courage, which in one extraordinary episode lead to her running away from home with the intention of become queen of the gypsies, is gradually eroded by family tragedy and Tom's constant bullying. She learns to be subservient, aimless and emotional. Meanwhile, Tom reacts to his father's failure by abandoning all sentimentality, and learning from his uncles to be even more assertive and rational. Their central tragedy is that Maggie is forced to become much too female, and Tom much too male. Neither is a full human being. At the very end of the book, they almost seem to realize their mistake. As the flood wreaks destruction all around them, they are drawn together, and they die in each other's arms. 'In their death they were not divided' reads their tombstone, underhandedly suggesting that the reason they died was because they were divided.

Biblical symbols overlay this general theme. Tom is a neutered Adam, who cannot love his sister enough to forgive and accept her bad choices. Maggie is a distorted Eve, who refuses to assert herself and fall when confronted with Steven Guest's sexy serpent . Maggie is also Steven's serpent, in that she undermines his paradisiacal (and rather prim) relationship with Lucy, all of which suggests that Maggie has a certain dark sexual presence of her own, which she barely understands and cannot control.

The flood that ends Maggie and Tom's lives is providential. The waters rise just as Maggie finally buries her temptation in the ground. Instead of breaking free from the social norms that have dictated her life, she chooses to be dragged along by the tide. In the end, she is washed away by it.

Her drowning also echoes back to the very beginning of the novel, where Maggie is explaining one of her books to Mr. Riley:

'It's a dreadful picture, isn't it? But I can't help looking at it. That old woman in the water's a witch -- they've put her in, to find out whether she's a witch or no, and if she swims she's a witch, and if she's drowned -- and killed, you know, -- she's innocent, and not a witch, but only a poor silly old woman. But what good would it do her then, you know, when she was drowned? Only, I suppose she'd go to heaven, and God would make it up to her.'

Maggie is shortly after described as a 'pythoness', and with good reason. She is a witchy child that sticks pins in fetishes, causes nothing but trouble and is an affront to middle class morality. If only she could have retained this rebellious anger and independence, she would have been able to swim free of the superstitious society that dumped her in the water. The flood would not have ended her life. But instead, the adult Maggie will choose to become a 'poor silly old woman', renouncing her natural sexual, emotional and intellectual needs in favour of a desperate yearning faith in God.

It's evident that The Mill on the Floss is a rather more autobiographical than George Eliot's other novels. Eliot was also confronted with the dilemma Maggie faces -- a choice between social propriety and her own happiness. Unlike Maggie, she chose the latter. Her unconventional relationship with George Henry Lewes resulted in her brother refusing to speak to her for most of her life. Eliot not only has Maggie's incredible powers of compassion and imagination (obvious to anyone who reads her work) but Tom's confidence and sense of conviction. Her novel pieces together the elements that allowed her to escape her oppressive environment, and achieve artistic self-expression and personal contentment.

But why write it as a tragedy? Why let your heroine fail where you succeeded? This, above all else, is why I love George Eliot. She has every right to be indignant at her brother's obstinacy and the narrow, ignorant ideas of the community she grew up in. She could have written a satire or a self-glorifying epic romance. But her impulse, driven by compassion and the need for understanding, is towards tragedy. Eliot does strike satirical notes in the tragicomic escapades in volume one, but these are always gentle and good-natured. Moreover, she allows even the most ridiculous characters in St. Ogg at least one moment of grace. This community isn't evil, Eliot insists. Maggie and Tom and Steven Guest and Mrs. Tulliver and Aunt Glegg are all people. They are complicated, and they can surprise you. The last volume abandons pastoral fun and games completely, and tips inexorably into full tragedy. We are with Maggie every step of the way as she battles with the biggest dilemma of her life. But as we follow her story, we are not participating in a 'me against the world' narrative where the heroine eventually conquers all. Instead, we are led to appreciate how Maggie's actions are causally linked to the world she lives in, and we understand the terrible difficulty involved in tearing yourself away from that world, as Eliot did.


  1. mmh, I think this really worth the reading. I promise having read it by tomorrow morning.

    (that's for what I've read so far)
    I think you pointed out the psychological development of the characters going along with their relationship with the world displayed around them. This makes me think a lot about the narrative theory of Bajtin "characters as subjects of their meaningful world" but, it is oppossed to the "you have to endure it" thing?, you know, determinism. I don't know, I'm getting confused.

    ps.: I apologize for my ramblings. Next time I'll keep my brain working to myself.

    ps.2: I have Middlemarch shelved somewhere in my house, but the bulky length of the novel has kept me from reading it for too much time. I think I will reconsider it.

  2. I'm a little confused too. Who is Bajtin?

    I think Eliot is definitely interested in how your environment moulds your character and decisions, and whether a person can have the willpower to break free from their destiny.

    I don't think Eliot is a complete determinist, however. As she guides you through Maggie's dilemma, she constantly stresses how difficult the decision is for her. How she almost falls and then pulls herself back at the last moment. It's a close run thing. Maggie has aspects of her personality that pull one way and other traits that pull the other. Those conflicting impulses are determined, but their interplay mean the final decision is difficult to predict.

  3. Middlemarch is a heavy tome, but once you start on it, the narrative quickly sweeps you along, just as easy as Jane Austen does. I don't think The Mill on the Floss is as enjoyable to read, so I would definitely start my George Eliot experience with Middlemarch.