The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 1, Chapters 1–3 : Boy and Girl | Summary



Chapter 1: Outside Dorlcote Mill

The narrator directly addresses the reader, describing the great Floss River and the black ships, "laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal," moving toward the town of St. Ogg's. Nearby, the tributary of the Ripple flows into the Floss, and the narrator walks along it, arriving at Dorlcote Mill. Suddenly he wakes, realizing he has been dreaming of standing on the bridge in front of the mill as it looked on a February afternoon many years ago. He now commences to tell what Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver were discussing before the fire in their left-hand parlor.

Chapter 2: Mr. Tulliver, of Dorlcote Mill, Declares His Resolution about Tom

Mr. Tulliver, owner of Dorlcote Mill, tells his wife, Mrs. Bessy Tulliver, that he plans to remove Tom from his current day school and send him out of town for a better education. He wishes for Tom to acquire the kind of knowledge that will put him on an equal footing with the lawyers and arbitrators with whom Mr. Tulliver has had contentious dealings over his water rights. Mr. Tulliver's mill is on a tributary of the great Floss River, and he uses its water power to grind grain. In the course of the novel he has arguments with another mill owner as well as a farmer who is using the river for irrigation.

Mrs. Tulliver thinks he had better ask her family their opinion, and Mr. Tulliver responds that he will do what he thinks best for his own son. He worries that Tom might be slow, since he takes after his mother's side, while his nine-year-old daughter is smart and takes after his side, although "an over-'cute woman's no better than a long-tailed sheep—she'll fetch none the bigger price for that." Mrs. Tulliver then begins complaining about Maggie's naughtiness, absent-mindedness, unruly black hair, and brown skin, which doesn't run on her side of the family. She compares Maggie to her niece Lucy, a blonde child whom she is sure takes more after herself than her own mother, Mrs. Deane. Maggie won't keep away from the water, and Mrs. Tulliver doesn't doubt she'll "tumble in and be drownded some day." The narrator ends the chapter describing Maggie's mother as "healthy, fair, plump, and dull-witted; in short, the flower of her family for beauty and amiability."

Chapter 3: Mr. Riley Gives His Advice Concerning a School for Tom

Mr. Tulliver asks his educated friend, Mr. Riley, about how he might further educate Tom. Mr. Tulliver wants to put him into business, he says, so that he can "make a nest for himself, an' not want to push me out o' mine." Maggie is reading a book and listening to the conversation, and she jumps up to tell her father that Tom would never be so naughty to commit such a deed. When Mr. Riley asks what she is reading, she tells him it is The History of the Devil, by Daniel Defoe, in which a woman suspected of witchery is thrown in the water: whether she swims to save herself (proving she's a witch) or drowns (proving her innocence), she is doomed. Riley counsels her to read a "prettier" book, and she takes The Pilgrim's Progress from an old bookcase to show him a picture of the devil fighting with Christian. At this point an embarrassed Mr. Tulliver chases Maggie into the kitchen. He tells Mr. Riley he chose his wife for her manageability, not brains, but is puzzled that breeding with her has produced a son who can't read nor speak very eloquently. He would like to remedy those weaknesses with education, and Mr. Riley suggests sending Tom to Rev. Walter Stelling, a clergyman with a degree from Oxford who has decided to take private pupils. Mr. Tulliver wonders if the classically trained Rev. Stelling can teach his son what he needs for business, and Mr. Riley convinces him that a "thoroughly educated man" can easily "take up any branch of instruction."


The narrator establishes an intimacy with the reader in the first chapter of the novel, referring to himself in the first person. This narrator is very close to his characters, particularly Maggie Tulliver, and appears to have a female sensibility despite the fact that George Eliot plants specific information to indicate he is male. For example, as pointed out by Eliot scholar Juliette Atkinson, he refers to holding guns and billiard cues, both male activities in the early 19th century, and refers to "our youth and manhood." The narrator has been found unreliable by some critics because he doesn't seem to understand the meaning of Maggie's actions, and many critics, following the early analysis of British literary critic F.R. Leavis, say that George Eliot loses objectivity in narration because the material in the novel is highly autobiographical. Whatever the flaws of the narrator, he immediately enlists readers' sympathies and draws them in: he wakes from a dream of the town of St. Ogg's and its river—the central motif of the novel—as they appeared on the day his story begins. The narrative then takes on a fairytale quality, as the omnipotent narrator begins to eavesdrop on the conversation of Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver in February 1829. The narrator also establishes a strong ironic voice to add humor to the story as well as criticize the behavior of certain characters or society in general. For example, he calls Mrs. Tulliver "dull-witted" and then says she is considered the flower of her family because of her beauty and manageability, the reason her husband chose her.

Mrs. Tulliver is the opposite of her daughter Maggie, who is exceptionally intelligent and unmanageable. Maggie has the wrong kind of looks—thick, black hair and brown skin—unlike her blonde, pretty, and amiable cousin Lucy, whom Mrs. Tulliver would prefer as a daughter. The rejection of Maggie by her mother, evident in Chapter 2, is likely at the root of Maggie's neediness—an overwhelming desire to be loved, admired, and accepted—something she doesn't experience from anyone in her family or extended family, except from her father. But even Mr. Tulliver, who allows that Maggie is "over-'cute" (over-acute), says her brains won't do her much good since she is only a girl. He then compares young Maggie to a sheep with a long tail, clearly superfluous to its primary purpose. In addition to abundant animal imagery in the novel, much of it associated with Maggie, are numerous references to inherited traits, beginning with Mr. Tulliver's comment that Maggie, not Tom, has inherited his brains. These references indicate that George Eliot recently had studied and incorporated new ideas about evolution from Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, published in 1859.

Maggie shows off in front of Mr. Riley and tells him about the witch who is doomed no matter which course she chooses. This story foreshadows Maggie's own destiny, in which she seems always caught between a rock and a hard place. According to one reading of the novel by critic Nina Auerbach, there is a demonic quality inherent in Maggie's extreme emotions and the actions that follow from them, so her identification with the witch is apt. Also foreshadowed in these first chapters is Maggie's drowning; her mother declares that because she won't stay away from the river, Maggie will fall in and drown someday.

Unlike Maggie, her brother Tom, almost four years her senior, takes after the slow side of the family—the Dodsons—and his father wonders if he will be equal to the classical education Mr. Riley is proposing. Mr. Tulliver's attitude toward his son is at least as suspect as his wife's attitude toward her daughter. He wants his son to rise higher in the world, which seems admirable, but his reasons are so that Tom can help him fight the lawyers and meddlers interfering with his water rights. Moreover he does not want to cede any part of the mill or its work to his son, even as a partner, fearing to lose his power as the patriarch. Maggie immediately comes to Tom's defense because she adores her brother and, according to Freudian interpretations of the novel, substitutes her brother for her absent and rejecting mother and less than adequate father. She also identifies with Tom's maleness, since she lives in a society and family that doesn't value females.

In addition to introducing the river as a symbol, these chapters introduce the symbol of The Pilgrim's Progress, a well-known Christian classic beloved by Western Europeans in the 19th century. Pilgrim Maggie is the main protagonist of the novel, identifying at various points in time with the pious Christians in John Bunyan's extended allegory—for example, Christian and Christiana—as well as the demon, Apollyon. When Mr. Riley counsels her to put Defoe aside and read a more appropriate book, she grabs the unimpeachable Bunyan, but the first thing she shows him is Christian battling the devil, who has been so nicely painted by her brother. This little scene foreshadows the demonic side of Maggie's nature: she seems to accidentally wreak havoc wherever she goes and can even turn a text as exemplary as The Pilgrim's Progress (and later, The Imitation of Christ) into an instrument of dark, unconscious desires.

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