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The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Themes


Sorrows and Ecstasies of Childhood

Strong emotions people feel in childhood often determine the way character develops and are often more powerful than the emotions they will later experience as adults. This is because in childhood a lot of thoughts and ideas about how a person should act and feel have not yet been developed, and a child has fewer defense mechanisms than an adult. Book 1 of the novel, in particular, dramatizes these strong feelings. For example, Maggie's unbridled rage is described, as she beats the head of a wooden doll in the attic and grinds its face on the rough bricks. She has already put three nails in this doll's head, which sometimes stands in for the people she hates and perhaps stands in for herself and her own self-hatred. Tom's rage is also unbridled, although he doesn't have temper tantrums. He revenges himself on Maggie by telling her he doesn't love her and saying he would prefer his cousin Lucy as a sister. Once the siblings make up, the narrator describes their idyllic interlude while fishing—their own little piece of heaven. Maggie is in a state of ecstasy as she fishes with her brother at the Round Pool and has to be told by Tom that there is a fish on the line. Maggie carries these strong feelings from childhood, particularly her intense attachment to her brother, into adult life, although she learns how to modulate her feelings to some degree, and for periods of time she even represses them.

Necessity of Human Connection

The novel examines the importance of having meaningful relationships with other human beings in which one can give and receive love. Maggie suffers in childhood because she has received insufficient love and acceptance from her mother as well as her aunts, and this creates in her a narcissistic rage that follows her into adulthood and is behind many of the bad choices she makes. She is not conscious of the fact that her anger issues are unresolved, and this causes her to unconsciously hurt people, even while remaining hungry for love. Philip Wakem suffers from rejection because of his humpback, and although his father loves him, he grows up without the love of a mother. He is in danger of growing bitter, but his love for Maggie saves him from this fate, despite the fact that she does not return his romantic feelings. Tom is an example of someone who becomes smaller as a person because of the lack of love in his life. Although Maggie loves him, he has a hard time accepting that love because his sister is so different from him, and he spends most of his time being angry with her. He is in love with Lucy, but she is in love with another, so Tom retreats into his work. He shoulders the financial responsibility for his family at a young age, but the fact that he neglects his emotional needs makes him even more rigid and unyielding. He is incapable of forgiving his sister when she returns to St. Ogg's; if he had reached out to her instead with love and compassion, the novel would not have ended in their twin deaths.

Limits of Empathy

The centerpiece of George Eliot's moral creed is empathy and compassion for one's fellow beings, and in The Mill on the Floss, she shows how people miss each other and lack the ability to empathize with those who are not like them because they lack imagination. But even characters who have deep empathy often fail in their ability to extend their imagination and often end up putting their own selfish needs ahead of others. Tom Tulliver has no empathy for anyone who is not like himself and does not share his values. This is the most serious problem between Tom and Maggie: he has no understanding of her passionate nature and deep emotional need, and he believes that his value system is superior to hers and imposes it on her. Neither does Mrs. Tulliver have any capacity for empathy; she softens toward her daughter only after Maggie becomes outwardly malleable—like herself.

While Maggie has a large capacity for empathy, her ability to empathize fails her in the end, not so much because she nearly elopes with Stephen, but rather because she doesn't see how her rigorous adherence to misunderstood ascetic principles is simply another form of ego. Her refusal to go through with the elopement and insistence on staying in St. Ogg's actually does more damage to the people she claims to love than if she had gone through with a marriage to Stephen or at least had agreed to leave town. Throughout the novel, Maggie continually hurts Philip and later Stephen by not being honest about her feelings and adhering to a code of renunciation that becomes a weapon in her hands. Philip Wakem is the only character who finally goes beyond his own empathetic limits. He recognizes his own selfish appropriation of Maggie and is willing to let her go. By the end of the novel he loves Maggie unconditionally, and nothing she can do will change the way he feels about her. While he perhaps doesn't see her clearly, he sees what is best and beautiful in her and rededicates himself to her. In his letter of forgiveness he calls her "large-souled" and says he never doubted the heart he recognized in her when they first met.

Failure of Renunciation

Renunciation often fails when a soul is not ready for such a hard and lofty path. When Maggie first discovers The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, she feels she has found a lifeline and a solution to her suffering and longing for more and more. The 14th-century monk prescribes putting aside self-love and personal desires and advises the spiritual aspirant to think of the suffering of others to feel their own adversity less. But as the narrator notes, Maggie does not realize "renunciation remains sorrow, though sorrow borne willingly." Maggie wants to be happy, and she wants to be loved and cherished in the material world. She has neither the background nor the temperament nor the wisdom to walk the monk's path of nonattachment to the world. Rather, she outwardly renounces and inwardly represses her desire, so it is not surprising that her need eventually breaks through to the surface and wreaks havoc. Because Maggie will not own her desire, she ends up hurting the people she claims to love: Tom, Philip, Stephen, and Lucy. She pretends to obey Tom, which is worse than outwardly defying him when he learns the truth about her secret meetings with Philip. She hurts Philip by leading him on and making him think she loves him romantically. She hurts Stephen by eloping with him and then rejecting him. She hurts Lucy by betraying her—pretending to love Philip when she really loves Stephen. Maggie's insistence on a reconciliation with her brother leads her to "rescue" him from the flood when, in fact, he likely would have lived if she had left him at the mill.

Tyranny of Society

The tyranny of society is evident in the Dodson creed of conventionality, as well as in the way in which "the world's wife" denounces and ostracizes Maggie at the end of the novel. The Dodson clan are a kind of mini-society that imposes its will on kin as well as the people they marry. "The religion of the Dodsons consisted in revering what was customary and respectable," the narrator notes. Thus, as respectable bourgeois, they believe it their duty and purpose for living to accumulate wealth and leave their money to family members. When Mr. Tulliver fails to follow this creed and ends up bankrupt, they punish the family quite severely, giving them as little help as possible and reviling Mr. Tulliver for disgracing their name. Mrs. Glegg tells her sister, Mrs. Tulliver, that "it's right you should feel what your state is, and what disgrace your husband's brought on your family, as you've got to look to for everything—and be humble in your mind." She objects to buying back anything but the necessities for the Tulliver family, noting that her money should not be "squandered on them as have had the same chance as me, only they've been wicked and wasteful." Thus the Dodsons pass judgment of the Tullivers, who have not lived up to their standards of virtuous mercantilism.

Society also falls on Maggie with a vengeance when she returns from her aborted elopement. Although it soon becomes clear that Maggie has not consummated her relationship with Stephen, she is ostracized by everyone except for Dr. Kenn, who tries unsuccessfully to get her work. As the narrator notes, the hypocritical "world's wife" could have forgiven a handsome married couple who returned to town and would have expected Philip and Lucy to move on. But Maggie returns in a "degraded and outcast condition to which error is known to lead," putting her actions in the worst possible light. The town passes judgment on Maggie for not adhering to conventional values—which is to be concerned about the way things "look" rather than the way things are. Society passes judgment on Maggie because she has upset the apple cart of the status quo. In the view of the "world's wife," she should have either gone through with the elopement and allowed time to cover up her transgression, or she should have left town and started over somewhere else, so that society did not have to cope with her as an anomaly of misguided righteousness.

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