Thursday, March 21, 2013

Progress versus Tradition

The Mill on the Floss: A Norton Critical Edition
The Mill on the Floss
by George Eliot

"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." - George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

What a pleasure it is to read the novels of George Eliot. The sheer intelligence of the author shines on every page. In this, her second novel following closely after Adam Bede, she draws on her own experience to create a world of characters surrounding her hero & heroine, Tom and Maggie Tulliver.
The story develops at a leisurely pace with the first two books devoted to the childhood of Maggie and Tom. As Tom goes off to be tutored, Maggie must stay at home and their lives slowly diverge until in subsequent books, as their father's world disintegrates in debt, they are found on opposite sides with their filial love tested again and again. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the complexity of these characters as created by Eliot. Tom distinguishes himself at the trading firm of his Uncle Deane and matures into a confident and courageous young man, repaying the debts of his father. Yet, his character is flawed in both his inflexibility and his inability to appreciate the needs of his sister Maggie. Maggie, who is significantly more intelligent than Tom, and self-taught, has developed from a somewhat over-emotional young girl into a sort of Christian ascetic based on her reading of Thomas a Kempis. She is forbidden friendship with Philip Waken, the son of the lawyer who bought her father's mill, and is prevented from developing the potential that is central to her character. 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. 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.
Though Maggie is deeply intelligent and passionate and has clearly defined desires, she finds fulfilling these desires nearly impossible. The denouement of the novel leads it down the path of the tragic side of life if not true tragedy, but the complexity of the characters and realism of the world in which they live continues to impress.

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