The Mill on the Floss (reread)

“Things out o’ nature niver thrive: God A’mighty doesn’t like ’em.” So Maggie Tulliver is told in an early chapter of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Although the statement refers to lop-eared rabbits, it could just as easily apply to Maggie herself. From her childhood, Maggie is perceived as a “thing out o’ nature.” She’s far too clever for a girl, and she doesn’t hesitate to passionately express her feelings; even her hair won’t be controlled. As a little girl, Maggie gets into one scrape after another, and no one seems to approve of her. Even her brother Tom, who Maggie adores unconditionally, sees her as “a silly little thing.”

As Maggie grows older, her family loses the mill that has been its primary source of income. The loss drives her father to despair and raises in him a grudge against the Wakem family for being involved in his misfortune. Maggie is torn between her loyalty to her family and her burgeoning friendship with young Philip Wakem. For Maggie, however, the oldest loyalties are always the strongest, and she follows her brother’s directions in where to plant her affections. Her loyalties to her family, to friends, and to herself continue to be tested throughout the book, and the right choice becomes less and less clear, especially when the most principled path is the one that is likely to cause her the most pain and to draw the most scorn from the community. Maggie, in never choosing the expected path, is destined to be misunderstood.

I first read The Mill on the Floss in college and was deeply moved by Maggie’s plight. She is a likable heroine–independent, passionate, intelligent, curious, principled. At times, her principles and passions do lead her to make unwise choices, and Eliot does a brilliant job of showing how society can seem to conspire against the unconventional. Maggie can never find a comfortable way of being in the world. She tries everything from going off to live among the gypsies to denying herself all worldly pleasures. Her brother Tom calls her on her changability:

“I never feel certain about anything with you. At one time you take pleasure in a sort of perverse self-denial, and at another you have not resolution to resist a thing that you know to be wrong.”

There was a terrible cutting truth in Tom’s words—that hard rind of truth which is discerned by unimaginative, unsympathetic minds. Maggie always writhed under this judgment of Tom’s: she rebelled and was humiliated in the same moment: it seemed as if he held a glass before her to show her her own folly and weakness—as if he were a prophetic voice predicting her future failings—and yet, all the while, she judged him in return: she said inwardly that he was narrow and unjust, that he was below feeling those mental needs which were often the source of the wrong-doing or absurdity that made her life a planless riddle to him.

Although Tom himself is a determined, hard-working young man with strong feelings of his own, he cannot understand the scope of Maggie’s imagination, and his continual misunderstandings lead to Maggie’s heartbreak. Maggie may be passionate, but, unlike, say Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights, she is not generally selfish or out of control. She loves unselfishly, but she does not choose to love as others expect her to, and so she cannot thrive as well as she might.

Although Maggie is the heart of the story, the other characters are well-drawn and interesting, and they develop and change over time. Although Tom consistently misunderstands Maggie, he does grow up in other ways—the once naive young man who expected to walk right into a fortune learns the value of hard work. The aunts and uncles provide commentary on the Tullivers that is sometimes comic and sometimes maddening, but then they come through for the family in surprising ways. Maggie’s cousin Lucy is depicted early on as nothing more than a physical beauty, but she shows a fondness for Maggie that encourages her to step out and act to ensure her cousin’s happiness as best she can, never knowing how her efforts might work against her. I didn’t like every character, but I don’t expect to. I did, however, believe in these characters, which is the most important thing.

The last few chapters of the book do feel rather rushed. After taking great care to meticulously record ordinary events of Maggie’s childhood, Eliot hurries through some of the most dramatic events in the story. And there are a few stretches of lengthy description that might seem overlong and pointless—although most of these are well-written and contain interesting nuggets about the worldview Eliot is expressing in the book. The story takes several turns that are unexpected but perhaps inevitable. In fact, there’s a sense of inevitability about the whole novel. The imagery of rivers and currents emphasize the impossibility of resistance, even if submitting to the flow means annihilation. It is a masterfully done work. It was my first Eliot many years ago, and it remains my favorite.

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24 Responses to The Mill on the Floss (reread)

  1. Steph says:

    I would really like to read an Eliot at some point, whether it be this one, or some other… She feels like one of those grand masters who I feel I must experience! I’m glad you found this reread so satisfying; the best books always stand up to multiple readings and only get better with each visit. Perhaps 2010 will be my year to finally discover Eliot? Then again, perhaps biting off Dickens will be more than enough!

    Also, I hope you’re having a wonderful holiday season!

  2. litlove says:

    Years ago I read Middlemarch, adored it, and have never read Eliot since. Perhaps this is a good place to go next? I’d like to read her again. Lovely review.

    • Teresa says:

      litlove: This is my favorite Eliot, but I know others who don’t like it so well. I’ve liked every Eliot that I’ve read (Mill, Middlemarch, Silas Marner, Adam Bede), though, so I don’t think you can go far wrong.

  3. Christopher Lord says:

    Eliot is certainly worth reading in her entirety (maybe not Felix Holt), although I might start with Silas Marner (better than people think and not for kids) or Adam Bede (in my mind, the best of the “fallen women” novels–Tess, The Scarlet Letter, etc.). And I remember loving Daniel Deronda both times I read it, although it has been many years now. Eliot is more cerebral than Dickens, less bizarre than Hardy.

    • Teresa says:

      Christopher: I do want to get to Daniel Deronda; I’ve heard great things about it, and I haven’t met an Eliot novel I didn’t like. I love your description–“more cerebral than Dickens, less bizarre than Hardy”–I wholeheartedly agree. (Although I do generally prefer Hardy.)

  4. Aarti says:

    I really need to read some George Eliot! I didn’t realize this was the plot of this story until recently, but it sounds like something I’d enjoy.

  5. JaneGS says:

    Terrific review–you really whetted my appetite for reading this in 2010–I’m particularly interested in the brother-sister dynamic and the quote you gave seems a perfect encapsulation of them. I wonder why the last chapters felt rushed–I wonder whether Eliot got impatient, or felt she had said what she wanted to, etc.

    • Teresa says:

      Jane: I felt a little like in the final chapters, Eliot was starting to get into well-trodden fallen woman territory, and that’s not really what the book’s about. Maybe she decided to hurry through because there wasn’t anything new to say about it, other than the fresh spin she had already provided on it in setting it up. And I did like the ending–it felt apt, just sudden.

  6. Dorothy W. says:

    I read this one back in high school, so I’m definitely due for a reread! I love Eliot, so I’m sure I will get to this eventually. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I hope I have a similar experience when I do my own reread.

  7. Juxtabook says:

    I also prefer Eliot to Dickens! though I like Dickens too. I love the first three-quarters of this book then Eliot quite literally looses the plot. I hate the end, but the first part is worth putting up with the end for!

    By the way, I am just writing a post about re-reading for the ibooknet blog – it will be up tomorrow – also mentioning Eliot.

    • Teresa says:

      Juxtabook: I really liked the Stephen/Lucy/Maggie/Philip storyline, but it did take attention away from the primary relationship in the book. I think that contributed to my feeling that the last act was rushed. It’s like Eliot suddenly realized she had to get back to the main story and wrap it up quickly. Still, as devastating as it is, I liked the actual ending and can’t see any other way for it to end.

  8. Ann says:

    This is the one Eliot to which I’ve never been able to return, it hurt so much the first time round. The book that I find myself drawn back to most regularly is ‘Daniel Deronda’ which seems to me to be one that speaks very clearly to our current times.

    • Teresa says:

      Ann: It is an utterly heart-breaking book. I can see how it would be hard to return to. Daniel Deronda is on my list; I believe it’s the only one of Eliot’s most famous works I haven’t read.

  9. Tess says:

    I read this book long ago. Ending of this book is what i liked most. Something like this – and in the end they were together.

    This was the thickest book we had in our syllabus. And english was so tough initially but gradually it became so interesting…

    Loved the character of Maggie.

    • Teresa says:

      Tess: The ending is what haunted me about this book years after I read it. And Maggie is indeed a great character. She’s one of my favorite Victorian heroines.

  10. rebeccareid says:

    It sounds so beautifully written. I read an Eliot novel a long time ago (I think it was Silas Marner) but I don’t remember it. I’ve been meaning to read more Eliot, thanks for this review! I’m glad to hear that the reread was so satisfying.

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca: I read Silas Marner not long after reading Mill the first time, and my memory of it (and of Middlemarch) is pretty fuzzy, although I know I enjoyed it. I want to read Daniel Deronda and eventually reread the others.

  11. bybee says:

    I love Middlemarch and Silas Marner and mean to read more Eliot. One of my coworkers has just discovered her and thinks that Eliot is heads above Jane Austen.

    • Teresa says:

      Bybee: Hmm…I’m not sure I could choose between Austen and Eliot. Austen is comfort reading of the sort I couldn’t do without, but Eliot provokes my thinking more.

  12. Pingback: The Mill on the Floss (1978) | Old Old Films

  13. Lauren says:

    This is on my to-read list, and I can’t wait to start it. I’m reading Middlemarch right now, and I love it. It’s definitely a door-stopper thick book , but I’m half way through it and haven’t been bored once. Sometimes long books can have places where the plot lags. But ,so far, not Middlemarch. What can I say? Eliot is an amazing writer.

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