Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Mill on the Floss narrates the struggles of a girl and her family in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign over England. At that time, women’s roles were strictly limited to housework and child rearing, and so girls—especially girls of Maggie’s social class—were given only rudimentary educations. Maggie’s story constitutes a protest against this kind of restriction; the reader is shown from the start that Maggie possesses a rich imagination and a keen mind but is supplied with no challenges or outlets for them. As a girl, she chafes constantly against the restrictions that are imposed upon her, preferring to read any books she can get her hands on to sewing her sampler, and always dirtying her clothes and disarranging her hair in her efforts to keep up with Tom. Worse, her sensitive and affectionate nature makes extremely painful to her the disapproval her extravagant flights of imagination, impatient desires, and “wild” behavior draw upon her from her mother, and especially from Tom, whom she adores. As a young woman, she achieves a certain serenity, despite her limiting occupation as a sewing teacher in a girls’ school, but her desire for a wider life erupts into love for Stephen Guest, and the old conflict between passion and duty becomes very serious.
The novel presents Maggie’s life in three periods: as a child of nine, as a girl of fourteen, and finally as a young woman of nineteen. In each period, the conflicts...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*English Midlands. Central region of England. The novel is set in what seems like an idyllic country setting, modeled on Warwickshire, in the English Midlands, where George Eliot grew up as the child Mary Ann Evans. Eliot’s protagonist, Maggie Tulliver, and her brother Tom (Evans had a beloved brother named Isaac) love the river and the countryside. There they pick flowers, fish in the Round Pond, and romp with their dog Yap. Eliot suggests that human beings are nurtured by living close to nature, and that people are, in many important ways, a part of nature: Eliot often uses analogies drawn from nature, as in the comparison of Tom and Maggie to friendly ponies shaking their manes at each other.
In the novel, nature is not an entirely benign force. The reader sees conflicts arising between Maggie and Tom, owing to their different dispositions and exacerbated by the misogynist climate of the times. Nature can also be the source of destruction, as seen in the flood that kills Maggie and Tom. In introducing the Floss River into the landscape, Eliot made one alteration to her geographical model. She needed a tidal river to make the flood possible. The configuration of the river and the flood basin suggests the Trent River in Lincolnshire.
Tulliver home. The precise setting is drawn from Eliot’s childhood memories of growing up in Griff House, on the Arbury estate, where her...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Mill on the Floss takes up in more detail an issue begun in Eliot’s first two novels: society’s too strict judgments of women, and especially of women’s passions. This novel is the first work of Eliot’s to trace the development of an intelligent and passionate woman from childhood. It therefore depicts clearly the damage that social restrictions based on gender can inflict from the first years of a girl’s life. Because it follows its protagonist from childhood forward, and because of the autobiographical aspect, The Mill on the Floss is often compared to author Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850). Dickens’ novel, however, brings its little boy hero not to tragic death, but to manhood and happy marriage. Eliot’s novel demonstrates by comparison, especially in its ending, how much more damaging girls’ lives were at that time.
The novel was written shortly after the first women’s college was founded (1848) and during the period when women were beginning to demand the right to vote and to participate in public affairs in general. Placed in this context, it is apparent that such portraits of girls’ and women’s lives, in the kind of realistic detail that was Eliot’s supreme achievement, were invaluable contributions to the debate over what was called at the time “the Woman Question.” Because Maggie, the heroine of the novel, is denied any valuable education or capacity to determine her own life,...
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Schools run by the state did not exist in England until 1870. Before that time, parents could send their children to any of four different types of school: private, endowed, church, and ragged. Anyone could open a private school, and no particular qualifications were required, so these schools varied greatly depending on the skill of the teachers. In The Mill on the Floss, the Reverend Stelling's school is a private arrangement, and as Eliot shows, Stelling is obviously not a very gifted teacher. Endowed schools were provided money by wealthy people, often as charity ventures and usually had more supervision of teachers. The Church of England, as well as other religious groups, also ran schools. Ragged schools were established by the Ragged School Union, founded in 1844, to educate the poor.
Women often did not attend school, but those in the wealthier classes had private governesses who schooled them in ladylike "accomplishments" such as painting, drawing, and music.
Roles of Women
In the mid-nineteenth century, women were expected to marry and have children. Because they were not allowed to enter any jobs other than menial ones, they were dependent upon either their parents or husbands for money. In addition, because money and property were inherited only through males, it was almost impossible for a woman to be single and financially independent even if she had wealthy parents, because her brothers...
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A notable feature of Eliot's writing is her use of local dialect in dialogue to express her characters' educational and social class. For example, Mr. Tulliver tells his wife, "What I want is to give Tom a good eddication. …I should like Tom to be a bit of a scholard, so as he might be up to the tricks o' these fellows as talk fine and write with a flourish." Mr. Riley, who is an auctioneer and somewhat better educated, does not use dialect when he tells Tulliver, "There's no greater advantage you can give him than a good education. Not that a man can't be an excellent miller and farmer, and a shrewd sensible fellow into the bargain, without much help from the schoolmaster."
Bob Jakin, who is of an even lower class than the Tullivers, uses more marked dialect; for example, when he is discussing a reward he received for putting out a fire, he says, "It was a fire i' Torry's mill, an' I doused it, else it 'ud ha' set th' oil alight; an th' genelman gen me ten suvreigns—he gen me 'em himself last week."
Mrs. Tulliver uses dialect when she says that Maggie seems crazy or stupid, because when she sends Maggie upstairs to get anything, "She forgets what she's gone for, an' perhaps 'ull sit on the floor i' the sunshine an' plait her hair an' sing to herself like a Bedlam creatur.'"
However, Eliot shows the reader that Maggie is actually acutely intelligent. Maggie never uses dialect, even in the beginning of the...
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Compare and Contrast
1860: Most professions are closed to women, who are expected to marry and have children. Those in the poorer classes must do menial labor, and any money they make is legally their husbands' property.
Today: Women can choose almost any career they desire, including professions such as law and medicine; they can join the armed forces and can expect to see combat; and they are free to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, such as business, construction, and many others.
1860: Women are given less education than men, or are educated in vastly different subject areas than men, and are not allowed to attend universities.
Today: Women and men have equal educational opportunities.
1860: Women do not have the right to vote.
Today: The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was passed in 1920.
1860: When a woman marries, all her property becomes her husband's, and in her wedding vows, she must promise to obey her husband in all things.
Today: Women retain legal access to their own property after marriage, and the word "obey" is not a requirement in wedding vows.
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Topics for Further Study
In the book, Maggie is torn between obeying her brother's often selfish wishes and choosing her own happiness. Which do you think is more important: obeying the wishes of parents and family or choosing your own life, even when they disagree with it? If your parents or brother threatened to disown you because of a choice you made, what would you do?
Research the use of water-powered mills, like the one in the book, to grind grain. When were such mills invented? How did they work? When did their use begin to fade, and why?
In the book, Maggie is highly intelligent, yet instead of being considered smart, she is viewed as "unnatural" by her father and others. How have attitudes toward women's education and intelligence changed over the years since 1860?
Tom makes money by investing in goods, which a sailor then sells on his voyages overseas. Investigate seafaring trade practices of the mid-1800s. Was this sort of investment common? Was it risky or a sure thing for Tom to do this?
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The Mill on the Floss was adapted to film in a Carnival Films production, in association with UGC D.A. International and Canal Plus. It was produced by Brian Eastman and directed by Graham Theakston. The film starred Emily Watson as Maggie, Ifan Meredith as Tom, James Frain as Philip Wakem, and James Weber-Brown as Stephen Guest.
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What Do I Read Next?
Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) is a story of alienation and betrayal that nevertheless has comedic elements.
Adam Bede, which was hugely successful when Eliot published it in 1859, tells the story of Hetty Sorrel—a young woman who is seduced, has a baby, and neglects it so that it dies—and of Adam Bede, who loves her.
Middlemarch (1872), widely considered Eliot's most ambitious work, presents a clash between individuals' aspirations and the limitations imposed on them by society.
Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) tells the story of Daniel, an early Jewish activist in England.
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) tells the story of an orphan girl who becomes a governess in a mysterious household.
In Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), a rural woman is seduced by an unworthy man and is subsequently abandoned by her husband.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Allen, Walter, "Eliot, George," in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Brownell, W. C., "George Eliot," in Victorian Prose Masters: Thackeray—Carlyle—George Eliot—Matthew Arnold— Ruskin—George Meredith, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901, pp. 99-145.
Collins, W. L., "A Review of The Mill on the Floss," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, May 1860, pp. 611-23.
Cooper, Lettice, "George Eliot," in British Writers, Vol. 5, British Council, 1982, pp. 187-201.
Levy, Emanuel, "The Mill on the Floss," Movie review, in Variety, June 2, 1997, p. 55.
Luyster, I. M., “The Eliot Novels," in Christian Examiner, March 1861, pp. 227-51.
Mugglestone, Lynda, "Grammatical Fair Ones: Women, Men, and Attitudes to Language in the Novels of George Eliot," in Review of English Studies, February 1995, p. 11.
"A Review of The Mill on the Floss," in Saturday Review (London), April 14, 1860, pp. 470-71.
Stephen, Leslie, "George Eliot," in Cornhill Magazine, February 1881, pp. 152-68.
Szirotny, June Skye, "Maggie Tulliver's Sad Sacrifice: Confusing but Not Confused," in Studies in the Novel, Summer 1996, p. 178.
Tufel, Alice L., "A Hundred Conflicting Shades: The Divided Passions of George Eliot," in...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ashton, Rosemary. “The Mill on the Floss”: A Natural History. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A book-length study useful to beginners. Discusses the novel in relation to Eliot’s life, the historical context, natural history, and literary influences. Includes an annotated bibliography.
Barrett, Dorothea. “Demonism, Feminism, and Incest in The Mill on the Floss.” In Vocation and Desire: George Eliot’s Heroines. New York: Routledge, 1989. Argues that three elements discussed separately by previous critics work together in The Mill on the Floss. Emphasizes a positive view of the novel’s “passionate idealism.”
Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A reassessment of Eliot’s fiction that refutes other feminist criticisms. Asserts that Maggie Tulliver’s passion represents her desire for knowledge and freedom as well as sexual love, and that Eliot challenged the boundaries of women’s role in Victorian society. Contains an extensive bibliography.
Carroll, David. “The Mill on the Floss: Growing Up in St. Ogg’s.” In George Eliot and the Conflict of Interpretations: A Reading of the Novels. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Considers the problem of reading the novel as two kinds of narrative: a realistic fiction...
(The entire section is 551 words.)