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.