The Mill on the Floss

by George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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The first sections of THE MILL ON THE FLOSS are devoted to a rich evocation of the pains and conflicts of childhood. Maggie Tulliver, a child with a deep hunger for affection and approval, repeatedly acts in impetuous and careless ways that cause rejection by her narrowly self-righteous brother Tom and consternation among her opinionated aunts. As Maggie grows older, her problems intensify. When her father loses a lawsuit and subsequently suffers a stroke, the family is reduced to near poverty. Maggie’s chief solace in these humiliating circumstances is meeting secretly with Philip Wakem, the son of the lawyer whom Mr. Tulliver blames for the loss of the lawsuit and for his financial difficulties. Tom discovers these meetings and harshly terminates them, blaming Maggie for disloyalty to the family. Tom is right according to the narrow terms of a family quarrel, but the sympathies of the author and reader clearly lie with Maggie.

Maggie transgresses more seriously when she allows herself to drift down the river with Stephen Guest, her cousin’s fiance. According to the social code of the time, Maggie is hopelessly compromised by spending a night aboard a steamer with Stephen. By this indiscretion, she also brings unhappiness to her cousin Lucy and disgraces her family just when Tom’s hard work is beginning to restore a measure of prosperity.

Maggie redeems herself--rather melodramatically--by her attempt to rescue Tom from the mill during a flood. Although both are drowned, the reconciliation of brother and sister is at least briefly achieved.

Although some aspects of the plot--especially the circumstances of Maggie’s disgrace--seem remote from contemporary mores, the depiction of Maggie’s struggle between the desire to do what is pleasant for herself and the demand to do what society and her family expect of her is powerful and moving. Eliot’s portraits of Maggie’s aunts--the Dodson sisters--brilliantly depict the rising middle class of early Victorian times.


Ashton, Rosemary. “The Mill on the Floss”: A Natural History. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A book-length study useful to beginners. Discusses the novel in relation to Eliot’s life, the historical context, natural history, and literary influences. Includes an annotated bibliography.

Barrett, Dorothea. “Demonism, Feminism, and Incest in The Mill on the Floss.” In Vocation and Desire: George Eliot’s Heroines. New York: Routledge, 1989. Argues that three elements discussed separately by previous critics work together in The Mill on the Floss. Emphasizes a positive view of the novel’s “passionate idealism.”

Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A reassessment of Eliot’s fiction that refutes other feminist criticisms. Asserts that Maggie Tulliver’s passion represents her desire for knowledge and freedom as well as sexual love, and that Eliot challenged the boundaries of women’s role in Victorian society. Contains an extensive bibliography.

Carroll, David. “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, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Considers the problem of reading the novel as two kinds of narrative: a realistic fiction containing anthropological treatment of the lives of Maggie’s relatives and a legend of a unified pastoral world of childhood.

Creeger, George R., ed. George Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970. An important collection of essays on Eliot’s novels by major Eliot scholars, including an essay on The Mill on the Floss that explores the novel’s philosophical underpinnings. Includes a chronology of Eliot’s publications and a short bibliography.

Draper, R. P., ed. George Eliot: “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner.” London: Macmillan, 1977. A...

(This entire section contains 873 words.)

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collection of extracts from Eliot’s journals, letters, and essays concerning such issues as “realism” and “the Woman Question"; early reviews ofSilas Marner and The Mill on the Floss; comments on these novels by other famous authors; and critical studies of such issues as sociology, morality, and unity of form in these novels. Includes a short bibliography and an index.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. George Eliot. Boston: Twayne, 1985. An excellent introductory study of Eliot’s work, including a biographical chapter and a brief study of her intellectual concerns. The chapter on The Mill on the Floss emphasizes the cultural rifts the novel explored at a time when society was rapidly changing. Includes a thorough chronology of Eliot’s life, an annotated bibliography to 1985, and an index.

Emery, Laura Comer. George Eliot’s Creative Conflict: The Other Side of Silence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Detailed psychoanalytical readings trace the development of George Eliot’s creative process from The Mill on the Floss (the first detailed expression of Eliot’s unconscious conflicts) to Middlemarch.

Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. The most detailed and thorough biography of Eliot’s life, this book includes brief biographical interpretations of her works. It is of special interest, therefore, to students of The Mill on the Floss. Includes a thorough index.

Newton, K. M., ed. George Eliot. London: Longman, 1991. An important collection of the best essays on Eliot’s works by current Eliot scholars, including works written from feminist and social perspectives. Includes an introductory explanation of these various critical perspectives, a good bibliography, and an index.


Critical Overview


Essays and Criticism