(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The highest purpose of The Mill on the Floss, as in all Eliot’s novels, was to inspire sympathetic understanding for people in the lower classes and with a lower level of education, with different outlooks, temperaments, and backgrounds in general. Only with such understanding, Eliot believed, could the social problems of intolerance and prejudice—and all the injustices that result from them—begin to be resolved. She sets about achieving this purpose first of all in her characterizations. She gives the reader in minute social and psychological detail the thoughts and motivations of a panoply of different characters, from the coldly intellectual Lawyer Wakem (who nevertheless has a meltingly tender love for his son) to the irascible miller Mr. Tulliver, and from the narrow and simple Mrs. Tulliver to the warmly intelligent and passionate Maggie. This range of characters is typical of Eliot’s novels, and it has the underlying effects of expressing the fullness of all individualities and of pressing upon readers the idea that all of them, including girls and women, deserve respect, liberty, and understanding.

This literary technique of rounded characterization is part of the nineteenth century style of literary realism, a style that gives readers vivid and concrete portraits of characters, societies, and locales through the use of minute detail and analysis. Eliot’s realism is the most developed of the Victorian era, and she uses the technique not only to inspire sympathy but also to model it. Her narrator is broadly tolerant and fair to every character she presents in detail, so that if readers are inclined to be angry at Tom for his severity toward Maggie (for example), that inclination is balanced by the narrator’s detailed and sympathetic presentation of his perspective. In order to demonstrate the harmful consequences of intolerance, Eliot populates her novel...

(The entire section is 773 words.)