The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 6, Chapters 4–6 : The Great Temptation | Summary



Chapter 4: Brother and Sister

Maggie visits her brother at Bob Jakin's house where Tom is a lodger. Jakin has since married and bought a house by the river, along with two pleasure boats. While waiting for Tom, Maggie converses with her old friend and learns her brother is likely in love with Lucy. When Tom comes in and they have a private moment, she tells him she wishes to see Philip for Lucy's sake since he is a frequent guest at the house. Tom makes it clear that, while he doesn't object to such visits, if she becomes Philip's lover again she must give up her brother. He fears she could be "led away to do anything" because she has "no judgment and self-command" and "will not submit to be guided." He mentions that he wished to provide a home for her with his mother, but she refused. He points out her penchant to go from one extreme to another, "tak[ing] pleasure in a sort of perverse self-denial" and then being incapable of "resist[ing] a thing you know to be wrong." She promises Tom that she has given up the idea of Philip as a lover and that he should believe her. The two of them part on good terms, both seeming to extend forgiveness.

Chapter 5: Showing That Tom Had Opened the Oyster

Mr. Deane has a meeting with Tom to tell him how well he has done. He is proud of his 23-year-old nephew, who has been working for him for seven years. He and his partner want to offer Tom a share in the business, which he deserves entirely on his merit. Tom doesn't refuse but brings up the idea that he promised his father he'd try to get the mill back, which had been in the family for five generations. Perhaps Guest & Co. can buy it from Mr. Wakem and Tom can manage it and work off the price and eventually become its owner. He believes he can do that as well as continue to work on other projects. "I want to have plenty of work," he tells Mr. Deane. There's nothing else I care about much." Tom has reason to believe Mr. Wakem might want to part with the property since the man that the lawyer put in charge—actually his illegitimate son—is running the business into the ground. Mr. Deane promises to discuss the matter with Mr. Guest.

Chapter 6: Illustrating the Laws of Attraction

Maggie is also having her moment, having been launched into St. Ogg's society by her cousin Lucy. Everyone is impressed with Maggie's beauty and refinement, although she has some social awkwardness. Maggie is enjoying herself for the first time in her life, living the life of a young lady, no longer treated like a nonperson or a nuisance, and having free time to practice the piano. Lucy is happy that Stephen has become more interesting and amusing in Maggie's presence and thinks about how they will be a foursome once Maggie and Philip can be united. Stephen continues to pay scrupulous attention to Lucy, but there is now an invisible connection between him and Maggie, and they have a hyperawareness of each other's presence when they are together in the same room. One day Stephen contrives to arrive at the house when he can speak to Maggie alone. In a pregnant exchange of pleasantries, Stephen and Maggie reveal their mutual attraction, and at the end of his very short visit—ostensibly to drop off some music and inform the women that Philip is back from his sketching expedition—Stephen invites Maggie to walk out with him in the garden, and she agrees to take his arm. After they walk a short time, she runs back inside and bursts into tears, wishing to be with Philip again in the Red Deeps. Stephen walks home, in much confusion about his feelings toward Maggie.


Tom agrees that his sister can see Philip in company, mostly not to create unnecessary tension or awkwardness for his cousin Lucy. He also assumes the social situation is temporary since his sister will leave town in a few months. Nonetheless, he clearly articulates his categorical imperative, which is that no sister of his shall ever unite herself to the Wakems if she expects to remain his sister. He feels he must say this because he doesn't trust her to do what he considers to be the right thing. Even though she witnessed her father's last gasp of hatred toward Mr. Wakem and had to stop Mr. Tulliver from doing further damage, Tom still thinks there is a chance Maggie might revert to her former relations with Philip. He does not understand her seesawing back and forth between unnecessary asceticism and transgressive indulgence. Another way to look at this vacillation is as tension between resignation and defiance present in all of Eliot's female protagonists, according to critic Susan Fraiman. Such feminist readings of the author's texts see women as both agents and victims. Thus, Maggie's story is a kind of anti-bildungsroman (a tale of growth and development, from childhood to adulthood) in which the main character is thwarted at every turn.

Tom is not wrong to doubt his sister's stability. On the one hand, she tells Tom she has "given up thinking of him [Philip] as a lover." Yet she has allowed Lucy to think she still loves Philip, and when Lucy says, "I shall puzzle my small brain to contrive some plot that will bring everybody into the right mind, so that you may marry Philip, when I marry—somebody else," Maggie makes no objection, even if she does tremble.

Once again Tom is on the verge of a great success when his path intersects with Maggie's. She has been away for two years, but in the next few months she will once again bring chaos into her brother's life. Some critics see Tom as a secondary protagonist, and his story follows the more traditional trajectory of the bildungsroman. Yet there is something ironic about Tom's progress, and as Fraiman points out, his declaration that he is exclusively devoted to work has a tinge of pathology. The narrator says "there was something rather sad in that speech from a young man of three-and-twenty, even to Uncle Deane's business loving ears." Mr. Dean hopes to see Tom married one day, but Tom's progress will be halted by his sister.

Meanwhile Maggie seems to be moving forward in society, living as if she is a middle-class young lady with plenty of time on her hands. This interlude in Lucy's company is somewhat dreamlike. Maggie is finally getting the attention she craves, along with the homage of one particular young man to whom she is physically attracted. The narrator compares Maggie's life to an unmapped river, full and rapid, which like all rivers must find its way home. The channel in which Maggie's emotions flow is swelling, and once again the will for more and more, as identified by Edward Schopenhauer's philosophy, will defeat her attempts to renounce all that feeds that river of emotion. The failure of resignation, an important theme in the novel, is inevitable when a false spirituality is used to mask unfulfilled desire.

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