The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Symbols


The River

The river is the central symbol and motif of the novel, and it variously represents life and the journey of life as well as Maggie's emotions. The river motif is echoed throughout the novel in the narrator's numerous references to metaphorical channels. People travel in their own channels, and they form habits that are like deep channels in their minds, forcing them to repeat certain actions and patterns, almost independent of their wills. The river is Eden (paradise) when two children, Maggie and Tom, play beside it and watch the eagre (tidal wave) make its way down the Floss in the spring; when they fish in the Round Pool created by the river, they are completely at ease and contented. The river makes life possible when millers harness its power to turn the wheel that grinds the grain or when the farmer uses its water to irrigate the fields. The river becomes the face of the Grim Reaper at the end of the novel, flooding the land around it and threatening lives—finally taking the lives of Maggie and Tom. At the end the river overflows, like Maggie's destructive emotions, which cannot be contained. She uses the river to get to her brother in an effort to save him, but in fact the river kills him. He probably would have survived if he had stayed in the attic and not come down to meet Maggie for the final reconciliation that she demanded.

The Pilgrim's Progress

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, a well-known and beloved Christian classic, is "background music" for Pilgrim Maggie's journey through life. Maggie is both the pious Christians in the Bunyan story, Christian and Christiana, as well as the demon Apollyon. She attempts to follow a strict path of Christian renunciation, yet her unmet unconscious desires wreak havoc on the people around her. Maggie's dual nature is seen early on, when Mr. Riley counsels her to put aside a text by English writer Daniel Defoe (most well-known for the adventure story Robinson Crusoe, 1719) and read a more appropriate book, and she grabs the Bunyan text. But the first thing she shows him is Christian battling the devil, who has been so nicely painted by her brother. Book 4 is called "The Valley of Humiliation," recalling the same valley that Christian and Christiana separately traverse. This is also where Christian meets the demon Apollyon and escapes from him. But in this section of the novel, Maggie is exposed to another exemplary text, The Imitation of Christ, and twists its message of renunciation into a pernicious gospel, which ends up hurting her as well as the people she loves. The pilgrimage for Maggie is as treacherous as those described in Bunyan's classic, and she succumbs to many pitfalls along the way. It is difficult to say how the author viewed the ending of The Mill on the Floss in the light of Bunyan's allegory, but for the reader the tragic ending closes off all possibility of Maggie's reaching any significant spiritual realization. In truth, she doesn't change from the beginning to the end of the novel.

The Red Deeps

The Red Deeps, woods near Maggie's house, symbolize sexual passion. Maggie asks Philip in their first meeting if he likes how she looks, and she is gratified when he responds that she is more beautiful than he had expected. This is the beginning of a yearlong friendship charged with sexual passion on Philip's side, even as Maggie pretends to not understand how Philip feels until he tells her directly. Even if she is not sexually attracted to him, she enjoys his worship as well as his intellectual companionship. She wants to be loved wholly and unconditionally, and this is what Philip offers. When Philip confesses his love, Maggie equivocates but leads him to believe she would be his mate if her brother did not have such strong objections. In fact, she convinces herself of this, thinking the "sacrifice" in this love would make it that much more "richer" and "satisfying." The scenes in the Red Deeps turn out to be a dress rehearsal for the sexual feelings she develops for Stephen Guest.

Maggie's Hair

Maggie's hair symbolizes her otherness, her "uncanniness," and the demonic side of her nature, which manifests unconsciously. In Book 1, Chapter 10, when Tom rejects Maggie and plays exclusively with Lucy, the narrator refers to Maggie as a little Medusa, referencing her shorn black locks. Medusa is the snake-haired demon goddess of Greek mythology whose look turns people to stone. Maggie's hair is heavy and unmanageable, like Maggie's emotions. When she first meets Rev. Stelling, she fears he might not like her and think her hair ugly because it hung straight down her back. After Maggie temporarily masters herself under the tutelage of Thomas à Kempis, Mrs. Tulliver braids up her long black hair and turns it into a thing of beauty as a crown upon her head, but this corralling of her "massy" locks is a temporary solution. In the Red Deeps, Maggie tells Philip that she would like to avenge the dark-haired women who always lose out in novels, and he playfully opines that she might live out that fantasy someday by stealing blonde-haired Lucy's beau. In fact, that is exactly what happens. Stephen is surprised by Maggie's "jet-black coronet of hair," since he was led to believe she is blonde, and, in fact, her otherness is attractive to Stephen. In the last scenes of the novel, Maggie's hair is unplaited as she steps into Bob Jakin's boat and then paddles to the mill to "rescue" Tom. Thus, Maggie in her demonic aspect goes down into the deeps with her brother while her hair is streaming.

The Legend of St. Ogg

The story of St. Ogg and the Virgin symbolically prefigures the destiny of Maggie and Tom. According to the legend, Ogg is a ferryman who agrees to take a woman dressed in rags across the river during a bad storm. The woman is carrying a child. He agrees because he sees her "heart's need." When he gets her to the other side, she is transformed into a beautiful woman in flowing white robes, emanating light and glory. The lady blesses the ferryman and says that whoever steps into his boat will be safe from any storm. After Ogg dies his boat is said to appear during floods, with the Blessed Virgin (the mother of Jesus) at the prow shedding light to help desperate rowers find their way in the darkness. The story of Maggie and Tom is a perverse recasting of the legend. For Maggie, the Virgin is both the mother she never had as well as herself, attempting to save her brother from the storm. Tom becomes Ogg when he steps into the boat with his sister, but gets no opportunity to guide them, since the boat is almost immediately capsized by debris. Maggie and Tom have no child because they are siblings, but neither has been able to find love and happiness with a partner.

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