“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.