The Mill on the Floss
by George Eliot
“In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt: it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love and that did not belong to them. And if life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie? Nothing but poverty and the companionship of her mother’s narrow griefs—perhaps of her father’s heart-cutting childish dependence. There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth, when the soul is made up of wants, and has no long memories, no super-added life in the life of others; though we who look on think lightly of such premature despair, as if our vision of the future lightened the blind sufferer’s present.” ― George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss was published on this day in 1860. 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. Early in Book I, after having argued bitterly over the death of some pet rabbits, Tom and Maggie make up by going fishing on the Floss. They feel that the morning, the river and their childhood will last forever, the Eagle swooping in the sky and the Great Ash anchoring the bank. Yes and no, says Eliot's narrator as she relates here:
"Life did change for Tom and Maggie; and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it,—if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass; the same hips and haws on the autumn's hedgerows; the same redbreasts that we used to call “God's birds,” because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?"
Tom goes off to be tutored and Maggie must stay at home, so their lives slowly diverge until in subsequent books, as their father's world disintegrates in debt, they are found on opposite sides with both their filial love and love of "the earth" 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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