The novel The Mill on the Floss, written by George Eliot and published in 1860, covers about fifteen years and recounts the lives of brother and sister Tom and Maggie Tulliver, beginning in the early 1830s. It starts with Maggie and Tom Tulliver as children in the fictional town of St. Ogg along the equally fictitional Floss River and centers on their relationship.
While Maggie seeks the approval of her parents and adores Tom, she is also intelligent, errant, outspoken, and passionate, which leads to conflicts with her authoritarian parents and her matter-of-fact, reserved, and strict brother, Tom.
Their father, Mr. Tulliver, is the owner of a mill and engaged in a legal battle with Mr. Wakem over the water rights of the Floss River. Mr. Tulliver loses the case and legal ownership of the mill, ruining the family’s finances. Tom, through help from a friend, Bob Jakin, pays off the debts incurred by his father’s lawsuit and resumes ownership of the mill just before Mr. Tulliver dies of a stroke.
Maggie becomes friends with Philip Wakem, the hunchbacked son of Mr. Tulliver’s arch-enemy, Mr. Wakem. Tom discovers the relationship and threatens to tell their father if Maggie does not end it. In the meantime, Philip had fallen in love with Maggie and is hurt when she leaves, ending their friendship.
After a two-year hiatus, Maggie comes back to St. Ogg to visit her cousin Lucy Deane and Lucy’s fiancé, Stephen Guest. Maggie also rekindles her friendship with Philip. While Philip longs to marry Maggie, Maggie falls in love with Stephen, and the two of them put themselves in a compromising situation that devastates Lucy, mortifies Tom, and outrages the town of St. Ogg, leaving only Philip open to continuing his relationship with Maggie.
Sudden flooding of the Floss River traps Tom at the mill. Maggie, knowing he will drown unless rescued, gets into a boat to save him. Tom and Maggie settle their differences as they board the ship and attempt to row to safety. The river is too strong, however, and the current takes them to a watery grave.
The Mill on the Floss is an almost autobiographical book by George Eliot, who was herself a social outcast for living with a married man. Eliot speaks of the rivers in an almost reverent way as they meander by the water wheel of the mill. In her excellent hands, the rivers become characters in the book.
Eliot loved the moisture the river gave off, the ducks swimming, and the sailboat masts floating on the river’s calm waves. She mentions how beautiful the river is, with its dark changing wavelets, and how it is her living companion as she soaks in the sights of the willow trees lining its banks and the stone bridge she sees through threatening clouds. The rivers are at once comforting, serene, and calming, and threatening and dark, which foreshadows the climax of the book.
Just by the red-roofed town, the tributary Ripple flows with a lively current into the Floss. How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, calm voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving. I remember those large dipping willows. I remember the stone bridge.
And this is Dorlcote Mill. I must stand a minute or two here on the bridge and look at it, though the clouds are threatening, and it is far on in the afternoon. Even in this leafless time of departing February, it is pleasant to look at,—perhaps the chill, damp season adds a charm to the trimly kept, comfortable dwelling-house, as old as the elms and chestnuts that shelter it from the northern blast.
The rush of the water and the booming of the mill bring a dreamy deafness, which seems to heighten the peacefulness of the scene. They are like a great curtain of sound, shutting one out from the world beyond. And now there is the thunder of the huge covered wagon coming home with sacks of grain.
Now I can turn my eyes toward the mill again, and watch the unresting wheel sending out its diamond jets of water.