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The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 4, Chapters 1–3 : The Valley of Humiliation | Summary



Chapter 1: A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet

Book 4 opens with a rumination on history, using journeys down the Rhone and Rhine rivers, respectively, as metaphors to demonstrate that human communities can appear either sordid and vulgar or sublime and heroic. The lives of the people on the Floss river may seem to be in the first category, hardly rising to "the level of the tragi-comic." Even when shaken from their moorings by "the iron hand of misfortune," they have "little trace of religion, still less of a distinctively Christian creed." Still, it is necessary to feel the "oppressive narrowness" of the Tullivers and Dodsons to understand Tom and Maggie. The religion of the Dodsons consisted in revering what was "customary and respectable," but in their pursuit of wealth and propriety, they cultivated many good traits, including integrity, industriousness, loyalty, and honesty. The Tullivers are not too different, except that they have a "richer blood," with elements of "generous imprudence, warm affection, and hot-tempered rashness."

Chapter 2: The Torn Nest Is Pierced by the Thorns

The Tulliver family has settled into the dreary routine of poverty, which also threatens despair. Mr. Tulliver acts as Mr. Wakem's manager while Tom goes out to work, and Mrs. Tulliver cannot seem to gain her equilibrium with "the objects among which her mind had moved complacently all gone ... and she remained bewildered in this empty life." Maggie now caters to her distraught mother, while Mrs. Tulliver insists on doing the heaviest work to save Maggie's hands. Mr. Tulliver displays a "taciturn hard concentration of purpose" and feels uncomfortable with his old friends. While his creditors have already agreed to accept less than the money Mr. Tulliver actually owes, he is determined to save every penny so he can pay them off in full. Mrs. Tulliver supports him in his stinting, as does Tom, who contributes his salary to the tin box of the family's savings. Mr. Tulliver continues to look toward Maggie for comfort, although he can no longer be truly cheered by her. Tom is also preoccupied and weary. The Dodsons visit only for short periods, since they cannot stay for meals. They are also discouraged by the bare rooms and "Mr. Tulliver's savage silence."

Chapter 3: A Voice from the Past

One day Bob Jakin, who now works as a traveling peddler, stops by the Tullivers' home and catches Maggie on the porch reading one of Tom's old schoolbooks. He is traveling with his dog Mumps and has brought her several used books he happened upon in his travels. Maggie is grateful for Bob's gifts, but after he leaves she begins thinking about how books had not given her the key to understanding how to endure the sorrow in her heart. Moreover, "she thought it was part of the hardship of her life that there was laid upon her the burthen of larger wants than others seem to feel," the narrator says.

Among the books brought by Bob, she notices The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, and begins reading. She is immediately thrilled by the author's words, which admonish the reader to put aside self-love and personal desires and think instead of the sufferings of others to more easily bear one's own adversity. Maggie thinks she has found "the secret of life" that will help her reach "a sublime height ... without the help of outward things." The narrator notes that because of her youth she does not realize "renunciation remains sorrow, though sorrow borne willingly"; unfortunately, Maggie still wants happiness. People in mental anguish need an "emphatic belief," or "enthusiasm," and Thomas à Kempis's words are a lifeline for Maggie. Of course, she brings her pride, willfulness, and impetuosity into her spiritual project—for example, when she embarrasses her brother by attempting to get work in plain sewing in town, where everyone knows her. But her mother notices that her headstrong child has become submissive, and Mrs. Tulliver feels more affection for her, insisting on plaiting her thick black hair into "a coronet at the summit of her head."


In Book 4, Chapter 1, the narrator steps back from the story to provide a larger context in which to understand the narrow lives of the Dodsons and the Tullivers. The narrator begins with life along two particular rivers, the Rhone and the Rhine, before he turns to life on the Floss. He uses these two rivers as symbols of two different sensibilities—the first earthbound and commonplace, even to the point of being sordid, and the second romantic, sublime, and perhaps even spiritual. Life on the Floss, for the most part, is in the first category. The river is a powerful symbol in the novel and variously stands in for Maggie's emotions, which run deep and can be destructive to those around her. It represents the Edenic state of childhood and the channel of life upon whose banks the dramas of people's lives are played out. Each person also travels along their individual channels of life, and the repetition of certain actions creates the deep channels of the mind that bind people, often against their will, to a particular course of action. George Eliot was familiar with Charles Darwin's work on how species survive through adaptation and natural selection—those who have best adapted to the environment are most likely to survive and pass on their hereditary traits to the next generation. But she also believed in Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's ideas (later disproved) that acquired characteristics (those that are learned and not carried by the genes) or habits could be passed on to the next generation. Thus she looks at the Tullivers and the Dodsons as the products of their heredity, which has been created in part by the repetition of certain habits.

As noted by critic Kristie M. Allen, The Mill on the Floss demonstrates how habit prevents change and adaptation. Moreover, the channels in the mind created by habit, says Allen, form character, have a cumulative effect, and have moral consequences. In this first chapter of Book 4, whose title ironically refers to Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, a 17th-century theologian who fought against Protestant religious innovations, Eliot provides an extended critique of the bourgeois morality of the Dodsons. While she allows (through her narrator) that the Dodsons have some admirable traits, she clearly states that they have left the religion of Christianity behind and have taken up the religion of materialism, in which morality consists primarily of accumulating wealth and ensuring it is passed on to the next generation. The chapter that follows shows how Mrs. Tulliver has been emptied of content because she has lost her things and no longer knows who she is or what she stands for. In her best show of care for her daughter, she seeks to do all the difficult work to save her daughter's hands. Mr. Tulliver continues to turn to Maggie for comfort, but he can give her none in return. Tom merely comes and goes, completely focused on earning money. In their poverty the Tullivers have been exposed for what they are—bourgeois specimens devoid of an inner life. The exception, of course, is Maggie. But as the lack of affection in the household becomes even more pronounced and the entire family focuses on saving enough money to restore Mr. Tulliver's good name, Maggie becomes more and more bereft.

Into this void, Bob Jakin drops The Imitation of Christ, a mystical tract by a 14th-century Augustinian monk who was living through the Black Plague, a time that must have seemed like the end of the world. The monk has voluntarily left the secular world behind and counsels novice monks in the path of renunciation. Those who followed the monk's path had already seen through the transitory nature of the immanent world and had a rich tradition of prayer and contemplation through which they might experience transcendence. And even if they did not experience transcendence, they truly believed in it. Maggie, a product of the secular religion of the Dodsons and Tullivers, has none of that. While the counsel of Thomas à Kempis can temporarily fill the void in her yearning heart, it is bound to be a stop-gap measure for a passionate girl who more than anything wants to be loved in the here and now.

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