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The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 5, Chapters 1–3 : Wheat and Tares | Summary



Chapter 1: In the Red Deeps

On one day late in June, Mr. Wakem calls on Mr. Tulliver with his son Philip, and Maggie runs upstairs to avoid a reunion in front of their fathers. One of the pleasures Maggie still allows herself is a long daily walk, and she often ends up at the Red Deeps, a high bank crowned by a stand of Scotch firs. The narrator describes Maggie in her 17th year (age 16) as a tall, beautiful woman. She is looking up at the trees on the crest of the hill when she notices a shadow. Looking down she sees Philip Wakem, who has followed her to the woods. Both young people are happy for the opportunity to speak to each other. Philip shows Maggie a sketch he made of her on the day they last parted and she declared she'd never forget him. Maggie asks Philip if he likes how she looks now, and he answers she is more beautiful than he expected. They cannot be friends, Maggie says, because her brother and father would object. Desperately in love, Philip asks Maggie to agree to see him once in a while so they can remain "friends of the heart, and help each other." Maggie does not imagine Philip in the role of a lover and sees no harm in his proposal, even as the voice of conscience tells her that secret interviews if discovered will cause anger and pain. She doesn't give him a definitive answer. When they part company Maggie says she is grateful for Philip's having loved her, and he counters that she will never love him as much as she does Tom. "Perhaps not," she replies, "but ... the first thing I ever remember in my life is standing with Tom by the side of the Floss while he held my hand: everything before that is dark to me."

Chapter 2: Aunt Glegg Learns the Breadth of Bob's Thumb

Tom is doing well at the warehouse, and Mr. Deane is thinking of trusting him to travel as a buyer. Tom's uncles have more and more confidence in him, and he decides to test Mr. Glegg's friendliness with a business proposition. Through Bob Jakin, Tom has an opportunity to trade on his own in foreign cities by purchasing a small amount of goods, but rather than use his own money—which goes into Mr. Tulliver's tin box—he decides to ask for a small loan at interest from his uncle. Together he and Bob Jakin explain the scheme, and Mrs. Glegg overhears them talking and wants to know what's going on. Bob Jakin not only uses reverse psychology to get Mrs. Glegg to buy some of the materials in his pack for sewing but also gets her to put up some of her money, along with her husband's money, for Tom's venture into trading.

Chapter 3: The Wavering Balance

The next time Maggie runs into Philip at the Red Deeps, she tells him she had decided they must part because they cannot carry on in secret. Since they have to separate, he asks her to stay a while so he can study her for a second portrait, and she agrees. As they talk, she learns he enjoys painting, music, and literature, and she explains how in resignation she has found peace and sometimes even joy. Philip vehemently objects to her philosophy, saying she is simply escaping pain by "starving into dullness all the highest powers of [her] nature." Maggie gets upset by these words because she fears they have some truth in them, so he changes the subject. She then tells him that if he had been her brother, he would have loved her well enough to bear with her and forgive everything. "That is what I longed that Tom should do. I was never satisfied with a little of anything," she confesses. This is why it is better for her to do without any earthly happiness. Philip again objects to "self-torture" and begs to supply her with books and see her sometimes, acting as her teacher. Philip again equivocates, saying he can walk in the Red Deeps and meet her by chance, which would not be deliberate secrecy, and Maggie does not object.


While Tom begins making good progress on the mercantile path of the Dodsons with the help of his friend Bob Jakin, Maggie begins an unconscious defiance of all that the Dodsons and Tullivers hold dear. When she first sees Philip again, she avoids him because she doesn't want the meeting to be "robbed of all pleasure in the presence of two fathers." Her first thought, then, is not of the vow her brother has written in the Bible, nor of the horror both he and her father would feel in her reacquainting herself with the son of their arch-enemy. Moreover, she immediately has a presentiment that a new door might be opening for her, despite her commitment to resignation.

The Red Deeps, where Maggie communes with nature, is a place in which she feels completely at home. The novel's Gothic aspects are at play in the description of Maggie, a beautiful, "broad-chested" woman with liquid eyes, red lips, dark coloring, and a "jet crown" above her "tall figure" who "seems to have a sort of kinship with the grand Scotch firs." The Red Deeps are where she finally meets Philip again, and the place becomes symbolic of their passion—on her side a passionate need to connect with a like-minded human being, and on his a partial satisfaction of the passionate love he feels for this lovely and sympathetic creature who can see beyond his deformity. As critic Robert P. Lewis points out, the predominant feature of Maggie's character is a "destabilizing desire for 'more.'" In Book 4, Chapter 3, when Bob Jakin first brings her a packet of books, she remembers how she wanted more books at school, and she thinks about how her need seems to be much larger than other people's. Maggie does not long for more possessions, but rather for some intangible that she cannot name.

George Eliot was familiar with the philosophy of Edward Schopenhauer, and in his key text he posits an inexorable force behind the phenomenal world, which he calls "will." This will drives both creation and destruction and always wants more and more. Maggie seems to manifest that Schopenhauerian will more so than most people, and in that sense she has a touch of Gothic demonism and cannot help but wreak havoc. When Philip says she will never love anyone like her brother, she recalls her first moment of self-consciousness, when her loving brother held her hand by the side of the river. The rest of her life has been an attempt to return to that unity with a beloved object, but Philip cannot take the place of that lost brother. Moreover, while he can provide Maggie with a necessary human connection, he ultimately cannot fill her bottomless need. After her first meeting with Philip, Maggie thinks that forbidding a friendship with him is "unreasonable—so unchristian!" At the same time, she knows that resuming the friendship will open the door to her "illimitable wants." When she meets him the second time, she warns him that a secret friendship will cause "misery" and "dreadful anger," yet she allows Philip to wheedle her into continued conversation and accepts his stratagem of running into her by chance—which would not technically be a secret meeting.

Philip, in his own need, is willing to take what he can get, and he understands Maggie better than anybody. He knows that she is not suited to renunciation, and he understands that she is using à Kempis's philosophy like a drug to numb the pain of isolation and loneliness. He understands that Maggie does not want to take responsibility for disobeying her brother and father and sees that, with a little cajoling, he can get her to agree to see him.

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