Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Mill on the Floss narrates the struggles of a girl and her family in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign over England. At that time, women’s roles were strictly limited to housework and child rearing, and so girls—especially girls of Maggie’s social class—were given only rudimentary educations. Maggie’s story constitutes a protest against this kind of restriction; the reader is shown from the start that Maggie possesses a rich imagination and a keen mind but is supplied with no challenges or outlets for them. As a girl, she chafes constantly against the restrictions that are imposed upon her, preferring to read any books she can get her hands on to sewing her sampler, and always dirtying her clothes and disarranging her hair in her efforts to keep up with Tom. Worse, her sensitive and affectionate nature makes extremely painful to her the disapproval her extravagant flights of imagination, impatient desires, and “wild” behavior draw upon her from her mother, and especially from Tom, whom she adores. As a young woman, she achieves a certain serenity, despite her limiting occupation as a sewing teacher in a girls’ school, but her desire for a wider life erupts into love for Stephen Guest, and the old conflict between passion and duty becomes very serious.

The novel presents Maggie’s life in three periods: as a child of nine, as a girl of fourteen, and finally as a young woman of nineteen. In each period, the conflicts...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*English Midlands

*English Midlands. Central region of England. The novel is set in what seems like an idyllic country setting, modeled on Warwickshire, in the English Midlands, where George Eliot grew up as the child Mary Ann Evans. Eliot’s protagonist, Maggie Tulliver, and her brother Tom (Evans had a beloved brother named Isaac) love the river and the countryside. There they pick flowers, fish in the Round Pond, and romp with their dog Yap. Eliot suggests that human beings are nurtured by living close to nature, and that people are, in many important ways, a part of nature: Eliot often uses analogies drawn from nature, as in the comparison of Tom and Maggie to friendly ponies shaking their manes at each other.

In the novel, nature is not an entirely benign force. The reader sees conflicts arising between Maggie and Tom, owing to their different dispositions and exacerbated by the misogynist climate of the times. Nature can also be the source of destruction, as seen in the flood that kills Maggie and Tom. In introducing the Floss River into the landscape, Eliot made one alteration to her geographical model. She needed a tidal river to make the flood possible. The configuration of the river and the flood basin suggests the Trent River in Lincolnshire.

Tulliver home

Tulliver home. The precise setting is drawn from Eliot’s childhood memories of growing up in Griff House, on the Arbury estate, where her father managed the property for the landowner. Griff House has...

(The entire section is 627 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Mill on the Floss takes up in more detail an issue begun in Eliot’s first two novels: society’s too strict judgments of women, and especially of women’s passions. This novel is the first work of Eliot’s to trace the development of an intelligent and passionate woman from childhood. It therefore depicts clearly the damage that social restrictions based on gender can inflict from the first years of a girl’s life. Because it follows its protagonist from childhood forward, and because of the autobiographical aspect, The Mill on the Floss is often compared to author Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850). Dickens’ novel, however, brings its little boy hero not to tragic death, but to manhood and happy marriage. Eliot’s novel demonstrates by comparison, especially in its ending, how much more damaging girls’ lives were at that time.

The novel was written shortly after the first women’s college was founded (1848) and during the period when women were beginning to demand the right to vote and to participate in public affairs in general. Placed in this context, it is apparent that such portraits of girls’ and women’s lives, in the kind of realistic detail that was Eliot’s supreme achievement, were invaluable contributions to the debate over what was called at the time “the Woman Question.” Because Maggie, the heroine of the novel, is denied any valuable education or capacity to determine her own life, she supplied a vivid and sympathetic picture to Victorians of the plight of the bright but restricted girl.

Many other novels written by women in the nineteenth century may be read alongside The Mill on the Floss, for they all address these issues. Author Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and Ruth (1853), for example, trace the restricted lives of working-class women, while author Charlotte Brontë specializes in the plight of the governess or teacher. Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), like The Mill on the Floss, traces the development of its heroine from childhood to womanhood. None of these novels presents readers with a frustrating and tragic ending such as that of Eliot’s novel, however. For that reason, it is The Mill on the Floss that made the most compelling argument for the liberation of women: In it, the girl is hardly allowed to reach womanhood. It is as if Eliot were saying, “Keep us confined and uneducated, and you kill us.”

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Schools run by the state did not exist in England until 1870. Before that time, parents could send their children to...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

A notable feature of Eliot's writing is her use of local dialect in dialogue to express her characters' educational and...

(The entire section is 925 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1860: Most professions are closed to women, who are expected to marry and have children. Those in the poorer classes must do menial...

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

In the book, Maggie is torn between obeying her brother's often selfish wishes and choosing her own happiness. Which do you think is more...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Mill on the Floss was adapted to film in a Carnival Films production, in association with UGC D.A. International and Canal Plus....

(The entire section is 57 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) is a story of alienation and betrayal that nevertheless has comedic elements.


(The entire section is 133 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Allen, Walter, "Eliot, George," in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick,...

(The entire section is 348 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.”...

(The entire section is 551 words.)