The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 1, Chapters 4–6 : Boy and Girl | Summary



Chapter 4: Tom Is Expected

Maggie is not allowed to go with her father to pick up Tom from his school because of the rain, and in a fit of pique, she dunks her black hair in a bucket of water so her mother can't attempt to comb out the curls she set the night before. After submitting to a scolding, in which her mother says her aunts will not love her because of her bad behavior, Maggie retires to her attic refuge where she keeps a "Fetish," a large wooden doll that has been "defaced by a long career of vicarious suffering." With three nails in its head, the doll has most recently stood in for Aunt Glegg, Mrs. Tulliver's oldest sister. Maggie has stopped driving nails into the doll for fear of destroying the illusion that the head could still be hurt, since she often makes a poultice for it once her fury was spent. Today Maggie soothes herself "by alternately grinding and beating the wooden head against the rough brick of the great chimneys ... sobbing all the while with a passion that expelled every other form of consciousness." Calmed by her tantrum, she goes out to join her dog Yap, whirling around and chanting, "Tom's coming home!" She runs into Luke Moggs, the head miller, and while talking to him realizes she forgot to feed her brother's rabbits. Luke informs her that the rabbits have died and then tries to comfort her by saying these anomalous "lop-eared rabbits" would likely have expired anyway.

Chapter 5: Tom Comes Home

Mrs. Tulliver is overjoyed to see her "sweet lad," who submits to being kissed, while Maggie hangs onto thirteen-year-old Tom's neck "in rather a strangling fashion." Tom tells Maggie he has new fishing lines and hooks, and one is for her. He wants them to fish at the Round Pool the next day and congratulates himself for being such a good brother for remembering her. When Tom mentions the rabbits, she tells him they are dead. Maggie offers to give him the money from her savings to buy new rabbits, but that doesn't right the wrong for him. He tells Maggie he doesn't love her and won't take her fishing. Devastated, she creeps back into the attic. When she is missing at teatime, Mr. Tulliver realizes that Tom has been mean to her, since she would have been shadowing him all day otherwise. He sharply demands that Tom go up the attic to get his sister. Tom obeys but feels righteous in his treatment of Maggie. "He was particularly clear and positive ... that he would punish everybody who deserved it: why, he wouldn't have minded being punished himself, if he deserved it; but, then, he never did deserve it." When he calls for her, she runs to him sobbing: "O Tom, please forgive me—I can't bear it—I will be good—always remember things—do love me—please, dear Tom!" Tom relents, and the narrator describes the next day—an idyllic moment of childhood, with two children fishing on "their own little river." While Maggie is perfectly happy to simply gaze into the Round Pool and luxuriate in time spent with her brother, Tom happily calls "Magsie" back to tell her there's a fish on the end of her line.

Chapter 6: The Aunts and Uncles Are Coming

Easter week finds Mrs. Tulliver baking pastry in preparation for a family party. The narrator stops to describe Mrs. Tulliver's clan, the Dodsons, who think very highly of themselves: "while no individual Dodson was satisfied with any other individual Dodson, each was satisfied, not only with him or her self, but with the Dodsons collectively." Although timid Mrs. Tulliver has been bullied by her sisters, she is happy to be a member of her clan and to have at least one child (Tom) who favors her side. The day before the company arrives, Tom brings jam puffs out from the kitchen to share with Maggie, and when he splits the last one with his knife the pieces are uneven. His childish sense of fairness inspires him to ask his sister to choose her piece with her eyes closed. He then gets angry at her for eating the larger part of the pastry that fell to her without offering him some, even though she initially asked him to take the larger portion. Maggie is crestfallen when he calls her greedy, while he runs off to play with his friend Bob Jakin, a boy of a lower class who lives with his mother in a round house farther down the river. As the two boys discuss the big flood that made the Round Pool many years before and the possibility of a deluge occurring again, Bob takes out a halfpenny to play heads-and-tails. When Tom wins, Bob lies about how the coin fell. The boys get into a fistfight, and Tom forces Bob to give up the penny and then throws it in his face, saying he wouldn't have kept it anyway, but he hates cheats. Bob unsuccessfully tries to give Tom back the knife he received from his friend earlier in their friendship, but Tom has already stalked off.


Maggie expresses overt hostility toward both her mother and aunts (her mother's sisters): she tells Mrs. Tulliver in Chapter 2 that she doesn't want to do patchwork for Aunt Glegg because she doesn't like her, and she spitefully wets her head to aggravate her mother, who is always trying to remake her (Maggie has straight hair, not curly hair like her cousin's). Mrs. Tulliver is most concerned that her daughter's lack of presentability—she has wet her head and pinafore—will reflect on her bad mothering rather than that Maggie's behavior is a sign of unhappiness. "Folks 'ull think it's a judgment on me as I've got such a child—they'll think I've done summat wicked," she says. In one of the most startling scenes in Victorian literature, Maggie retreats to the attic and vents her considerable rage on a wooden doll, whom she "tortures" as a stand-in for the people she hates because they reject her—for example, her Aunt Glegg—and perhaps also as a stand-in for herself, a daughter who can never measure up to her mother's expectations. Her extended beating of the doll's head is a clear indication of an unusual and neurotic level of anger in a nine-year-old child. Critic Nina Auerbach, who sees this novel partly as a Gothic tale, notes this performance as an early example of her demonic, emotional explosiveness. Peggy Fitzhugh Johnstone identifies Maggie's unresolved childhood rage as a narcissistic wound caused by her devaluation by her family. This rage, says Johnstone, manifests as passive-aggressive behavior. For example, Maggie forgets about Tom's rabbits and lets them starve to death—something perhaps unexpected in a child with such fine sensibilities that perceive the mistreatment of the helpless or downtrodden.

When Tom comes home he brings a thoughtful present for his little sister—her very own fishing gear to take to the Round Pool. But at the same time, he makes a big fuss about how he had to save to purchase these items. He wishes to be lauded as a magnanimous brother and to be profusely thanked and perhaps worshipped—something that Maggie is prone to do. But when she tells him about the dead rabbits, he viciously turns on her, telling his adoring sister that he doesn't love her—clearly the most hurtful thing he could say. She offers to give him her money to buy more rabbits, but he scorns her offer, saying he has more money than she because "I shall be a man ... and you're only a girl." He means to punish her, acting as a self-righteous Jehovah who will punish "everybody who deserved it" and wouldn't mind getting punished himself, except in his view he never does anything wrong, the narrator ironically notes.

Tom's harsh views are also evident after the children make up and he calls Maggie selfish for eating her entire half of the last jam puff that he divided between them. Maggie offered him the bigger piece, but he would not take it because to do so would violate his misconstrued self-image in which he sees himself as a "fair" person. Yet he expects his sister to read his mind and give him a bit of her own half of the jam puff. This should be his reward for his "fairness." He also punishes Bob Jakin for cheating on the coin toss by beating him to get the coin and then humiliating Bob by throwing it in his face. At 13 Tom has assimilated the external Christian and middle-class values he has learned, but as Saint Paul says in the New Testament, Christians are ministers "not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life." Throughout the novel, Tom retains a desire to be fair and deliver justice, but he does so without considering differences or context. As a result, he creates a cramped ambit of acceptable behavior for himself and others, which produces emotional impoverishment.

Nonetheless, the bond between the siblings is evident in Chapter 5, when Tom takes his sister fishing after their reconciliation. They go to the Round Pool, an Edenic symbol of wholeness, which was created after one of the river floods. This scene is emblematic of an important theme in the novel, which is the vividness of the sorrows and joys of childhood, which often have an intensity unmatched by emotions felt by adults. Maggie is submerged in a kind of ecstasy, looking into the glassy water until Tom tells her she has caught a fish. "Maggie thought it would make a very nice heaven to sit by the pool in this way, and never be scolded. She never knew she had a bite till Tom told her; but she liked fishing very much." In this perfect moment of childhood, Maggie feels loved and accepted.

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