Loss of innocence is a major theme in The Mill on the Floss. From the beginning of the novel, the narrator makes it clear that there is a strong demarcation between living in childhood, as Maggie and Tom are doing, and looking back on it, as she is doing. With sentences like, “Childhood has no forebodings; but then, it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow” (72), or “Very trivial, perhaps, this anguish seems to weather-worn mortals who have to think of Christmas bills, dead loves, and broken friendships” (56), the narrator repeatedly calls to attention the great distance between the perception of children and the perception of adults.
When Mr. Tulliver loses all his assets and his senses, it becomes clear that the divide between child and adult is not necessarily slowly created over time, but that, for Maggie and Tom at least, it is created in a single episode of rending - a loss of innocence. With powerful imagery, Eliot shows Maggie and Tom going “forth together into their new life of sorrow,” “the thorny wilderness,” as “the golden gates of their childhood had for ever closed behind them” and they will “never more see the sunshine undimmed by remembered cares” (159). The knowledge of their family’s great hardships to come is “a violent shock” that separates them permanently from their edenic - in comparison, at least - childhood.
Communal versus Individual Interests
The theme of communal versus individual interests, which could also be called duty versus desire, is of central importance to The Mill on the Floss, and is essentially what drives the plot. Maggie, with her unusual looks, her intellectual prowess, her driving curiosity, and her passionate desires, does not naturally fit into the community of St. Ogg’s at all. Her family continually fears what will become of her, she is often misunderstood and almost never taken seriously, and she is certainly never given the praise for her cleverness that she so desires. To fulfill her individual desires, then, is to break out of any role the community is willing to offer her, and so to go against it.
Though Maggie yearns for this at times, in the end she is far too bound to her past, her family, and the broader community to be willing to relinquish it. Though it would seem that marrying Stephen offers her the best opportunity for happiness, she chooses to leave him and, she believes, all future chances of happiness to return to St. Ogg’s. Once there, even the understanding Dr. Kenn, who appreciates her Christian values in staying close to her roots, tells her it would be best for her to go, but still, she stays. When she dies, it is in a boat on a current taking her towards home, so this becomes her final choice, and she has ultimately given her life to stay in the community; she loses her individuality in the most profound sense.
The gender disparity in the world of The Mill on the Floss is vital to understanding Maggie’s story. She is an intelligent and fascinating woman, but the world she is born into offers nothing for her to do with her talents; women are assumed to be more interested in gossip than reading, adherence to custom is valued more highly than intelligence or knowledge, and whether women are even capable of amassing a depth of knowledge is a subject of debate.
In this world, Maggie’s many talents do nothing for her except make her feel all the more dissatisfied with what is available. This context is crucial to understanding why choice is so difficult for her, why she is pulled so strongly between duty and desire. Her desires would lead her to a masculine pursuit, which is not available to her in any meaningful way and would require a great sacrifice of duty. But duty offers little of interest to someone with her creativity and sharpness, and so is a much harder choice than it is for, for example, Lucy Deane, who can play the appropriate feminine role perfectly. Maggie’s struggles, then, which the author so directly associates with progress, are not just for the general progress of culture away from the previous generation’s comfort with “ignorance” (101), but progress towards greater freedom of possibility for women like Maggie - women like George Eliot.
The Difficulty of Choice
Throughout The Mill on the Floss, the individual is pitted against the community, especially in reference to Maggie Tulliver. To make the decision to inhabit her individuality would be, in many ways, the more difficult path, as the book shows us that with the freedom of individuality comes the responsibility to make choices, and for Maggie, at least, such decisive action is never easy.
If Maggie were to subjugate her will to the greater community, choices become meaningless - she just has to do what everyone does, follow tradition and custom, and so the only choices she would have to make are minor and insignificant because they are within these set bounds.
If instead Maggie were to assert her individuality, as she tries to at various points, the choices she makes define who she is, how she will live, how her community will see her, and in some cases, how those around her will live. Though Maggie is deeply intelligent and passionate and has clearly defined desires, she finds this nearly impossible. She tries to choose between Philip and Tom, fails, and in trying to have both, hurts them both. She tries to choose between Stephen and the community, regrets her decision, but in regretting it after the fact, finds she has already alienated most of the community. The difficulty Maggie finds in making choices, sticking to them, and facing the consequences, leads her to subjugate her will to the community completely.
Renunciation and Sacrifice
Renunciation and sacrifice are at the heart of the major actions of Maggie and Tom’s lives. After his father’s losses, Tom dedicates his life to repaying his father’s debts, and then to getting the mill back from Mr. Wakem. To this end he gives up all socializing so that he won’t be tempted to spend any of the money he makes, and he works so hard that when he gets home every night, he is too tired to even converse with his family. He thus essentially sacrifices human interaction to regain his family’s honor.
Maggie also becomes fixated on renunciation, but whereas Tom sacrifices pleasure for a specific, concrete aim, Maggie’s renunciation is a spiritual attempt to find peace in a world ill-suited to her. Maggie finds the weight of the “conflict between inward impulse and outward fact, which is the lot of every imaginative and passionate nature” (225) too much to bear, and so “renunciation seemed to her the entrance into that satisfaction which she had so long been craving in vain” (237).
Because her sacrifice has no active realm in which to act, as opposed to Tom’s, she finds it much harder to adhere to. She lapses from it repeatedly, but in the end, returns to it in her plan to finally renounce a chance for love and happiness with Stephen. Though at that point, the damage has already been done and to marry him would likely not cause any more harm, she does not allow this for herself, because she believes renunciation is right for its own sake, regardless of what is being renounced or the potential consequences.
Tom and Maggie are cut off from their childhood by their loss of innocence caused by their father’s troubles, but that does not mean the ties created in their childhood are severed. The narrator repeatedly makes it clear that “old inferior things” always have a special meaning when you grow up with them, and almost all of her passages describing the mill and the surrounding area are riddled with nostalgic musings. The nostalgic frame for the past makes the loss of innocence all the more poignant, for the present can never be as good as the nostalgic past, since even the reality of the past was not as good as one remembers.
Nostalgia is important not just in that it distinguishes the adult looking back on childhood from the child, but in that it provides a counterbalance to the human “striving after something better and better in our surroundings” (127). The “deep immovable roots” created by the past and made more strong by nostalgia allow for progress that is tempered and controlled, progress that looks to promote the community where these nostalgic ties are located, and not just the individual.
Progress versus Tradition
The tension between progress and tradition is central in The Mill on the Floss. In many ways, it is embodied in Maggie. The pull she feels between her individual desires and her communal duties is very much a pull between progress and tradition, as those communal duties are highly traditional, and her individual desires are far more suited to a more progressive world. There is a clear distinction between generations in the novel, and, especially because the narrator is looking back from a more progressive present to the traditional past, it is clear that the novel’s setting, “a time when ignorance was much more comfortable than at present,” is on the verge of transformation.
But the novel, though it presents a world which is unfit for Maggie, still does not want uninhibited progress. The “striving after something better and better in our surroundings” is essential, “but heaven knows where that striving might lead” without the tempering influence of tradition. It is easy to imagine that Maggie might have been much happier had she followed through on her elopement with Stephen, ignoring what tradition asks of her, but had she, she would not have had her final reconciliation with Tom, nor given her mother and Mrs. Glegg the opportunity to show how staunchly they would defend her in a time of trouble. Dr. Kenn believes the world is moving away from adhering to the obligations created by tradition with the rise of the individual over the communal, but Maggie is an example of someone with individual desires who still adheres to the duties her past has created. Though she is unable in the end to find the right balance, her struggle is emblematic of the greater societal pull between progress and tradition.
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.