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.
- 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. ↩
- Oooo. Something to explore on next read: flood metaphors. ↩
- Or should I? Was the ending sad or hopeful? Or just incredibly frustrating? ↩
- Another point to explore: the rotten men that ruin women. ↩