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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 4–7 : Wheat and Tares | Summary



Chapter 4: Another Love-Scene

The narrator fast-forwards to April of the following year: Maggie and Philip have been meeting regularly in the Red Deeps, and he has been loaning her books, which they discuss at length. They playfully discuss Corinne, a novel by Sir Walter Scott, and Maggie says she wants no more books in which "the blond-haired women carry away all the happiness" and feels she wants to avenge "all the rest of the dark unhappy ones." Philip says perhaps she can avenge herself on her blonde cousin Lucy and steal away any handsome man who may be courting her, but Maggie is not pleased with the joke. As the conversation moves on, Philip reveals to Maggie that he loves and worships her. She admits she had not thought of him in that way, although she is grateful for any love. "Can you bear to think of me as your lover?" he asks. "Do you love me?" She answers that she could "hardly love any one better," but there's no point in talking about it since they are forbidden even to be friends. After she kisses him, he says he fears she is forcing herself to love him out of pity, but she repeats what she said, adding "I should like always to live with you—to make you happy." But she will not wound her father for him, she says. Philip now feels some hope, and Maggie kisses "his pale face that was full of pleading timid love—like a woman's." Maggie has a real moment of happiness and belief, thinking "if there were sacrifice in this love, it was all the richer and more satisfying."

Chapter 5: The Cloven Tree

Mrs. Pullet has come to visit and remarks on Maggie's beauty. Tom is also proud of his sister, whom people have been calling "a very fine girl," and he is happy with her since she has become less ascetic. During dinner Mrs. Pullet also mentions she has seen Philip Wakem "scrambling out o' the trees and brambles at the Red Deeps" on more than one occasion. Tom becomes suspicious and waits for his sister later in the afternoon and catches her coming out of the house for a walk. He accuses her of going to meet Philip at the Red Deeps. Since their parents are not at home, he takes her inside and demands she confess everything, which she does, even admitting that she told Philip she loved him. Tom demands that she never speak another private word to Philip, otherwise he will put the whole affair before their father, and Maggie accepts his terms. "You are a disobedient, deceitful daughter, who throws away her own respectability by clandestine meetings with the son of a man that has helped to ruin her father," Tom says. He then insists they go together to the Red Deeps, and Tom confronts Philip and insults him. He accuses him of bringing dishonor on his sister and directly insults his deformity. "Who wouldn't laugh at the idea of your turning lover to a fine girl?" he says, while Maggie says she will listen no longer. Back at home Maggie berates her brother for his conduct and accuses him of self-righteousness, small-mindedness, pettiness, and lack of compassion. She feels indignation and pity for what Philip suffered at the hands of her brother. "And yet," the narrator asks, "How was it that she was now and then conscious of a certain dim background of relief in the forced separation from Philip?" He ironically notes that it must be because she had been delivered from concealment.

Chapter 6: The Hard-Won Triumph

A few weeks pass, and the siblings are not on speaking terms. Tom now asks his father how much he has in the tin bank—193 pounds. He then surprises him by saying he has another 320 pounds in the bank in town, and with all that money they can pay Mr. Tulliver's creditors. Mr. Tulliver expresses how proud he is to have such a good son, who will likely be taken into partnership by his uncle before long. He predicts Tom will get rich, and if he does, he can perhaps get the mill back.

Chapter 7: A Day of Reckoning

The Tullivers have ordered a dinner for the creditors to celebrate the payment of the debt, and Mr. Tulliver, who usually doesn't drink, has too much brandy. The party breaks up at an early hour, and Tom stays in town to conduct some business while Mr. Tulliver rides home. As he approaches the yard gate of the mill, he sees Mr. Wakem on his black horse. The lawyer addresses Mr. Tulliver somewhat disrespectfully, faulting him for his farming methods, and Mr. Tulliver responds that he can get someone else to farm for him. Mr. Wakem sees he has been drinking and tells Mr. Tulliver that he can clear out the next day. The lawyer then tries to leave, but Mr. Tulliver raises his whip and rushes forward, and Mr. Wakem's horse throws its rider. Mr. Tulliver gets off his horse and begins flogging Mr. Wakem until he is stopped by Maggie. Mr. Tulliver goes inside, physically and mentally spent; he lies down but does not get up the next day. His last words to Tom are to try to buy back the mill and take care of his sister and his mother. He hopes that if God forgives rascals—he himself cannot—"he won't be hard wi' me."


About a year has passed when the reader encounters Maggie in Book 5, Chapter 4, and she has found a way to put aside any guilt she might feel for engaging in a protracted intellectual friendship with the son of her father's arch-enemy. Philip and Maggie are talking about a Walter Scott novel in which the dark-haired heroine loses out to her fair-haired rival. Eliot consciously uses this trope (a recurring motif in literature that has the aspect of a cliché) of the defeat of the dark heroine, but in her novel Maggie does exactly what Philip predicts, which is to steal the lover of her blonde cousin. While the author may have seen this as just another foreshadowing device, in fact it points to Maggie's unconscious demonic side, of which Eliot seems largely unaware. This conversation in which Maggie claims to take the side of the rejected lover leads to Philip's declaration of love. Like any number of women who bask in the unspoken worship of a man when they are not physically attracted to him, she pretends to have been unaware of his feelings. But unlike other women, Maggie feels gratitude for affection when none is provided from any other quarter.

Maggie's self-image also requires that she appear to act with compassion toward others. Thus she gives Philip a rather lukewarm reciprocation of his love and talks herself into believing that "sacrificing" herself to Philip would make her love all the richer. While some critics, and no doubt the character's creator, let Maggie off the hook because she has no experience of romantic love, it seems fair to question whether she is all that innocent. Certainly, she is an extremely intelligent person, and if she has not directly experienced love, she has read about it in the books of Walter Scott and other novelists. Therefore, she must know that she is not in love with Philip. Yet she leads him on, to the point of making him believe that if she were free she would certainly be willing to marry him. But this is a lie.

When Tom finds out what his sister has been up to, he is predictably outraged, and Maggie seems to derive some satisfaction from providing her brother with the details of her relationship with Philip. Perhaps she is unconsciously punishing Tom, who represents both himself as well as her emotionally absent parents, for leaving her entirely on her own in the family's time of trouble. Critic Peggy Fitzhugh Johnstone argues that Maggie's childhood aggression, based in her family's rejection, is transformed in her young adulthood into a sexual misuse of power. Thus, she leads Philip on, even though she knows she doesn't love him, and she hurts Tom and her father by secretly carrying on a relationship with Philip. She still desperately wants her family's love and affection, so she swears not to see Philip again. Some part of her is also relieved that Tom has intervened in what has become a love affair and thus a burden. Tom demands the additional assurance of having her witness his dressing down of Philip, but while Maggie could perhaps not have avoided this confrontation, she certainly could have stood up for Philip against her brother, as she stood up for her father against her aunts. Instead, she passively allows Tom to hurl the worst insults at the man she professes to love. Could it be that a part of her feels as Tom does—that Philip is presuming too much in presuming to love her? Once they return to the house, Maggie chastises her brother for being a Pharisee—someone who adheres to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. Another way to look at what Maggie does is to see her actions as Christian, in continuing a friendship with Philip and agreeing to marry him if no obstacles were in the way, while Tom's actions are guided by a more primitive morality that must seek vengeance on one's enemies, no matter what the cost.

The final scene in the life of the elder Tulliver is a terrible one and also carries Gothic overtones. The Tullivers have lost their property, and the previous sale of their household goods has cleared the debt of most or all of the 500 pounds against the furniture, but there was additional debt owed to other people in town. By religiously saving every penny of his income and making some sound investments with Bob Jakin's help, Tom is finally in the position to pay off his father's creditors. But this moment of triumph is spoiled, not only by his sister's infidelity to the family, but also by his father's lack of restraint. In both cases the Tulliver habit of impetuosity thwarts the Dodson habit of conventional rectitude and restraint. Mr. Tulliver burns all his bridges when he strikes down Mr. Wakem, and in death he leaves his family with one more burden—to vacate the property immediately. It is hard not to feel for Tom Tulliver, who has been working for years to help take care of his family and rectify the mistakes of his father, only to have his triumph spoiled by the selfishness of his sister and father.

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