The Mill on the Floss

by George Eliot

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How does The Mill on the Floss represent the Victorian era?

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The Mill on the Floss depicts the society of the time as hiding injustice and coarseness beneath a civilized surface. This appears in Maggie's struggles as a female, Mr. Tulliver's inability to attain justice, and society's views of relationships.

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The Mill on the Floss is very much a representative Victorian novel: it is plot driven, it includes realistic descriptions of Victorian life, it is sentimental, and it has a melodramatic ending that culminates in death. It also depicts the plight of a strong, intelligent heroine who is constrained and oppressed by the gender norms of her era.

Victorian novels depended on plot and The Mill on the Floss doesn't fail in that regard. Events keep happening and the pages keep turning as feuds simmer, the Tullivers are thrown on hard times, Maggie is pursued by suitors, and life keeps on flowing like the river that pushes the turning mill wheel.

The sensitive Maggie feels deeply, and has to turn the anger at her constricted life inward, for example, by pretending to be the Biblical Jael and hammering nails meant to be tent pegs into her doll's head. There is sentiment in the love the sensitive but hunchbacked Phillip feels for Maggie, and there is pathos in their division because of family feuding.

In the end, Tom and Maggie, brother and sister, drown dramatically in the raging river.

Perhaps, more than anything, the novel reflects Victorian gender norms, and the way they constrict the high-spirited and intelligent Maggie's life. She is smarter than Tom, but he, as the male, gets more opportunities; he learns early on to put Maggie down for being a girl and hence inferior. Maggie has few options but love and marriage and little outlet for her talents, hemmed in as she is by the demands of gender and family. George Eliot, who herself broke away from gender expectations to live with a man, George Lewes, without marriage, clearly sympathizes with the hypocrisy and injustice of condemning Maggie for accidentally having to spend a night with Stephen. She helps makes the alert reader aware of what women were up against in her society.

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Enotes provides a great summary of the historical connections possible in this novel.  I have included the link below, but let me give you a quick overview first.

Much of the conflict in this novel centers around what was "accepted" by society and what was important to the individual.  In the Victorian Era, much relied on appearance, social heirarchy, and social rules.  Tom represents a close adherence to these rules.  He behaves as a man "should", in control and confident in his own power.  Maggie, on the hand, challenges the social standards, being more boisterous and opinionated than a girl had any right to be. 

The relationship between Stephen and Maggie also demonstrates the strain of social standards at the time.  Stephen wants Maggie to run away with him.  Being a man, he has more freedom than any woman.  He does not recognize how dangerous it would be for Maggie to do what he is asking - he isn't conscious of how much more damaging it was for a woman to enter into such a relationship.  Maggie does, however, which is why she refuses him.

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How does The Mill on the Floss depict the society of the time?

In The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot depicts the underlying roughness and injustice of a supposedly civilized society. For one thing, as a girl and then woman, Maggie Tulliver always seems to come out at the bottom of the heap. She is an intelligent girl, yet it is her brother, Tom, who receives an advanced education. Maggie does go to school, but it is far from equal. What's more, Maggie's mother often gets upset that Maggie is intelligent and therefore does not behave as she thinks her daughter should.

Later in the novel, Maggie's father prevents her from meeting with Philip, the son of his sworn enemy. The conflict between their fathers is not the fault of Maggie or Philip, but the situation keeps them apart. After Maggie's father dies in poverty, Maggie goes out to work as a teacher to support herself. She has no other choice. Then when Maggie and Stephen spend the night together on a boat, the fault falls completely on Maggie, and people start seeing her (unjustly) as a fallen woman. Even her brother, Tom, who has always been Maggie's role model and support, disowns her.

Society is not kind to Maggie's father either. He is in debt and then loses his lawsuit with Lawyer Waken (Philip's father) about the use of a section of the River Floss. This puts Mr. Tulliver out of business and out of hope. He is bankrupt and has to auction off his mill. Then to add insult to injury, Lawyer Waken buys the mill and keeps Mr. Tulliver on as its manager. This is horribly humiliating. Mr. Tulliver dies after attacking Lawyer Waken in a desperate expression of his frustration.

The novel also depicts society's views about relationships. Maggie, for instance, doesn't get to decide whom she will marry. Her father and brother keep her away from Philip. Stephen and Maggie are attracted to each other, and he asks her to marry him, but Maggie decides that she will remain single, bearing the burden of her pain and guilt. She makes herself something of a martyr, but this is what society seems to expect her to do. She is not supposed to find happiness.

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