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 forgive injury. Robust and vigorous, he despises weakness in others. As a youth, he insults Philip Wakem by drawing attention to the boy’s physical disability. When Maggie demeans, as Tom mistakenly believes, the good name of the Tulliver family through her foreshortened “elopement” with Stephen Guest, he scorns her as a pariah. Nevertheless, his tempestuous nature is also capable of generosity. To redeem his father’s good name and restore Dorlcote Mill to the family, he disciplines himself to work purposefully. To this end, he sacrifices his high spirits and love of strenuous excitement, indeed any opportunities for courtship and marriage. He dies as he had lived and labored, the provider of the Tulliver family.
Maggie, many of whose sprightly qualities are drawn from Eliot’s memories of her own childhood, is psychologically the more complex character. Whereas Tom is sturdily masculine, Maggie is sensitive, introspective, and tenderly feminine. Quick to tears—to the modern reader perhaps too effusive in her emotions—she cannot control her sensibilities, just as her brother...
(This entire section contains 1097 words.)
cannot keep his temper. As a youngster, she has the qualities of a tomboy. She is energetic and, unlike the typical Victorian girl, fights for her place in the world. Intelligent, diligent, earnest, she would have made better use of Mr. Stelling’s classical schooling than her brother, but girls of her time rarely had the opportunity to advance in education. Therefore, she must content herself, although secretively restive, with the narrow place Victorian society allows for girls of her class. Like Dorothea Brooke inMiddlemarch (1871-1872), she is attracted to a scholarly but fragile lover, Philip. Her sympathetic nature completes what is lacking in the young man’s disposition—courage and self-esteem—and he, in turn, offers her a sense of artistic dedication for which she yearns.
Some astute critics of The Mill on the Floss have objected to Maggie’s other suitor, Stephen Guest, who is Lucy Deane’s fiancé. The impetuous Stephen would have been a satisfactory mate for Lucy, a more typical Victorian heroine, sweet but passive. According to Sir Leslie Stephen, Maggie, in her passion for Lucy’s betrothed, throws herself away upon a “low creature.” His daughter, Virginia Woolf, repeated Sir Leslie’s judgment in describing Stephen’s “coarseness.” Later views of the character did not support such hostile interpretations, considering Stephen neither low nor coarse but instead an ardent lover who rouses a sexual response in Maggie that she does not feel for Philip. Maggie’s torment is to be torn between her promises to Philip (who certainly loves and needs her) and her deeper feelings for Stephen. She senses the call of duty and propriety but also feels the sweep of wild emotion. When she masters her feelings and returns to Philip, she betrays her needs as a woman.
For the same reason that some critics refuse to accept Maggie as a mature woman with normal sexual responses, some readers are troubled by the apparent change in her character as she grows from child to adult. The portrait of Maggie the girl is so vital, charming, and convincing that readers may wish to cherish her youthful image, but Maggie the woman does not really change. Within the prudish conventions of the Victorian novel, Eliot can only suggest her heroine’s psychological and moral development. Nevertheless, she conveys a sense of Maggie’s greater sexual vulnerability with the description of her “highly strung, hungry nature.” When Maggie renounces Stephen, she renounces her own happiness. From that point, her tragedy is inevitable. Her mother, Lucy, and Philip have faith in her to the last, but the provincial gossips of St. Ogg’s cast her off, and her beloved brother rejects her. Nevertheless, Maggie characteristically determines, “I must not, cannot seek my own happiness by sacrificing others.” The floodwaters that carry Maggie and her brother downstream cleanse their guilt and unite them as when they were innocent children. Finally, Eliot tells us, they are “not divided.”