REVIEW: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
I’ve been working my way through George Eliot titles since reading and loving Middlemarch several years ago. Middlemarch was not my first go-round with the author; I read Silas Marner in high school. My main recollection of that book was that I hated it less than some of my classmates did. (Yay for ringing endorsements!) A few years after Middlemarch I tried and liked Daniel Deronda. I’m pretty much interested in giving a try to any of Eliot’s writing. The Mill on the Floss was next up.
The book takes place in the fictional English village of St. Ogg’s and focuses chiefly on siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver, from childhood through young adulthood. Maggie, when first introduced, is a passionate, impetuous child. Her father dotes on her and her mother frets about her hoydenish nature and often bedraggled appearance (especially in contrast to her blonde, pretty and perfectly behaved cousin Lucy). Tom is several years older and already away at school when the book begins. He is in many ways Maggie’s opposite: stolid, self-righteous, and disinterested in human feeling or higher learning. Tom wants to succeed in business and help his father, which is admirable, of course. It’s about the only thing I found admirable about Tom.
Tom and Maggie’s relationship is almost painful to read about precisely because of their opposite natures, and because Maggie so adores Tom and craves his approval. He frequently withholds his affection when Maggie does something he doesn’t like, and Maggie feels this keenly. I felt like I was supposed to sympathize with both of them, perhaps Maggie a bit more, but I ended up sympathizing with her entirely and despising Tom. It wasn’t just that he was such a priggish, dull, jerk – that didn’t make him detestable, necessarily. But the way that he inadvertently (or sometimes deliberately) hurt Maggie with his indifference was hard to take – like watching a boy kick a puppy (come to think of it, there were some references to Tom and a friend abusing animals early in the story; it’s probably the sort of thing that seemed like good clean boyhood fun at one time but is entirely distasteful to the modern reader).
The Tullivers are fairly prosperous; Mr. Tulliver owns Dorlecote Mill, the titular mill on the Floss (River). Comic relief of a sort is provided by Mrs. Tulliver’s sisters, a fractious lot who seem to delight in getting together only to throw shade at each other. Aunt Glegg is particularly a judgmental know-it-all and Aunt Deane a hypochondriac. Tom is his mother’s favorite and Maggie her father’s.
Mr. Tulliver wants a better life for Tom, so on the advice of a friend he sends him to a pastor for boarding and further education. Joining him in the household is Philip Wakem, who is hunchbacked and far more scholarly and sensitive than Tom. Besides their natural differences, Tom resents Philip as their fathers are engaged in a business dispute. When Maggie comes to visit Tom, though, she and Philip develop a friendship and Maggie proves much more interested in the subjects Tom is studying than Tom himself is. As with Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss features a heroine whose intellectual gifts are wasted in the time and place she lives.
The Tulliver family suffers a reversal of fortune when Mr. Tulliver loses his suit against Philip Wakem’s father. Mr. Tulliver subsequently has a stroke from the shock of the loss and both Tom and Maggie have to finish their schooling early and come home to a house where everything has been sold off to pay debts. Tom immediately tries to go into business and return the family to its former level of prosperity. Maggie, meanwhile, is in a sort of state of suspended animation; her family’s misfortune has isolated her socially and she briefly turns to religion as an outlet for her passionate nature.
Maggie eventually reconnects with Philip Wakem, but they must keep their meetings secret, as neither of their families would approve. Maggie has a deep emotional connection to Philip, who is clearly in love with her. Her own feelings seem a bit more spiritual than physical – it’s hard to get around the fact that theirs is a sort of beauty and the beast pairing (for Maggie has grown into a true beauty, and Philip’s deformity is viewed as unfortunate at best and repulsive at worst). Tom discovers the relationship and uses his emotional hold over Maggie to force her to renounce Philip (did I mention I hated Tom?).
Tom continues his climb in the business world and Maggie is presented with another chance of happiness, but at a great cost – her beloved is her adored cousin Lucy’s suitor. Eventually, Maggie does the right thing, but too late to save her reputation (and thus once again disgracing herself in the eyes of the uber-critical Tom; poor Maggie just cannot catch a break).
The book ends in tragedy, which I had mixed feelings about. I mean, so many classic novels end in tragedy, so it’s not exactly surprising, but this ending felt both a bit clichéd and somehow pointless. Or maybe it’s just that I wanted poor Maggie to have some happiness for once.
Classic literature demands to be evaluated on the “literary criticism” plane, though, and not just on the “how Jennie feels” plane. From that perspective, I wasn’t sure The Mill on the Floss was entirely successful, either. I thought it did a beautiful job of illustrating the stultifying dearth of choices a bright young woman had in 19th century rural England. It’s certainly a theme that resonates with me (it also depresses me).
The theme of Maggie’s thwarted search for fulfillment in various kinds of love didn’t work as well for me, though I have trouble articulating why. Tom was entirely unworthy of Maggie’s worship of him. Her love for Philip was really more spiritual and sisterly than anything, though she briefly mistakes it for romantic love. Her later love for Stephen, her cousin’s quasi-fiance, is disastrous on several fronts. It seems like Philip would’ve been her best shot at a sort of happiness, but of course Tom ruins that for her. I felt like the tragedy at the end, rather than being the natural progression of events, was an unnecessary cherry on top of a misery-and-self-sacrifice sundae.
Though Tom and Maggie are the central characters of The Mill on the Floss, in all honesty Maggie is so much more dynamic as a character that the story is heavily weighted in her favor. Tom isn’t presented as the villain (to be fair, he’s been dealt a hard hand as well and he is a responsible young man), but it’s hard for the modern reader (at least, this one) to see him as anything but, since he’s such an obstacle to Maggie’s happiness. I suppose Maggie’s own emotional, passionate nature dooms her as well, but I have trouble condemning her for that; once she gets beyond childhood brattiness she really does put others first, in spite of the strength of her emotions.
In the end, the character of Maggie and her struggles resonated with me, but a lot of the rest of the book just didn’t. Still, it didn’t bore me (beyond the usual trouble I have with byzantine 19th century writing), and if I feel I didn’t absorb all the themes of The Mill on the Floss to the degree I should have, I’m not going to blame the book for that. My grade is a B.