“Plotting covetousness, and deliberate contrivance, in order to compass a selfish end, are nowhere abundant but in the world of the dramatist: they demand too intense a mental action for many of our fellow-parishioners to be guilty of them. It is easy enough to spoil the lives of our neighbours without taking so much trouble: we can do it by lazy acquiescence and lazy omission, by trivial falsities for which we hardly know a reason, by small frauds neutralised by small extravagances, by maladroit flatteries, and clumsily improvised insinuations.”
This passage highlights Eliot’s interest in realism. Though she could easily have given Mr. Riley motives of self-interest for recommending Mr. Stelling so strongly to the Tullivers, she insists that that kind of behavior belongs “in the world of the dramatist” only. This world, then, is implicitly not the “world of the dramatist.” It is instead a realistic world where lives are spoiled through “small frauds” and “lazy acquiescence,” not by grand acts of evil. The fact that, rather than just show Mr. Riley’s motives to be realistic, the narrator makes this explicit declaration, shows how much The Mill on the Floss means to draw the reader’s attention to its naturalness, to how likely there is to be a Maggie or a Mr. Tulliver in any small town at the time.
“These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky, with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows - such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep-bladed grass to-day, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years which still live in us, and transform our perception into love.”
There are multiple examples of passages like this throughout the novel, where the narrator takes a break from the action to dwell on the importance of childhood memories on adult perception of a place. This kind of nostalgia is essential, for although we usually hear it through the narrator’s voice, it helps to explain why Maggie is willing to give up so much potential happiness with Stephen, and then later freedom from judgment, to stay in the town where she was raised.
The connection in this passage specifically with nostalgic memory and “language,” “the mother tongue of our imagination,” is especially interesting because since the publication of The Mill on the Floss, it has been Eliot’s writing about Maggie’s childhood that most awed critics, and it was also this section that was seen as most autobiographical. Thus for her, at least, it appears to be true that these nostalgic memories attach a great power to her expressive ability.
“The two slight youthful figures soon grew indistinct on the distant road - were soon lost behind the projecting hedgerow.
They had gone forth together into their new 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 for ever closed behind them.”
This moment closes the second book of The Mill on the Floss and immediately follows their loss of innocence, represents the end of Maggie and Tom’s childhood that is the focus of the first two books. Though they are described as “youthful” as they walk away from the Stellings, they soon grow “indistinct.” “Indistinct” here has meanings that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Most literally, Tom and Maggie are walking out of the Stellings’ field of vision, but it is also that the “youthful figures” are disappearing, because they are no longer youthful.
Finally, they are growing “indistinct” from one another, as is emphasized by the fact that for the rest of the chapter they are described solely as “they,” never as Tom, Maggie, or Tom and Maggie. This illustrates the unity that Tom and Maggie find in hardship again and again. It is when tragedy strikes that they are best able to break through the great differences of character that divide them throughout the novel.
“And Mr. Tulliver, you perceive, though nothing more than a superior miller and maltster, was as proud and obstinate as if he had been a very lofty personage, in whom such dispositions might be a source of that conspicuous, far-echoing tragedy, which sweeps the stage in regal robes and makes the dullest chronicler sublime. The pride and obstinacy of millers, and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, hidden sort, that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no record.”
In Aristotle’s classical definition of the tragic hero, a defining characteristic is that “he must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous” (Poetics, Section XIII). In this passage, the narrator argues that though Mr. Tulliver is not such a “very lofty personage,” his story has its “tragedy too.” Eliot was a realist writer concerned largely with families and small towns in England, with “millers, and other insignificant people,” and here her narrator is making it clear that they have stories worth telling, too, even if they aren’t “far-echoing.” There is also some of meta, or self-reflexive, play here, since she says that Mr. Tulliver’s tragedy is the kind that “leaves no record,” which, of course, is not true in this case since she has written it into a novel. But the larger point is that there are real men, not just characters, like Mr. Tulliver, and their stories are tragic, and abundant, even when they go unnoticed and unremarked on.
“Maggie in her brown frock, with her eyes reddened and her heavy hair pushed back, looking from the bed where her father lay, to the dull walls of this sad chamber which was the centre of her world, was a creature full of eager, passionate longings for all that was beautiful and glad; thirsty for all knowledge; with an ear straining after dreamy music that died away and would not come near to her; with a blind, unconscious yearning for something that would link together the wonderful impressions of this mysterious life, and give her soul a sense of home in it.
No wonder, when there is this contrast between the outward and the inward, that painful collisions come of it.”
This passage really emphasizes that Maggie’s passions and desires would not, on their own, be a problem for her, but because of the world she exists within, they lead to “painful collisions.” She is in her home, but her soul has no “sense of home,” for this world is so far from all the wonderful things she is capable of imagining. Again and again St. Ogg’s is connected with dullness, and here the “dull walls” block out what is “beautiful and glad” and allow for no “dreamy music.”
This stark contrast between what Maggie desires and what she has really drives home that Maggie’s being blocked out of the male world of work and power is not just painful because of the powerlessness, but because it means being locked into a world of unceasing boredom. Tom can leave every morning and challenge himself, while Maggie is stuck in “this sad chamber” with the relics of their happier childhood, and, thanks to having to auction off her books, without even any imaginary worlds to escape into. This makes it easier to understand how difficult it is for her to withstand the temptation to spend time with Philip and his vast knowledge, even at the risk of hurting her father and brother.
“I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie - how it has acted on young natures in many generations, that in the onward tendency of human things have risen above the mental level of the generation before them, to which they have been nevertheless tied by the strongest fibres of their hearts. The suffering, whether of martyr or victim, which belongs to every historical advance of mankind, is represented in this way in every town, and by hundreds of obscure hearths.”
This is a key thematic passage in The Mill on the Floss. It tells the reader that the pull Maggie feels between her imagination, her desires, the world she wants to live in, and the community she was born and raised in and has deep emotional ties to, is not just a personal conflict, but represents the driving force of progress from generation to generation. The quote illustrates that this story of one family - particularly, one young woman - and its lessons are important far beyond that limited scope.
This also makes it a more emotionally powerful story because the oppression Maggie feels, the desires she has to smother in order to remain part of the community she is “tied to by the strongest fibres” of her heart, are, we learn, felt “in every town, and by hundreds of obscure hearths.” This is not one woman’s tragedy, but a generation’s, and even more: ”many generations.” It is not just sad though, for the pain of the struggle is intricately linked to “the onward tendency of human things,” and so allows us to progress from “a time when country surgeons never thought of asking their female patients if they were fond of reading, but simply took it for granted that they preferred gossip” (101) to a better future.
“She thought it was part of the hardship of her life that there was laid upon her the burthen of larger wants than others seemed to feel - that she had to endure this wide hopeless yearning for that something, whatever it was, that was greatest and best on this earth. She wished she could have been like Bob, with his easily satisfied ignorance, or like Tom, who had something to do on which he could fix his mind with a steady purpose, and disregard everything else.”
This passage highlights Maggie’s unfitness for the time and world she is born into. It is not just her father’s troubles and tragedies that make her life hard, it is her powerful desire and intellect. And because she knows that desire and intellect cannot be satisfied or utilized meaningfully in this world of tradition, gossip and feminine powerlessness, she doesn’t even bother to wish for their satisfaction. She wants wholeness, she wants to stop feeling so torn between her desire and her reality, but the only way she can imagine to achieve this is to not have such desire, so that is what she wishes for. She wishes that “she could have been like Bob” with small desires that can be “easily satisfied,” or like Tom, who, because he can do male labor, can escape or suppress any such desires with distraction.
“Apparently the mingled thread in the web of their life was so curiously twisted together, that there could be no joy without a sorrow coming close upon it. Tom was dejected by the thought that his exemplary effort must always be baffled by the wrong-doing of others: Maggie was living through, over and over again, the agony of the moment in which she had rushed to throw herself on her father’s arm - with a vague, shuddering foreboding of wretched scenes to come.”
Maggie and Tom’s distinct reactions in this passage - which occurs just after Mr. Tulliver attacks Mr. Wakem - are very emblematic of their overall differences in character. The siblings are not completely distinct here, or on opposite sides of a spectrum - both are deeply unhappy, and their unhappiness was precipitated by the same cause, Mr. Tulliver attacking Mr. Wakem.
What makes each sibling unhappy about their situation, though is completely different and utterly emblematic of their respective characters. Tom is unhappy because, as he sees it, his accomplishments have been tarnished “by the wrong-doing of others” yet again. He is incapable of ever seeing a mistake in his own actions, but he is constantly looking to blame others, and Mr. Tulliver, in shaming the family right after they finally regained some standing all thanks to Tom, has given him ample cause.
Maggie, on the other hand, is unhappy because of her deeply felt emotions regarding the pain of seeing her father performing a violent act. It is not shame over what the public will think, or embarrassment about how it reflects on her or her family that causes her grief, but the horror of seeing someone she loves commit a terrible act. In addition, the power of her imagination adds to the problem - she cannot stop imagining it in enough clarity to keep her stuck in the moment. Maggie had never fully accepted her family's blind hatred of the Wakems - especially in light of her understanding of Philip - and this act of her father's is dreadful in that it perpetuates that hatred even after the debts are paid. Maggie's empathizes with both her father and Mr. Wakem.
“The boat reappeared - but brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted: living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together.”
This moment, when Maggie and Tom lose their lives, is also the moment when they finally achieve union with each other, and are able to re-enter those “golden gates” of their childhood that had “forever closed behind them" (159). Though this is a sentimental and moving image, it also rings slightly false to the reader, since we never saw Tom and Maggie clasping “their little hands in love.” Though they certainly had moments of happiness and tenderness together in childhood, far more frequent were moments of bitter anger, recrimination, and hurt. This reminds the reader of Maggie's first memory is standing on the banks of the Floss with her brother. It is a lovely image, but the narrator has laid out the lens through which we should view scenes of childhood memory - memories are sweetened by nostalgia and are often re-lived more harmoniously than lived.
In addition, the siblings have had moments of reconciliation like this before, almost always in the face of grave tragedy, and in no other instance were they permanent. This instance is, because it is their death, both necessarily fleeting and completely permanent. Had they somehow survived, though, it seems unlikely that they could have maintained their unity and peace, just as the reader doubts whether Maggie could have truly relinquished Stephen, or more broadly, happiness, had she had to continue to live with the decision.
“Nature repairs her ravages - but not all. The uptorn trees are not rooted again; the parted hills are left scarred; if there is a new growth, the trees are not the same as the old, and the hills underneath their green vesture bear the marks of the past rending. To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair.”
The Mill on the Floss is very much the story of one town, one family, one woman, but at intervals throughout the novel, Eliot extends the story’s lessons to the greater world, and explains that tragedies like Maggie’s and Mr. Tulliver’s are repeated in every generation, in every small town, at countless hearths. This passage reinforces that idea in bringing up the idea of renewal, of the natural world’s cyclical nature, of progress - ”new growth.”
Yet she doesn’t want us to forget that, though “nature repairs her ravages,” each individual, though they may be part of a larger community that continues on, can never be replaced. Though new trees may grow, “the trees are not the same as the old.” They might live a similar pattern to those “uptorn trees,” but they are not the same trees, just as another young, intelligent, spirited girl might grow up in St. Ogg’s and feel much the same internal conflict that Maggie did, but she would not be Maggie. Thus though the survival of the community is worth celebrating, the loss of every individual is a tragedy.
The Mill on the Floss Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Mill on the Floss is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
As Maggie grows up, she regularly feels conflicted between acting how her extended family and community would want her to, and following her own desires. The strong pull of both means she is often indecisive, and though she tries to find peace in...