The Mill on the Floss (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)
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:...
(The entire section is 873 words.)