The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

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Maggie Tulliver is a quick-witted child, one with appalling manners for her strict Victorian house and community. She cannot seem to be a proper young lady. When the novel opens, she is about nine years old, and I couldn’t help adoring her childish antics, especially as she regularly brought disappointment to her mother and aunts with her lack of girlish charm. From my perspective, who wouldn’t love a girl who is so determined to read, to learn, and to be all the imaginative things she desires?

Unfortunately for Maggie, her life in small-town Victorian village does not allow for women that are different from the norm. Her story, as told in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), was both frustrating and emotional for me to read, because as Maggie herself desired, I wanted so much more for her.

Much as the happenings in Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I absolutely loved) captured the intricacies of an entire community, The Mill on the Floss captured the tragedies of one small, overall rather insignificant family in a rural town. Maggie’s idealistic upbringing to a life of gentlewomanly ease was crushed, and her subsequent story was not a happy one, for her life was changed through a series of misfortunes.  To make her situation worse, she was consistently reminded, through the repressive traditions of her society and her own self-imposed acceptance of those traditions, that as a woman she must defer to her male guardian. In Maggie’s case, this was her loving but short-sighted father and her nasty older brother.

My response to the characters and setting was similar to my response to those in Middlemarch: George Eliot’s absolutely masterful prose creates a world so realistic I believe it existed. Eliot creates characters I love by the end because of their depth and sincerity; Eliot’s pen composes a breathtaking yet believable love letter. After spending so much time with Maggie and others, I couldn’t wait to see how their story resolved.

Yet, because of the frustratingly real aspects of the novel, I feel quite conflicted having now finished the novel. I don’t know if I loved it as a whole or if I only liked it or if I’m angry at Eliot for writing such an engaging, wonderfully written novel that left me so unsatisfied in the end. I have really struggled to put my response into words.

One thing is clear: Eliot’s novel is a masterpiece. By capturing one rather insignificant woman’s life story, I was left frustrated by the repressive society, especially by the fact that Maggie created limitations for herself in order to meet societies’ expectations. That is, I think, what Eliot was hoping to accomplish.

***From this point, this post contains spoilers.***

I had thought this novel would be a story of happy endings, a story in which, like in Jane Austen, the tragedy is somehow eliminated by Maggie’s clever wit. Alas, The Mill on the Floss is a realistic novel, not a Jane Austen-esque novel of the Romantic tradition. This was my problem, for from the beginning I believed Maggie would end up happily settled somehow in an ideal life. When the Tullivers lost the mill, I hoped. When Maggie returned from the frustrating situation with Mr. Guest, I hoped. As the flood waters entered Maggie’s bedroom, I hoped. And then suddenly, the book was over and I was reeling in shock and pain. Where was the hope? Where is my friend Maggie? Can she really be dead?

My main problem was with Tom. I cannot begin to express how much I disliked Tom. Tom was, I believe, a cruel and violent young man. He didn’t treat Maggie in the loving and forgiving way she treated him. Even when they were children, Tom regularly discounted Maggie’s feelings, intelligence, and abilities simply because she was a girl, and his childish tricks on Maggie seemed cruel1. Tom was petty and rather unintelligent. He made some good choices, and he did take care of his family in the end. He must have loved Maggie in his own way. But Tom was not a clever boy or young man, and his fiery temperament and unforgiving ways (both in terms of the Wakem family and his strict conditional love such as he shows Maggie after her “indiscretion” with Stephen Guest) made me despise him.

The first Tulliver family tragedy, losing the mill, may not have been a tragedy to Maggie because she was so determined, able, and talented. Maggie was such a strong child and young woman that I felt certain that she could to make the best of the family situation. But, instead, throughout the novel Maggie decided to temper her life choices based on her family’s approval.

After her loving father’s death, Maggie’s relationship with Tom becomes the deciding relationship of her life. That, to me, was the ultimate tragedy.  The “hope” of the end was quite frustrating to me, because Maggie’s epitaph, declaring that “in death, they were not divided,” simply mocks Maggie’s own strength. Her strength was washed away in Tom’s choices for her from the day she decided to submit to his will.2

In some senses, Eliot’s ending was realistic, so I shouldn’t find it all that sad3. Given Maggie’s life goal of pleasing her mother and brother by being a socially accepted woman, Maggie herself would probably have been satisfied at the brother-sister reconciliation as the grand finale to her life. Eliot’s raw ending gave a sense of hope and peace to the brother-sister relationship that was so strained through the book. They lived to be true to each other. That’s what Maggie hoped to be said about her life.

Further, Maggie’s womanly sacrifice to her family’s reputation gave her a degree of honor in the community, at least until yet another man (Stephen Guest!) tried to take away every vestige of good reputation she had left4. Maggie was a fascinating woman, trapped in a confining society that expected such behavior of her. She wanted that brother-sister relationship because society expected it of her.

And yet, as I mention, because I hated Tom’s manipulation throughout the book and was repulsed by Maggie’s acceptance of his domination, I was shocked by the ending. I still hoped, even up to that last page, that somehow Maggie and Philip could find happiness together and that Maggie would tell Tom to go up a river. Alone.

In the end, from my modern perspective, Maggie’s life seemed like a tragedy from start to finish. How grateful I am to have been raised in a different age when my loving father didn’t sigh over my quick wit and strong mind, saying, “It’s a pity but what she’d been the lad.” (Part I, Chapter 3)

What did you think The Mill on the Floss was about? How did you react to the ending? Why? Did that temper your opinion of the entire book? Is anyone else, like me, feeling ambivalent about a book that they, for the most part, loved reading?

Because I am so conflicted in my afterthoughts on this book, I sincerely hope those who have read this book can join in a discussion about what they loved, what they didn’t enjoy, and the ways this book moved them, for good or bad. Obviously, there’s a lot to consider in this masterpiece of a frustrating novel.

Note: In case you were wondering, I read (most of) the Project Gutenberg version of The Mill on the Floss on my new Nook Color! It was a great experience. I love being a part of the e-reader family now.

  1. As I read the beginning, I shrugged it off, considering that siblings just never get along. But as they aged, I began to be increasingly frustrated by Tom’s attitudes towards Maggie. He was so mean.
  2. Oooo. Something to explore on next read: flood metaphors.
  3. Or should I? Was the ending sad or hopeful? Or just incredibly frustrating?
  4. Another point to explore: the rotten men that ruin women.
Reviewed on November 9, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • *Spoilers galore*

    Like you, I loved Maggie, loathed Tom, and completely believed in the world Eliot had created. UNTIL the Stephen Guest love triangle. For me, that just felt too contrived, like something a lesser Victorian author would pull, and I couldn’t see the point of it, other than to destroy Maggie. I could see the reason why Eliot made Tom the way he was…but why on earth would Maggie fall in love with Guest? And then, having done so, why would she go with him on the river?! That passage is SO hazy and ‘oh, she didn’t know what she was doing’ while the rest of the book is dedicated to describing her strong and passionate character that it just didn’t ring true for me. Until that scene, I’d hoped against hope for a happy ending, but as soon as she got in that stupid boat, I knew she’d end up dead. And I was left cranky.

    Even thinking about it is making me annoyed all over again! I agree that it’s a masterpiece, but I think it’d be more of a masterpiece if Maggie hadn’t conveniently become a ‘fainting girl’ willing to allow Guest to pressure her into coming with him as a plot point. I definitely plan to reread it in the future though, and see if my feelings remain the same! At least I’ll have more preperation for what’s coming.

    On a semi-related note, I’m rereading Woman in White right now (yay for Victorians!) and just loving it. 🙂

    • Eva » hmm. I didn’t feel it was too contrived. But I did feel that Stephen Guest was not sincere. He was most “lusting” after Maggie than truly in love with her. Maggie, I felt, was flattered to be noticed in that way and in that sense was overcome. But. I really did hope for Philip all along. I really liked him!

      So I don’t know. Going with Guest on the boat did seem like a bad idea, but then again, what else was she going to do. She had looked forward to going on the river all night…of course, she thought it’d be Philip…

      Anyway, yeay for Woman in White! I just reread it last month for my book club and it was as wonderful as ever.

  • I remember enjoying this book but it’s been so long ago I couldn’t remember any of the details.

    I do remember reading that this was her most autobiographical. Looking at it that way you could say that Maggie’s death is like a rebirth- one that takes place in the next world. Eliot had a rebirth herself as she went from Marian Evans to George Eliot. She had issues with her family, especially her Dad. Maybe she thought she’d end up like Maggie if she didn’t get away.

    I hoped for a happy ending but wasn’t surprised. I think I’m used to it by reading Wharton and Hardy! It didn’t change my opinion of it.

    • Chrisbookarama » I still haven’t read any Hardy. But yes, if I’d known it was like Wharton, I would not have been surprised by the end. But Middlemarch ended just beautifully and I didn’t see it as tragedy at all, so I was hoping this was similar. And Silas Marner was hopeful too.

      I should look in to more about her life. I read this was semiautobiographical, but since she resisted stereotype and went on her own, I didn’t see how Maggie related to her. Your comments about her “death” make sense.

  • I only read up to your spoiler warning, since this is still on my TBR list. I can see why this could be a frustrating read. It’s unfortunate that for so much of history women have been put in these difficult situations. I do still want to read this, though!

    • MJ » It definitely provides lots of food for thought in terms of the place of women in Victorian society! Frustrating to remember that’s how it was. I’m grateful I live today!

  • Look at you, reading all these George Eliot novels! I fully admit that Eliot scares me; her books are so thick! But I do want to read something by her one day, and the OCD in me feels like I should go chronologically and therefore start with Adam Bede and if I like that, then move on to this one. Do you think there will be more Eliot in your future?

  • I think a lot of what bothered you in Mill on the Floss was intended by Eliot as frustrating – I mean, Tom is definitely intended to be a frustrating character, and the ending is certainly sad. I don’t think we’re supposed to approve of Maggie’s submission to Tom, or of the way her society thwarts her. At the same time, I think a lot of the book is about how we don’t always end up loving the right people at the right times in the right ways. I don’t think we’re meant to approve of the way Tom loves Maggie, or even of the way Maggie loves Tom—everyone is imperfect and so their love is imperfect too, messy and inconvenient. Stephen is a careless character and loves carelessly; Tom is self-righteous and loves self-righteously; Maggie’s passion is closeted and has to seep out in attempts to express her love by repressing her own nature. It all ends in tragedy but I think part of what Eliot’s getting at is that that doesn’t mean anyone’s love is worth nothing.

    On one level, I hate that Tom is so harsh to Maggie and that she doesn’t just cut him out of her life and move on. On another level, I know so many people who have difficult and conflicted relationships with their families, yet still find value in continuing the struggle to love one another and have some sort of relationship. I think that’s the tension Eliot is exploring here. She’s such an interesting study because she lived so unconventionally (atheist, lived long-term with a married man), but still very much understands the attraction of conventionality and social acceptance.

    • Emily » I think you give a good point. That Tom’s love is imperfect, etc. I completely agree about Stephen being careless. He bothered me, but I didn’t hate him as much as Tom simply because at least he tried to be pleasant, even though he was lazy about some things.

      I think you are right: the brother-sister/family dynamic is what Eliot wanted to explore. My problem is I kept hoping it would be a love story where something worked out WELL for Maggie, or at least a I am Woman Hear me ROAR story where Maggie was strong enough to ignore society (as Dorothea does in Middlemarch; maybe that’s why I loved that one so much!).

          • Teresa, I’m still so scared to read Hardy….I think because I love a HAPPY story….but we’ll have to see what I think when I finally give him a chance.

          • Rebecca, If you want to read Hardy but are put off by the grimness of his work, I suggest Far from the Madding Crowd as your first. It’s probably the most cheerful of his major novels. Tess and Jude are the most grim. Unrelentingly grim, in fact. (I love them both, LOL.)

    • I liked your point Emily! It’s a good reminder…I’m the type of person that if someone does something horrible to me, I’m more likely to just end the relationship (friendship/dating/whatever)/avoid ever speaking to them in the future than work to forgive them. My sister’s the opposite, as was Maggie, so perhaps part of my disbelief comes from just having a different temperment! (And of course, Victorian women had the economic aspects at work too: they couldn’t just cut out the men in their lives.)

  • Yes, what Emily said. That’s very much how I read the novel, too. (It’s my favorite of the three Eliots I’ve read.) The infuriating things are meant to be infuriating, and the tragic ending I think shows that with things being as they are (or were in Eliot’s time), there is no hope for the Maggies of the world.

    For me, the book is also very much about societal expectations and how everyone is shaped by those expectations. Tom’s frustrating meanness comes out of that–he’s being the man society tells him to be, taking on a burden of responsibility and leadership that he just isn’t cut out for. And I wonder if he resents Maggie for being the greater wit and obviously more spirited person. Maggie, too, wants to conform, even though every part of her nature screams against it. This rang so true to me because in my own life I’ve had times when I’ve given in to pressure to be someone I’m not, to believe things I don’t, to let other people define me. Maggie, tragically, never found a way to let go of that, but she was living in a time and place when the choices were so much more limited. It was capitulate or die, or as it turned out capitulate AND die. Either way, death is inevitable. (Reading it a second time, the inevitability of the end struck me much more forcefully.)

    • Teresa » I can’t imagine this being my favorite. I just LOVED MIddlemarch so much. But I obviously need to reread it with more of an open mind because I was hoping for the wrong thigns as I read it this time. There certainly is a lot in the novel to consider.

      Good point about Tom. He really wasn’t cut out for the responsibility that was expected of him. I should try to not Hate him so much on my next read…

    • I don’t think all of Tom’s meanness is due to societal expectations, although I agree that that’s part of it. He seems to just have a cruel streak in him as well! (Granted, I’ve only read it once.)

      • Oh no, I wouldn’t say all of it is down to societal expectations, just a good chunk of it. The way things are brings out the worst in him, but that does mean it’s there to be brought out.

  • I have to agree with what Emily and Teresa said above. It has been almost 2 years since I’ve read it, but I remember those feelings.

    I went back and looked at my own posts-they are not anywhere near as articulate as yours-but I think I pulled some of the same general feelings. I felt for Maggie because she was a girl with spirit and life, but because of the time and place in which she was born, it was stolen from her. I cannot imagine living a life where you must constantly meet society’s standards. Not to mentioned dealing with a mean-spirited and spoiled older brother. I think your quote from the father sums it up perfectly…at that time, especially for a rural family, they wanted sons to carry on the family name and honor. Because Maggie was a she, she was ostracized and forced to submit.

    I could be completely wrong, but I see that Maggie and Tom actually have a lot in common. The difference is obviously in their sex. Because Maggie was female, her free-spiritness and life was squashed by her father, where Tom was continually allowed free reign. I think it is a bit of irony that Eliot spins into it…how two people, growing up in the same place with the same circumstances can be completely different just based on assigned gender roles. I also think that has a lot to do with Eliot’s own identity as well…

    Anyway, I could keep rambling. But, this has been, by far, my favorite Eliot novel. It has been a few years since I’ve read Middlemarch, but the emotional power of this one made quite an impact on me.

    • Allie » I’m glad you find this articulate, because even as I clicked “post” I kept thinking I was talking in circles and not really expressing my frustrations and thoughts. It’s such a complex book when I started to think about it.

      I recently read a biography about Elizabeth Cady Stanton (born early 1800s) and her father said similar things about her (“I wish she were a boy”). I was struck as I reflected on MILL that it was the same era: but Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood against American society while Maggie submitted to Victorian society. It was an interesting reflection.

      I’m not sure about Maggie and Tom being in common: I saw them as diametrically different in personality. But, as Teresa points out, they both are expected to fit a societal mold that they cannot properly fit in: Tom is not smart enough (really) and Maggie is too smart to submit with joy. But good point about how growing up in the same place, same parents, they both ended up so different in personality. I wonder how much of it was inborn personality versus sexual role training: nature vs nurture, etc.

      Feel free to keep rambling. This is a book that left me wanting to keep thinking about it, long after I finished it last week!

  • I loved this book but I don’t have anything particularly constructive to add to your wonderful and thoughtful review. The ending was sooo disappointing. I know on an intellectual level that Maggie was choosing her family and in a sense the person she wanted to be rather than who she perhaps actually was but it just made me so sad. It felt like a real waste.

    I know this might seem a bit random, but I read this book after reading Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood, a book that explored the concept of debt. It had a whole chapter dedicated to the Mill on the Floss from memory (although it could have been less and I just remember it so clearly it felt like a whole chapter). I would recommend reading Payback for some new ways of thinking about Mill on the Floss.

    • Becky (Page Turners), I was disappointed too. I think, though, that I should have expected it, as the other comments have mentioned…The book as a whole appeared to be a tragedy, so why should Maggie’s life have suddenly gotten wonderful! Wishful thinking I guess. But I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one so sad/frustrated/disappointed by the end.

      Really interesting sounding book on Debt. Thanks for the rec!

  • I only read up to the point where you said there are spoilers, but WOW! You definitely have me wanting to read this. I must make this part of my list in 2012!! (Enjoy that Nook!)

    • Jillian, I just LOVED MIddlemarch (have you read that one yet?) but others have commented here that MILL is their favorite George Eliot. Eliot certainly packs a punch, and there are so many deep issues to consider in this book. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts when you get to it. 🙂

      • No, not yet. I’ve only read The Lifted Veil. For some reason, I feel like I’ll favor The Mill on the Floss. But I own Middlemarch and will probably read it in 2012. 🙂

  • I have read this book ages ago and don’t really remember the specifics. But it was quite well written and I still carry the impressions of the book.

    First, I thought that Tom was stubborn and narrow minded. But he did love Maggie a lot. Maggie on the other hand was still that little girl who wanted to do things her own way and be appreciated, especially by Tom. But the society at that time didn’t make it possible.

    I remember Maggie being smart but socially inept while Tom was the opposite. Maggie was always the rebel, always doing what she wanted and then regretting it. Tom, burdened by the debt and responsibility was hardworking and really didn’t want to fall down the same way as his dad. In his own way, he did care for Maggie, but couldn’t approve of her when she was doing, according to what he thought, things that would destroy her. The separation was always painful for Maggie, who was always just looking for Tom’s approval.

    That said, I remember being frustrated by Maggie for not choosing Philip. I didn’t like the fact that she didn’t love him, she just pitied him. Then she falls for Stephen of all people! To me, I think she liked Philip because he was what she had wanted Tom to be like with her, kind and gracious. But she realized that Philip wasn’t Tom. So she fell for someone a bit more Tom-like and realized that Stephen was most definitely not Tom and didn’t really care for her either.

    For me, the ending, which I hated, gave a new spin to the whole Maggie saga. She obviously loved Tom romantically, realizing it in the boat. All her life, she was looking for Tom’s love and, given the society at that time, found it the only way she could.

    I would have really liked it if Maggie had married Philip or even found someone else altogether. I mean, these two personalities couldn’t be the only people alive, could they? It would also have been nice if the story continued with her trying to still garner Tom’s approval after marriage and eventually getting it later with both siblings finally getting to understand each other. Maggie realizing that not all norms are to be flouted and Tom understanding that sometimes going against the norm is what is healthy.

  • First I just finished listening to the audio version of the book. This is pretty much the only way I get to read any leisure books these days as an efficient use of time while doing house work, driving, etc. I’ve “read” Middlemarch and My Life in Middlemarch the same way.

    Second I think this is a very moving book, more so than Middlemarch. It did start slow in the beginning, became almost unbearably tragic in the middle, where they lost the law suit, then the Mill, and their father, but it got quite a lot more enjoyable to my taste in a Jane-Austen way once Stephen Guest enters the story. Of course Maggie’s self denial and the tragic finale were very sad indeed. I was really pulling for Stephen Guest, hoping his love would be fulfilled, thus a happy ending. I think both of their initial self-denials are what make the courtship interesting and intriguing. I would be very interested in hearing more commentaries about the character of Stephen Guest.

    I feel for Tom too, in fact thought it seems to be Maggie’s foolishness and neediness for his love and approval that led to his wholly unnecessary death. He could have had such a bright worldly fulfilling future ahead of him given the success he already had bringing back the family’s honor and estate. He’s honorable and honest. He is not “manipulative” or “nasty”. He is simply true to his principles. He did give Maggie the independence she wanted and absolved her from her early promise not to see Phillip again. It was his right and freedom not have to be happy about it by not wanting to have anything to do with Maggie after that. It was Maggie who kept wanting to cling to him and all her burdensome past to the end, dragging Tom along with her! It was truly a pity for Tom. I’m not very sympathetic to Philip either, with him enjoying all the wealth, even his father’s easy approval of his wish to marry Maggie and his father being the reason for the Tullivers’ family ruins. I think it was quite insensitive of Maggie, Lucy, even Stephen to befriend him, with disregard to Tom and his father’s hurt feelings.

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