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The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot

Important Quotations Explained

Book Seventh, Chapters IV, V, and VI

Key Facts

It is a wonderful subduer, this need of love—this hunger of the heart—as peremptory as that other hunger by which Nature forces us to submit to the yoke, and change the face of the world.

This quotation, from Chapter V of Book First, introduces an important element in Maggie's character—her extreme need for love and affection. The use of the word "hunger" stresses the overwhelming power of Maggie's need. This need can sometimes seem self-centered, yet by related her need to a body's hunger, this quotation naturalizes and normalizes it. Love here is shown to be something humbling, something with power over characters ("submit to the yoke"), instead of a force that characters use. Finally, just as hunger makes humans adapt their behavior and environment ("change the face of the world" could mean planting crops), Maggie's need for love will be seen to be a formative force on her.

Nevertheless, there was a visible improvement in Tom under this training; perhaps because he was not a boy in the abstract, existing solely to illustrate the evils of a mistaken education, but a boy made of flesh and blood, with dispositions not entirely at the mercy of circumstances.

This quotation occurs as narrative commentary within Chapter IV of Book Second, and it points to George Eliot's preoccupation with realism. Eliot scorned so- called "realistic" novels that were written in her day in which characters were idealistically simple or stereotypical, and motives were depicted as straightforward. Eliot proposed to concentrate on psychological realism, depicting in detail the variety of forces at work within one character, to create a sense of authenticity and believability. At moments such as this, Eliot calls attention to this method by pointing to how a character would be treated in another novel. Though Eliot has a point to make about the evils of a miseducation, she will not make it bluntly or at the expense of the veracity of a main character. A similar comment occurs in Chapter III of Book First, when the narrator discusses the motivation behind Mr. Riley's recommendation of Mr. Stelling.

I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness [of the Tullivers and Dodsons]; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie—how it has acted on young natures in many generations, that in the onward tendency of human things have risen above the mental level of the generation before them, to which they have been nevertheless tied by the strongest fibres of their hearts.

This quotation, from Chapter I of Book Fourth, illustrates George Eliot's conception of human progress as a struggle of individuals against formative forces, yet also remaining faithful to those formative forces. In order for humanity to progress, each generation must move beyond the generation before it. Here the influence of George Eliot's knowledge of natural history and Darwinism can be detected. Yet, Eliot adds a stipulation of her own—without continued connection to those outgrown generations, something spiritual is lost in the onward progression. Maggie suffers at the hands of her family's expectations in childhood, yet does not abandon these expectations or family members in her adulthood, instead heeding their call to duty, with an added capacity of feeling on her part.

The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history.

This sentiment, (the quotation occurs within Chapter III of Book Sixth), was first articulated by Montesquieu in neutral gender as "the People." Eliot's gendering of the comment as female perhaps gestures to the fact women, more than men, are conspicuously absent from history. Yet, more specifically, the quotation gestures toward Maggie's status as a tragic character. The quotation also subtly points to Eliot's conception of progressive life as a struggle—to progress beyond previous generations is to meet difficulty, yet this progression is necessary and noble, worthy of recording and recounting, as she does with the story of Maggie Tulliver.

Was it possible to quarrel with a creature who had such eyes—defying and deprecating, contradicting and clinging, imperious and beseeching—full of delicious opposites? To see such a creature subdued by love for one would be a lot worth having.

This quotation occurs as a thought of Stephen Guest's at the end of Chapter VI in Book Sixth. It participates in the symbolism of Maggie's eyes, referred to throughout the novel, as expressive of her particularly deep character. The quotation, occurring as it does before Stephen and Maggie have voiced their mutual attraction, also foreshadows the dangerous instability that Stephen offers Maggie. Maggie has been wracked by competing impulses within her throughout the novel. This is part of her tragic character, yet here, Stephen finds this opposition "delicious." We also see that Stephen's love for Maggie is based on unsound principles: egoism, attraction to her novelty, and an impulse to dominate her.

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