Shortly after George Eliot published Adam Bede in 1858, she began to work on a new novel under the tentative title “Sister Maggie.” As the book took shape, she considered other possible titles—“The House of Tulliver,” “The Tulliver Family,” “The Tullivers”—before her editor suggested The Mill on the Floss, a title she approved with some reservations. She objected, initially, to the title because the “mill is not strictly on the Floss, being on its small tributary” and because the title “is of rather laborious utterance.” Having voiced her usual concern for precise details and delicacy of style, she agreed that the new title was “the only alternate so far as we can see.” On March 21, 1860, she completed the book then vacationed in Rome with her husband, George Henry Lewes, and awaited the news of the book’s reception, which proved to be almost wholly favorable. Eliot reported with satisfaction, “From all we can gather, the votes are rather on the side of ’The Mill’ as a better book than ’Adam.’”
The Mill on the Floss is certainly the more poignant novel of the two. Although both fictions have as their setting the Warwickshire background that Eliot remembered from her childhood, The Mill on the Floss is less genially picturesque and more concerned with psychological truth. Adam Bede concludes with a happy marriage for Adam and Dinah, probably contrary to the author’s best artistic judgment. Tom and Maggie Tulliver, however, die in the flood, their fate unmitigated by sentimentality. Indeed, much of the novel’s power derives from the consistent play of tragic forces that appear early and unify the whole work.
As a boy, Tom entrusts his pet rabbits to his sister Maggie’s care. She is preoccupied and allows the creatures to die. Despite her tearful protestations, Tom upbraids her bitterly but finally forgives her. This childhood pattern of close sibling affection, deep hurt and estrangement, and reconciliation determines the structural pattern of the novel. Although Henry James admired the design of The Mill on the Floss, he criticized the conclusion for its melodrama. As a matter of fact, the conclusion is implicit in the story from the beginning. The flood that carries the brother and sister to their doom is not an accidental catastrophe. Rather, it is symbolic of the tide that sweeps away two passionate souls divided in conflict yet united by the closest bonds of affection.
Tom Tulliver, like his father, has a tenacious will that is not always under control of his reason. Even as a child, he is fiercely although honorably competitive. He is slow to...
(The entire section is 1097 words.)