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The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1: Boy and Girl

The tragedy of the Tulliver family is told by an omniscient male narrator who appears to have a female sensibility and is extremely sympathetic toward the main character, Maggie. The Tulliver family consists of nine-year-old Maggie and her older brother Tom, almost 13, together with their father, who owns Dorlcote Mill on the tributary of the Floss River, and his wife, Bessy Tulliver, formerly a Dodson. Mrs. Tulliver lacks warmth and empathy as a mother and favors her son, and she regularly criticizes Maggie, whose looks she finds objectionable—she is dark and doesn't take after the blonde Dodsons—and whose passionate emotions and depth of intelligence she cannot relate to nor understand. The Dodson sisters, particularly Jane Glegg and Sophy Pullet, also criticize Maggie and unfavorably compare her to her blonde and well-behaved cousin, Lucy Deane, the daughter of Susan Deane, also a Dodson sister. Maggie is loved and protected by her father, although his care cannot make up for what she misses from her mother. Thus Maggie transfers much of her love and affection to her older brother Tom and can't bear to be at odds with him.

As the story begins Mr. Tulliver has decided to send his son, Tom, for further schooling with a private tutor, Rev. Stelling, who lives at a distance. When the Dodsons come for dinner and learn about this plan, Mrs. Glegg in particular raises strong objections and gets into a serious argument with Mr. Tulliver, and she ends up reminding him he owes her 500 pounds. Meanwhile Maggie's reunion with her brother, who has just returned from school, is spoiled because she has forgotten to feed his rabbits and they have died. He tells her he doesn't love her and won't take her fishing, but he finally forgives her with some prodding from his father. The relationship between the siblings is developed in Book 1, and it becomes evident that Tom is a self-righteous taskmaster with fixed ideas about what is fair and proper behavior, while Maggie craves her brother's love and affection and is devastated whenever he rejects her. After the argument with Mrs. Glegg, Mr. Tulliver is determined to repay her the money as quickly as possible, although she has no intention of calling in the debt. He ends up borrowing the 500 pounds he owes his sister-in-law from a client of his enemy, a lawyer named Mr. Wakem, who has successfully disputed Mr. Tulliver once in court and will likely represent a farmer who is arguing with the miller over water rights.

While Mrs. Tulliver is visiting her sister Mrs. Pullet, Tom gets annoyed with Maggie again and punishes her by ignoring her and paying exclusive attention to their cousin Lucy. This sends the passionate Maggie into a rage, and she pushes Lucy into the mud. Fearful of the consequences, Maggie runs away, planning to join the gypsies, to whom she has been compared on numerous occasions. She quickly happens on a gypsy camp shortly after leaving her aunt's house, and one of the gypsies puts her on his horse to return her to her family. Mr. Tulliver happens to cross paths with them on his way back home, and he takes the child and makes sure that neither her mother nor brother give her more grief.

Book 2: School-Time

Tom is packed off to Rev. Stelling and hates this new arrangement. He has a difficult time with academic subjects like Latin and geometry, and for the first time he feels inadequate. Tom is overjoyed to return home for the Christmas holidays, but his happiness is somewhat marred by his father's continual ire over a dispute with the farmer Pivart, who is diverting water for irrigation. Mr. Tulliver is determined to sue him over water rights, even though he has already lost one lawsuit about using his land as a thoroughfare. He believes the lawyer Wakem was behind this legal action, and Pivart intends to have Wakem represent him in court.

Wakem has also decided to send his handicapped son to Rev. Stelling for further education, and when Tom returns after the holiday, he meets the humpbacked Philip for the first time. The boys form a cautious friendship, although Tom can't help but distrust the son of his father's enemy. They soon get into an argument and stop talking to each other, but when Maggie visits she develops a friendship with Philip. When Tom hurts his foot after playing with a sword, Maggie stays in his sickroom, and Philip begins visiting as well. Before Maggie leaves Philip tells her that he wishes he had her for a sister, and the two of them part on very good terms. In fact, Philip has fallen in love with Maggie.

Time goes by and Maggie is sent to a girl's school with Lucy, and toward the end of Tom's third year, Maggie comes to fetch him back home. A terrible calamity has occurred: his father has lost the lawsuit and, as a result, Dorlcote Mill, the house, and the land. Even worse, their father has fallen off his horse and seems to be temporarily out of his mind.

Book 3: The Downfall

Mr. Tulliver not only lost his property, but he is also bankrupt and owes money all around. The siblings come home to find the bailiff in the house, for they are to be "sold-up," and the money used from the sale of their property and goods to pay down some of their debt. The Dodsons are called to a family council, and although they all have plenty of money, they will not bail the Tullivers out and go only as far as buying back enough of the furniture and stock to allow the family to live like paupers in their old quarters. Mrs. Glegg severely chastises Mrs. Tulliver in place of her husband (who is still ill) and tells the entire family they must now humble themselves, having brought disgrace on the Dodsons. Shortly thereafter, Tom applies to Uncle Deane to help him get a job, and Mr. Deane finds him a place as a laborer in a warehouse. Tom is determined to work hard and pay off his father's creditors.

Mr. Deane has positioned his company to purchase the mill property, but Mrs. Tulliver foolishly goes to Mr. Wakem to beg him not to buy it at auction, even though she was told by her brothers-in-law to stay away from him. Wakem didn't even realize it was up for auction, but now he outbids Mr. Deane's company. As a result, when Mr. Tulliver comes back to his senses he learns that if he wishes to stay on as a tenant he will have to work for Wakem. He agrees to do this for the sake of his family and because he can't bear to leave the land he was born on. Nonetheless, he has Tom make a vow of vengeance on Wakem and write it in the family Bible.

Book 4: The Valley of Humiliation

All of the efforts of the Tulliver family are now centered on saving enough money to pay off their remaining debt. Mr. Tulliver saves every penny he can from his own earnings, and Mrs. Tulliver economizes at home. Tom brings home his entire salary and puts it in his father's tin box. Mr. Tulliver remains depressed and distant, and Tom, between working and taking bookkeeping classes, is barely home. Maggie feels more and more isolated and longs for human contact and affection, but her family has no time for that.

One day Bob Jakin, an old friend of Tom's and a traveling peddler, stops by with some used books, since he knows Maggie loves reading. In the pile left by Bob, Maggie finds an old Christian classic, Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. The book preaches withdrawal from the transitory charms of the world and counsels renunciation. Maggie thinks she has found the secret to life, and she immediately begins putting à Kempis's advice into practice. But Maggie has neither the understanding nor the background to make proper use of this mystical tract, and she ends up using renunciation as a way to cover up her deep dissatisfaction.

Book 5: Wheat and Tares

One day Wakem calls on Mr. Tulliver with his son Philip, who is back in town, but Maggie avoids him. Maggie, immersed in her new philosophy, still allows herself to walk in the Red Deeps, a wood near the mill. She is now 16 or 17 and has grown into a tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty. Philip follows her to the woods shortly after he glimpses her at the house, and the two have a heartfelt reunion. Maggie tells Philip, however, that she cannot see him because her father and brother have forbidden it. Philip, even more in love when he sees Maggie again, convinces her after a second visit to the Red Deeps that he might run into her from time to time, which would not constitute secret meetings. She agrees because she is starving for companionship.

Maggie and Philip continue their friendship for about a year. He loans her books, and they have long discussions about literature and art. Philip finally reveals to Maggie that he loves and worships her. She admits that she has not thought of him as a lover but she says she could "hardly love anyone better." Nonetheless, how she feels is beside the point, since they could never be together because of the rift between the two families. Maggie kisses Philip and gives him false hope, even though she is not sexually attracted to him. Soon afterward Tom accidentally discovers his sister has been meeting Philip, and he promises to tell their father if she doesn't stop seeing him. Maggie agrees, and Tom meets Philip and upbraids him in the worst possible terms.

While Maggie has been clandestinely seeing Philip, Tom has been making a profit by speculating with a small amount of starter money borrowed from the Gleggs. He has been trading goods abroad with Bob Jakin and has saved enough money to pay his father's debt. He springs this surprise on his father, and they hold a dinner for the creditors and pay them. Afterward, a slightly drunk Mr. Tulliver returns home and gets into an argument with Wakem, who is waiting for him at the mill. He ends up quitting his job and seriously beating Wakem until he is stopped by Maggie. He then falls ill and dies the next day.

Book 6: The Great Temptation

Book 6 opens two years later. Maggie has been teaching out of town; Mrs. Tulliver is living with the Deanes since her sister Susan died; and Tom is boarding with Bob Jakin's family. Lucy is being courted by the heir of the manufacturing magnate who heads her father's business, young Stephen Guest. While they are not yet engaged, they have an understanding between them. Philip Wakem has become good friends with both Stephen and Lucy, and the three of them play and sing together. When Maggie comes for an extended visit, Stephen is immediately attracted to her and vice versa. With Tom's permission, Maggie is able to renew her acquaintance with Philip, since he is friends with Lucy, but Tom warns her that if she returns to her previous relations he will disown her. As time passes, Maggie allows Philip to believe that, if it were not for her brother, there would be no obstacle in the way of their happiness. Meanwhile, she struggles with her feelings for Stephen. During this same time period, Mr. Deane is able to buy back the mill from Wakem so that Tom can manage it for Guest & Co. and eventually buy it himself. Wakem agrees to sell the property for the sake of his son. When Philip first tells his father about his feelings for Maggie, he disapproves, but he then accepts the possibility of Maggie as a daughter-in-law.

Maggie is determined to go out of town again and has accepted a new position. But she and Stephen find themselves alone for a boating excursion, and he engineers an elopement, which Maggie at first agrees to but then renounces. She tells Stephen she cannot be happy with him when it will cause so much grief to the two people they have left behind—Lucy and Philip.

Book 7: The Final Rescue

Maggie comes back to town unmarried, and she has not consummated her relationship with Stephen. She attempts to return to her brother, who now lives at the mill, but he categorically disowns her. Maggie then becomes a boarder at Bob Jakin's. Although she has been shunned by the town and can't get work, Maggie insists on staying in place. Stephen writes her to say he still wants to marry her, but she resists him.

In mid-September the river overflows and badly floods the town, and Maggie is swept out by herself in one of Bob Jakin's boats as she and his family are trying to leave. Maggie immediately rows toward the mill and reaches Tom, who calls to her from the attic. He is alone because his mother left the day before for her sister's house. He comes down to join Maggie in the boat, but as soon as Tom gets them out into the river, a large piece of debris crashes into their boat, capsizing it, and the siblings drown. They are found embracing each other at the moment of death, having accomplished a final reconciliation.

The Mill on the Floss Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Mr. Tulliver argues with Mrs. Glegg about Tom's education.

Rising Action

2 Philip and Maggie make friends when she visits Tom.

3 Mr. Tulliver loses his lawsuit and becomes a bankrupt.

4 Mr. Tulliver remains at the mill as a tenant, cursing Wakem.

5 Tom ends the relationship between Maggie and Philip.

6 Mr. Tulliver argues with Wakem and dies after Tom pays debt.

7 Maggie returns to St. Ogg's and meets Stephen Guest.

8 Maggie and Philip rekindle their friendship.

9 Stephen declares his love to Maggie.

10 Tom gets the mill back with the help of Mr. Deane.


11 Maggie and Stephen leave St. Ogg's to elope.

Falling Action

12 Maggie returns to St. Ogg's alone, and Tom disowns her.

13 Philip and Lucy forgive Maggie.

14 Maggie and Tom reconcile, then die together in the flood.


15 Philip, Stephen, and Lucy visit the graves.

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