Study Guide

The Mill on the Floss

by George Eliot

The Mill on the Floss Themes

Themes

Ordinary People's Lives
At the time of its publication, The Mill on the Floss received critical attention, both good and bad, because it was one of the first novels to consider the lives and problems of middle-class English country people and to present their lives in great detail. Some readers of the time found this fascinating; others were repelled by the amount of time Eliot spent exploring the lives of "common" people. For example, Leslie Stephen, writing in Cornhill Magazine in 1881, wrote that no other writer had so clearly presented "the essential characteristics [of quiet English country life]" and that she "has shown certain aspects of a vanishing social phase with a power and delicacy unsurpassed." On the other hand, W. L. Collins, writing in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1860, wrote that the novel was drawn "from the worst aspect of the money-making middle class—their narrow-minded complacent selfishness, their money-worship, their petty schemes and jealousies."

What all critics agreed on, however, was that Eliot drew a very accurate portrait of middle-class country people. No one in the book is wealthy, with the exception of Lawyer Wakem and Mr. Guest, and the characters' money is derived from their own work, not passed down from upper-class parents. Bob Jakin, the lower-class packman, is vividly portrayed, largely through his entertaining dialogue, but also through his generosity. When Eliot describes the Tullivers sitting down to tea or a conference of all the aunts and uncles, she shows them interacting and lets readers hear their conversation, which is presented with great wit and accuracy and sums them up by noting:

There were particular ways of doing everything in [the Dodson] family: particular ways of bleaching the linen, of making the cowslip wine, curing the hams, and keeping the bottled gooseberries. …Funerals were always conducted with peculiar propriety in the Dodson family: the hatbands were never of a blue shade, the gloves never split at the thumb, everybody was a mourner who ought to be, and there were always scarfs for the bearers. …A female Dodson, when in 'strange' houses, always ate dry bread with her tea, and declined any sort of preserves, having no confidence in the butter, and thinking that the preserves had already begun to ferment for want of the sugar and boiling.

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(The entire section is 983 words.)