The Mill on the Floss
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.
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."
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."
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."