The Mill on the Floss

by George Eliot

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How does the novel The Mill on the Floss represent the era, the 19th Century/Victorian era?

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The Mill on the Floss is very much a representative Victorian novel: it is plot driven, it includes realistic descriptions of Victorian life, it is sentimental, and it has a melodramatic ending that culminates in death. It also depicts the plight of a strong, intelligent heroine who is constrained and oppressed by the gender norms of her era.

Victorian novels depended on plot and The Mill on the Floss doesn't fail in that regard. Events keep happening and the pages keep turning as feuds simmer, the Tullivers are thrown on hard times, Maggie is pursued by suitors, and life keeps on flowing like the river that pushes the turning mill wheel.

The sensitive Maggie feels deeply, and has to turn the anger at her constricted life inward, for example, by pretending to be the Biblical Jael and hammering nails meant to be tent pegs into her doll's head. There is sentiment in the love the sensitive but hunchbacked Phillip feels for Maggie, and there is pathos in their division because of family feuding.

In the end, Tom and Maggie, brother and sister, drown dramatically in the raging river.

Perhaps, more than anything, the novel reflects Victorian gender norms, and the way they constrict the high-spirited and intelligent Maggie's life. She is smarter than Tom, but he, as the male, gets more opportunities; he learns early on to put Maggie down for being a girl and hence inferior. Maggie has few options but love and marriage and little outlet for her talents, hemmed in as she is by the demands of gender and family. George Eliot, who herself broke away from gender expectations to live with a man, George Lewes, without marriage, clearly sympathizes with the hypocrisy and injustice of condemning Maggie for accidentally having to spend a night with Stephen. She helps makes the alert reader aware of what women were up against in her society.

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Enotes provides a great summary of the historical connections possible in this novel.  I have included the link below, but let me give you a quick overview first.

Much of the conflict in this novel centers around what was "accepted" by society and what was important to the individual.  In the Victorian Era, much relied on appearance, social heirarchy, and social rules.  Tom represents a close adherence to these rules.  He behaves as a man "should", in control and confident in his own power.  Maggie, on the hand, challenges the social standards, being more boisterous and opinionated than a girl had any right to be. 

The relationship between Stephen and Maggie also demonstrates the strain of social standards at the time.  Stephen wants Maggie to run away with him.  Being a man, he has more freedom than any woman.  He does not recognize how dangerous it would be for Maggie to do what he is asking - he isn't conscious of how much more damaging it was for a woman to enter into such a relationship.  Maggie does, however, which is why she refuses him.

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