The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss Summary and Analysis of Book IV - The Valley of Humiliation

Chapter I - A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet

The narrator takes a break from the story’s action to present an interlude describing the contrast between the ruins of villages on the Rhone and of castles on the Rhine, and how the former feels small and oppressive in the way that the traditions of the older generation of Dodsons and Tullivers were oppressive to Maggie and Tom. The Dodsons were religious out of habit and tradition only and they strove to be honest and rich. Their kin were not to be left out of wills, but reproached severely if they were not a credit to the family. Tom Tulliver's spirituality was adrift, lost in the pursuit of common sense.

Chapter II - The Torn Nest Is Pierced by the Thorns

Mr. Tulliver is recovered enough to attend to business, so he acts as Mr. Wakem’s manager, but is constantly depressed and focused only on saving enough of his wages to pay back the creditors that he still owes. Tom and Mrs. Tulliver both agree this is the honorable thing to do, so everyone does their best to help economize. Tom continues at his job and training in bookkeeping, saying very little in the short periods he is at home. Maggie's internal struggle continues as her passions and sense of self contrast greatly with the facts of her situation. She seeks an understanding of her suffering. Her mother tries to spare her hard work, though she is becoming more frail each day. The aunts and uncles visit only rarely, as their social ties are becoming strained in misfortune.

Chapter III - A Voice from the Past

Bob Jakin comes to give Maggie some books he bought for her because he remembered how upset she was when her family’s books were sold. Maggie, who has been very unhappy, is grateful. One of these books is Thomas a Kempis: Imitation of Christ, which causes her to have a spiritual awakening. She believes that a renunciation of her personal desires is the answer to finding the peace and happiness that has eluded her. She takes up sewing in order to contribute to the family's fund; Tom disapproves. Maggie reads to her father, but her new-found faith is of no comfort to him. He dwells on how his situation will adversely affect Maggie's prospects and maintains his vow of revenge against Wakem.


A note on the title of Book IV: "Bousset" refers to Jacques-Benigne Bousset, a 17th century French bishop and theologian. He was a preacher in Louis XIV's court.

The fourth book of The Mill on the Floss is the shortest and least important to the plot, but it is very significant thematically. The first chapter of Book IV is the true center of the novel, with 29 chapters on either side of it, and this combined with its irrelevance to the plot of the story marks it as important thematically. Indeed, the narrator even says directly that “it is necessary that we should feel” the “sense of oppressive narrowness” that she highlights in the example of the Rhone ruins to understand the story of Maggie and Tom. The major importance of this chapter is that it ties two of the novel’s major themes together - that of progress versus tradition, and that of the communal versus the individual.

We have already seen examples of Maggie’s being torn between her individual desires and the needs of the community. She is intelligent and creative but her society does not reward her for these virtues, nor does it give her a place to use them, and this leads to her strive for “affection” because her intelligence is “unsatisfied” (148). But this affection needs to come from somewhere, so she has to find a way to please the community which is so ill-suited to her.

This dilemma, the narrator tells us in this chapter, is what drives human progress--”the onward tendency of human things” who “have risen above the mental level of the generation before them” (222). The stifling nature of the older generation’s obsession with “whatever was customary and respectable” (223) drives Maggie to strive for something greater, but she is still “tied by the strongest fibres of” her heart to her family, and this is the source of all the conflict within her nature.

The narrator also makes it clear that, though this is but one family’s story, seemingly insignificant in the scheme of human history, “we need not shrink from this comparison of small things with great” (223). These are the tragedies that are “of that unwept, hidden sort, that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no record” (163), for they are the tragedies of “millers, and other insignificant people” (162), but in writing this very story, and in making the reader care deeply about the characters suffering these indignities small and great, the narrator has proven to us that such tragedies do merit telling, and it becomes all the more powerful when she emphasizes that this is but one example of what happens “in every town, and by hundreds of obscure hearths” (223).

In the rest of this chapter, we see Maggie’s attempts to reconcile this interior struggle and achieve happiness through renunciation of all desire. Eliot makes it clear this will not be the answer - the narrator tells us directly that “renunciation seemed to her the entrance into that satisfaction which she had so long been craving in vain” but “she had not perceived...that renunciation remains sorrow, though a sorrow borne willingly” (237). And, indeed, her renunciation is not true renunciation, for “she threw some exaggeration and willfulness, some pride and impetuosity” into it, losing “the spirit of humility by being excessive in the outward act” (239). Both the fact that Maggie is forced into such an extreme set of behaviors, and the fact that we can tell clearly that she is doomed to fail to find peace from them, emphasizes the great strains that her society has put on her, and how deeply her intelligence has doomed her.

Maggie's (albeit fleeting) faith, which is centered around true inspiration, thirst for knowledge and desire to understand her predicament, is contrasted with the spirituality of the Dodsons and the Tullivers. In St. Ogg's, religion is practiced out of respect for tradition rather than faith or belief. The Dodsons especially follow the basic rites - baptism and last rites - because it is expected of them; last rites are equally as important as the proper ham for the funeral. The reading of the will should also bear no surprises - either in reporting the deceased's financial worth or in the inheritences doled out to family members. As seen in their treatment of Mr. Tulliver, the Dodson way of caring for kin is severely admonishing their faults while making sure to leave them what is traditionally owed. Like their faith, the Dodson familial spirit is a hollow gesture. The Tullivers, on the other hand, respect the church but put their faith in common sense. Over the years, Tom's faith has dissipated and even Maggie's fervent beliefs are of no comfort to him. Even in her beliefs, Maggie does not follow the accepted traditions.