The Mill on the Floss (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

George Eliot


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot

The following entry presents criticism of Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss (1860). See also Felix Holt, the Radical Criticism, Adam Bede Criticism, The Lifted Veil Criticism, and George Eliot Poetry Criticism.

The Mill on the Floss is George Eliot's second novel and her most autobiographical work of fiction. It tells the story of Maggie Tulliver, detailing her relationship with her brother Tom and her inability to conform to the rigidly traditional society in which she lives. Commentary on The Mill on the Floss has focused on its conclusion—which many critics consider abrupt—and on its complex characterizations and sociological insights.

Biographical Information

In its portrayal of the childhood, adolescence, and young womanhood of Maggie Tulliver, The Mill on the Floss is closely identified with Eliot herself—intellectually gifted, impulsive and passionate by nature, and living in a familial and social setting that did not value these qualities in her. In particular, her focus on her protagonist's relationship with a beloved but tyrannical and disapproving older brother closely mirrors Eliot's own relationship with her brother: Maggie and Tom Tulliver are given the same birthdates as Eliot and her brother, who for twenty years spurned Eliot while she lived with the married philosopher and essayist George Henry Lewes. It was not until Lewes died and Eliot married that the rift with her brother was mended. Maggie's need for Tom's love and acceptance has often been compared to Eliot's desire for her brother's acceptance; Barbara Hardy asserts: "As she dwells on the relationship between a brother and sister we can discern an understandable and undisfiguring nostalgia; a need to explain and justify in concretely imagined terms; and the falsifying pressures of a wish-fulfilling reconciliation."

Plot and Major Characters

Written in seven books, The Mill on the Floss chronicles Maggie and Tom Tulliver's lives from childhood to young adulthood. Books I and II concentrate on Maggie's childhood, establishing her impulsive temperament and her dependence on Tom. Eliot recounts several episodes between brother and sister, and, as John Hagan has noted, "in nearly every one … there emerges a sequence of actions which dramatizes Maggie's hunger for Tom's love, the frustration of that hunger, her rebellion, and the pleasure she receives from reconciliation." This section has been described as one of the most sympathetic and psychologically acute literary portrayals of girlhood in English literature. In the following books, the Tulliver family becomes impoverished and Maggie grows increasingly estranged from her father and brother. She becomes involved with the son of the man who bankrupted her father, and is also attracted to another man who is engaged to marry her cousin. On learning of these relationships, Tom turns Maggie out of his house and refuses to speak to her. Maggie's subsequent life is spent in service as a governess and in struggle with temptation and self-renunciation. As George Levine has noted, she ultimately submits herself "to the higher responsibility despite the loss of the possibility of self-fulfillment." Just as she offers up a prayer to the "Unseen Pity," the river begins to rise, and she sees Tom being swept away by the flood. Maggie rushes to Tom's rescue, and they drown in each other's arms, fulfilling the novel's epitaph, "In death they were not divided."

Major Themes

Critics assert that Maggie's need for love and acceptance is her underlying motivation throughout The Mill on the Floss, and the conflicts that arise in the novel often stem from her frustrated attempts at gaining this acceptance. Alan Bellringer has commented, "The two main themes of the novel, growing up and falling in love, lend themselves to amusement, but it is stunted growth and frustrated love that are emphasized." Commentators have often focused on the constant rejection of Maggie's talents and mannerisms by her family and society. Even the cultural norms of her community deny her intellectual and spiritual growth, according to Elizabeth Ermarth, "They are norms according to which she is an inferior, dependent creature who will never go far in anything, and which consequently are a denial of her full humanity."

Critical Reception

Commentators have varied in their analyses of The Mill on the Floss. Many critics concur with U. C. Knoepflmacher's assessment of the novel's conclusion as "at best pathetic, for it asks us to believe that the muddy waters of the Floss have briefly restored an Eden that never existed," but others defend the ending as appropriate and inevitable, consistent with the details of the plot and the novel's themes. The autobiographical nature of The Mill on the Floss has been deemed aesthetically damaging by some critics because, they charge, it led Eliot to place disproportionate emphasis on the first two books. However, Bernard J. Paris contends "that the novel's weaknesses are closely related to its strengths, for if George Eliot had not been so intimately identified with Maggie she could hardly have given us a portrait of such subtlety and interest." Critics consistently praise Eliot's touching portrayal of Maggie Tulliver's childhood; the novelist Henry James stated in an early review of the novel, "English novels abound in pictures of childhood; but I know of none more truthful and touching than the early pages of this work."

George Eliot (letter date 1860)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A letter to John Blackwood on July 9, 1860, in The George Eliot Letters, Vol. III: 1859-1861, edited by Gordon S. Haight, Yale University Press, 1954, pp. 317-18.

[In the following letter to her publisher, Eliot responds to Edward Bulwer-Lytton's criticism of The Mill on the Floss.]

My dear Sir

I return Sir Edward's critical letter, which I have read with much interest. On two points I recognize the justice of his criticism. First, that Maggie is made to appear too passive in the scene of quarrel in the Red Deeps. If my book were still in MS., I should—now that the defect is suggested to me—alter, or rather expand that scene. Secondly, that the tragedy is not adequately prepared. This is a defect which I felt even while writing the third volume, and have felt ever since the MS. left me. The "epische Breite" into which I was beguiled by love of my subject in the two first volumes, caused a want of proportionate fullness in the treatment of the third, which I shall always regret.

The other chief point of criticism—Maggie's position towards Stephen—is too vital a part of my whole conception and purpose for me to be converted to the condemnation of it. If I am wrong there—if I did not really know what my heroine would feel and do under the circumstances in which I deliberately placed her, I ought not to have written this book at all, but quite a...

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John Blackwood (letter date 1860)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A letter to George Eliot on March 20, 1860, in The George Eliot Letters, Vol. III: 1859-1861, edited by Gordon S. Haight, Yale University Press, 1954, pp. 276-77.

[In the following letter written to Eliot, her publisher praises the manuscript of The Mill on the Floss.]

My Dear Madam

Your second last chapter arrived safely today and will go out in proof to you along with this. I must write you a line of congratulation without waiting for the last chapter, which I hope to see on Thursday morning. The Mill on the Floss is safe for immortality.

Of course in spite of Lewes' strict injunctions I fastened upon these two last chapters the moment I secured them. Nothing short of a point of honour would have restrained me.

Bob Jakin's attempt to convey his sympathy to Maggie is beyond price. Never surely were pathos and exquisite humour more beautifully combined. Bob is the prince of packmen and a gentleman. In his reply to Dr. Kenn he will have the ardent sympathy of every one who has groaned under the inforced idleness of a dull sermon, and who has not?

I do not envy the man who can read the scene where Lucy appears and falls on Maggie's neck without being affected to tears. It is overpowering and touching and beautiful and is moreover exactly what was wanted to relieve the reader's feelings as well as Maggie's. The skill too with which it is indicated that dear Lucy's is a sorrow which may not be without hope like poor Maggie's is very fine.

I early foresaw that good Dr. Kenn would play a part and he comes in most happily. The illustration that his effort to put Maggie's character in the right light was as hopeless as a struggle to change the shape of bonnets made me burst out laughing. Aunt Glegg is great. Several times in reading these last chapters I have found myself start from my seat and walk to the Major's adjoining room exclaiming "By God she is a wonderful woman." The exclamation was irreverent, quite superfluous, and has a rude sound but I felt impelled to speak and the emphasis conveyed volumes of heartfelt admiration, so I hope to be excused.

I await with trembling impatience the Catastrophe.

ever yours truly

John Blackwood.

Henry James (essay date 1866)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Novels of George Eliot," in George Eliot and Her Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews, edited by John Holmstrom and Laurence Lerner, Barnes & Noble, 1966, pp. 42-4.

[James was an American novelist, short story writer, critic, and essayist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Regarded as one of the greatest novelists of the English language, he is also admired as a lucid and insightful critic. In this article, first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, James offers an early and largely favorable review of The Mill on the Floss.]

… Of the four English studies, The Mill on the Floss seems to me to have most...

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Jerome Thale (essay date 1959)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Social View: The Mill on the Floss," in The Novels of George Eliot, Columbia University Press, 1959, pp. 36-57.

[In the following excerpt, Thale analyzes The Mill on the Floss as a sociological study.]

The Mill on the Floss has been most often remembered as the idyl of Tom and Maggie Tulliver's early years; we recall the account of Maggie's enthusiasm and warmth, the powerful figure of Mr. Tulliver, and the remarkable gallery of aunts and uncles. We are inclined to think of The Mill on the Floss as among the very best of Victorian novels, with the characteristic defect of the type, imperfect...

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George Levine (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Intelligence as Deception: The Mill on the Floss," in PMLA, Vol. LXXX, September, 1965, pp. 402-09.

[In the essay below, Levine explores unity of intellect and emotion as the theme of The Mill on the Floss.]

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Bernard J. Paris (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Inner Conflicts of Maggie Tulliver: A Horneyan Analysis," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1969, pp. 166-99.

[In the following essay, Paris examines the psychology of the character of Maggie Tulliver using Karen Horney's theories of neurosis.]


In The Great Tradition [1950] F. R. Leavis argues that Maggie Tulliver's "emotional and spiritual stresses, her exaltations and renunciations, exhibit… all the marks of immaturity," but that George Eliot, because her own needs or hungers lead her to over-identify with Maggie, has little awareness of the inadequacy of her heroine's solutions:


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Barbara Hardy (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mill on the Floss," in Particularities: Readings in George Eliot, Ohio University Press, 1983, pp. 58-74.

[In the following essay, first published in 1970 in her Critical Essays on George Eliot, Hardy explores the conclusion of The Mill on the Floss as an example of authorial fantasy.]

I take it that The Mill on the Floss is the novel most visibly close to George Eliot's life. As in many novels loosely classed as autobiographical, this closeness to life has advantages and disadvantages, and shows itself in various ways. It creates the loving and seemingly accurate chronicle of actual events; the successfully externalized...

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U. C. Knoepflmacher (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Intrusion of Tragedy: The Ordeal of Richard Fever el and The Mill on the Floss," in Laughter & Despair: Readings in Ten Novels of the Victorian Era, University of California Press, 1971, pp. 109-35.

[In this excerpt, Knoepflmacher compares Eliot's The Mill on the Floss to George Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, noting that these novels do not effectively negotiate the split between romance and realism.]

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: A History of Father and Son (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) are shaped by a vision of change and disorder which, though inherent also in the comedy...

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John Hagan (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Reinterpretation of The Mill on the Floss," in PMLA, Vol. 87, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 53-63.

[In the following essay, Hagan challenges the conclusions drawn by several earlier critics, maintaining that the relationship between Maggie Tulliver, her brother Tom, and by extension their father, is the main concern of The Mill on the Floss.]

The salient fact about the most significant and representative of the recent interpretations of The Mill on the Floss is the extent to which they have become polarized, with William R. Steinhoff and Jerome Thale exemplifying one kind of reading and Bernard J. Paris, Reva Stump, and George Levine the other...

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Elizabeth Ermarth (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Maggie Tulliver's Long Suicide," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, pp. 587-601.

[Here, Ermarth explores the influence of restrictive societal norms on the character of Maggie Tulliver.]

George Eliot makes it clear in The Mill on the Floss that the social norms of St. Oggs exert a heavy influence on Maggie's development. This fact has long been obvious but less obvious, perhaps, is that fact that the norms Maggie struggles with are sexist. They are norms according to which she is an inferior, dependent creature who will never go far in anything, and which consequently are a denial of her full humanity. Years of...

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Nina Auerbach (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Power of Hunger: Demonism and Maggie Tulliver," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 2, September, 1975, pp. 150-71.

[In the following essay, Auerbach analyzes The Mill on the Floss as a Gothic romance, noting that it is a novel of sensation rather than naturalism.]

We do not expect to meet vampires and demons on the flat plains of George Eliot's St. Ogg's, or to find witches spying on the regular rotations of the mill on the Floss. George Eliot's insistence on a moral apprehension of the real seems to banish all such strange shapes from her landscape.

But the stolid world of The Mill on the Floss is more...

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Janet H. Freeman (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Authority in The Mill on the Floss," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 56, 1977, pp. 374-88.

[In this essay, Freeman contends that the omniscient narration of The Mill on the Floss renders the novel's ending appropriate.]

"By God she is a wonderful woman."—John Blackwood, upon reading the next-to-last chapter of The Mill on the Floss

Looking up from The Mill on the Floss, generations of readers have been drawn to comment on George Eliot herself—often without John Blackwood's admiring enthusiasm, but nearly always with the sense that the history of Maggie and Tom...

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Mary Jacobus (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Men of Maxims and The Mill on the Floss," in Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism, Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 62-79.

[In the following excerpt, first published in Critical Inquiry in 1981, Jacobus applies a critical feminist perspective to the language of The Mill on the Floss.]

Nancy Miller's "maxims that pass for the truth of human experience" [in her "Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction," PMLA, January 1981] allude to Eliot's remark near the end of The Mill on the Floss that "the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by...

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David Carroll (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mill on the Floss: Growing Up in St. Ogg's," in George Eliot and the Conflict of Interpretations: A Reading of the Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 106-39.

[In this essay, Carroll examines the world-views of the Dodsons and Tullivers and their effect on Tom and Maggie's "search for an interpretative key to life."]

In both Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot interrupts her narrative to deliver a lengthy apologia for the kind of novel she is writing. It is prompted in each case by what appears to be an anomaly. In Adam Bede, the vicar of Hayslope fails as Christian mentor and appears to a putative reader...

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Alan W. Bellringer (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Story of Nature: The Mill on the Floss," in Modern Novelists: George Eliot, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 43-62.

[Below, Bellringer contends that the conclusion of The Mill on the Floss is suitable to the story.]

The Mill on the Floss (1860) followed rapidly on Adam Bede, an altogether darker companion-piece, the characters being on a lower level generally, and the environment less romantic,' as the author herself remarked.

Set thirty years on from her first novel, it leaves the fertile slopes of the Midland shires for the hazardous watery plains to the east, where the Ripple runs into the Floss south of the...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Fulmer, Constance Marie. George Eliot: A Reference Guide. Reference Guides in Literature, edited by Joseph Katz. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1977, 247 p.

A comprehensive annotated bibliography of published critical commentary on Eliot's life and works, 1858-1971.


Cross, J. W. George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals. New York: AMS Press, 1965, 646 p.

Official biography, originally published in 1885. Cross, whom Eliot married shortly before her death, promoted the somber, sibylline image of his wife which dominated Eliot biography and ciriticism for many...

(The entire section is 941 words.)