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The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Context


The Midlands Setting

George Eliot uses two geographical areas in the Midlands as the settings for her novel. The Midlands are in central England, and the Western Midlands are lowland areas that in the author's time produced coal. Eliot grew up in an English village in the county of Warwickshire, located in the Western Midlands. Eliot's father, Robert Evans, managed the 7,000-acre Arbury Estate for the Newdigate family, where the author was born. The estate included many acres of farmland worked by tenant farmers, a coal mine, streams, and miles of deciduous forest, with leafy trees that lose their foliage in the winter.

When Eliot was still an infant the family moved to Griff House—a large, eight-bedroom structure with stables, a dairy, farmyard, and orchard—in nearby Nuneaton. The descriptions of the Tulliver home in the novel are partially based on the author's memory of Griff House. Eliot was her father's favorite, and he would take her with him when he went on work rounds. This gave her much exposure to the green vistas of the country estate as well as the dialect of the servants, whom she often sat with while her father conducted business. Eliot played in the fields and fished in the canals and ponds around Griff House with her older brother Isaac. These early childhood memories inform the descriptions of lush scenery as well as the pitch-perfect dialogue in The Mill on the Floss, as does Eliot's early close relationship with her brother.

Eliot had planned a river flood early on in the process of writing The Mill on the Floss, so she and her partner George Henry Lewes researched an appropriate setting on which to base the town of St. Ogg's. They settled on Gainsborough, in Lincolnshire, in the East Midlands, which sits on the Trent River. Eliot even used the Old Hall in Gainsborough as a model for the bazaar that takes place in Book 6. The Trent River features an eagre, a single tidal wave that flows up the estuary during high tide. An estuary is the place where the river meets the sea.

The narrator describes how Maggie and Tom are accustomed to watching the tidal bore on the Floss in the spring that comes up in a rush "like a hungry monster." The tide moves through the river in the spring and the fall and can travel 18 miles upstream from Derrythorpe to Gainsborough. When very high tides coincide with a sudden influx of water caused by heavy rains, the results can be catastrophic. Eliot had read accounts of terrible storms in England in 1857 that were especially disastrous for the area around the Trent River, when the river flooded the land for miles around so that hundreds of acres were underwater. She used these descriptions of the flood to inform the final scenes in the novel.

Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ

George Eliot, one of the 19th century's foremost moralists, was actually an atheist. Nonetheless, she could enjoy the rituals of Christianity and thought it good that people found comfort in religious participation. She found moral imperatives in philosophical texts and condoned Christian values that were humanistic. Moreover, she agreed with German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, the author of The Essence of Christianity (1841), that the idea of God was a projection of what was best in human beings. For a time Eliot followed French philosopher Auguste Comte, who proposed a secular "Religion of Humanity." Eliot was reading German monk Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ (c. 1418–27) and English writer John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) when she was writing The Mill on the Floss.

Imitation of Christ is a devotional classic of Christianity that was a beloved foundational text even in Eliot's time. Thomas à Kempis advocates strict self-scrutiny and provides a clear vision of what constitutes a spiritual life. He names humility as the most important virtue and urges people to let go of their egoistic feelings of superiority. He counsels renunciation of worldly desires and an embrace of human suffering, which will draw the spiritual seeker closer to Christ. For Christians, Jesus is the son of God who came to Earth to suffer, die, and redeem humanity, and his life symbolizes resignation to the will of God.

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie latches onto the idea of renouncing all worldly desire as a way to escape her unhappiness, not understanding that the monk who wrote Imitation of Christ is addressing those who have already renounced the world. In the monk's view, this world is an illusion or a pale shadow of eternal life. Maggie, on the other hand, wants passionately to engage with the world and is renouncing her desire in a vain attempt to escape emotional pain. She also doesn't have any spiritual consolations in the form of mystical experience or a feeling of oneness with God—something that a serious student of Thomas à Kempis would expect and perhaps experience.

Roma (Gypsies) in England

The Roma or Romany, whom the English called gypsies, were nomadic people thought to have originated in northern India. They reached Europe by the 14th century and Western Europe by the 15th century. By the 16th century these nomads had entered the British Isles. The Roma and similar wanderers (such as the Irish Travelers) have historically faced prejudice, banishment, and exile, although they always managed to return to the countries trying to ban them.

In the 19th century they lived on the borders of English society, traveling in covered wagons and pitching tents where they temporarily settled. They made a living by selling goods and tinkering (repairing household or farm items), trading livestock, and working as animal trainers. The Roma also worked seasonally on farms, harvesting fruits and vegetables. Working also as entertainers, the Roma danced, sang, played musical instruments, and told fortunes, either with tarot cards or by reading palms. Despite the fact that the English were willing to trade with the Roma or avail themselves of other services, they viewed them as dangerous outsiders. Nonetheless, the Roma lifestyle was romanticized, which is why Maggie dreams about running away to the gypsies who are outsiders like herself. She is also compared to a wild gypsy by members of her family.

Watermills in England

Water mills in England date back to the days of the Roman conquest, and by the 11th century the Domesday Book (1086), a survey of England commissioned by King William the Conqueror, lists 6,000 operational mills. Water mills continued to be used for commercial purposes even into the 20th century. A water mill may house machinery to grind grain, as the one in the novel does. The machinery is powered by a wheel turned by moving water, usually a river. The water mill consists of a water supply and control system (including the wheel or turbine) and the millhouse structure that grinds the grain. Many mills were sited on a millstream, or artificial channel, so that the water could be better managed. In the novel, the mill sits on a tributary to the river Floss, called the Ripple.

What Is It Worth?

Money has a small but important role in The Mill on the Floss.

  • Mr. Tulliver's mortgage on his property is 2,000 pounds, which would amount to about $227,528 now.
  • Mr. Tulliver owes the Gleggs 500 pounds, which would amount to about $56,882 now.
  • Mr. Tulliver's sister owes him 300 pounds, which would amount to about $34,129 now.
  • Mr. Tulliver pays 100 pounds a year to keep his son at the tutor's, which would amount to about $11,376 now.

Darwin in the Novel

George Eliot stayed abreast of the science and philosophy of her day, and she read English naturalist Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species (1859) while she was working on The Mill on the Floss. Darwin's seminal work is the foundational text of evolutionary biology. At the same time, her partner George Henry Lewes was researching his own Studies in Animal Life (1860). Darwin's ideas about the role of adaptation in survival of species and the mechanisms of heredity inform many of the observations in the novel about the Dodsons and the Tullivers. Also seen in the novel are French naturalist 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. This was something that Lewes and Eliot believed, as well as their good friend, English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer. Thus Eliot 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 that are then passed down.

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