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The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot

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Is The Mill on the Floss a feminist novel?

The Mill on the Floss is a feminist novel in the sense that it reveals the difficulty of Maggie's coming of age, and that difficulty is shown to be made harder by her society's narrow views about women. Especially during Maggie's childhood, we are constantly confronted with older characters ignoring or devaluing Maggie's obvious intelligence because she is a girl. Even Tom is shown to participate in this narrowness—he considers it his right to keep Maggie in her place, as well as care for her. In scenes such as the one in which Mr. Stelling pronounces the cleverness of women to be shallow, we are clearly meant to become angry at this pronunciation and know automatically that the pronunciation is wrong. Significantly, society's mistaken views about the shallowness of women are shown to adversely effect men as well—it is Tom who suffers just as much as Maggie, through his miseducation. The structure of the novel itself presents Maggie as constrained and unable to move outside of her family circle. We are significantly not shown the chapters in which she is on her own, teaching, and are made to focus, instead, on scenes with Maggie and her family and friends, in which Maggie's subjection, or non- subjection, to their will is at issue. The passages dealing with the hypocritical morality of St. Ogg's society are unsparing in relation to women—the town's females are revealed as the most self-serving and shallow of the population—yet, this harsh realism does not change the basic feminist tenor of the novel.

Do the concerns of The Mill on the Floss relate to 1830s England?

The Mill on the Floss mainly deals with the troubled childhood and young adulthood of Maggie Tulliver, but a variety of background details reveal the changing community of the time and so relate to the actual sociological and economic shifts in 1830s England. The novel situates itslef on the cusp of a new economic order. The old ways of local provincial relations, illustrated through Mr. Tulliver, as well as the old ways of slow saving, as illustrated by the Gleggs and the Pullets, as shown to be giving way to a new order of speculation capitalism. The Tulliver family has owned Dorlcote Mill for years, but suddenly, new families like the Pivarts are advancing in the world and becoming moneyed and propertied. Over the course of the novel, we are shown how Mr. Deane advances in the world, making Mrs. Deane the most successful Dodson sister, when Mrs. Pullet had claimed that honor for years prior. Mr. Deane himself points to one of the agents of this change, in the steam engine. Mr. Deane also explains that the age of farming is being succeeded by the age of trade: "Somebody has said it's a fine thing to make two ears of corn grow where only one grew before; but, sir it's a fine thing, too, to further the exchange of commodities, and bring the grains of corn to the mouths that are hungry." Buying goods cheaply and selling them for a profit is the exact way that Tom made enough money to cancel the family debts. Finally, these economic forces are shown to effect the sociology of the society in that fortunes are won and lost more swiftly, and the hierarchies of the community are not as stable. Thus the young people of St. Ogg's are not as restricted in their choices of marriage partner as they may once have been—Stephen can marry down to Lucy Deane, and even to Maggie Tulliver, and Lawyer Wakem can agree to a match between his son and Maggie.

Make a case for either Philip, Tom, Stephen, or another character as the character who is depicted as having the most influence on Maggie's character.

Though Philip Wakem is shown to teach Maggie a great deal and to be the single force which leads her away from her path of self-abnegation, Tom still remains the character with the most formative power over Maggie. Tom's influence upon Maggie is hard to track for the same reason it is the most powerful: Tom has a negative influence upon Maggie's sensibility. As children, it is Tom that is set up as increasing Maggie's need for love and approval by his very denial of that love and approval. As they grow older, it is Tom who enables the shift in Maggie's inner struggle. When Tom finds out about Maggie's clandestine meetings with Philip Wakem, Tom, for the first time, articulates Maggie's failures in terms of a failure to fulfill her duty (up until then, Maggie's failures had been seen as the result merely of her impetuousity). This classification of Maggie's failures under the rubric of duty to close family affects Maggie's inner struggle throughout the rest of the novel, which will be understood by her in terms of duty versus love. Additionally, it is for her childhood with Tom that Maggie longs throughout her adult years—this pull to the past is entirely due to Tom's childhood effect on her. Finally, the structure of the novel itself invites us to recognize the supreme formative power Tom has over Maggie. Toward the end of the novel, it is in scenes with the unforgiving Tom which call for the most reader sympathy and allow us to classify Maggie Tulliver as a tragic figure. The final scene, in which the brother and sister drown together, cancels out the potential importance of figures such as Philip or Stephen, affirming the centrality of Tom to Maggie's character development.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss the role of the narrator. What is the purpose of having a narrator tell the story in the past tense? With whom does the narrator sympathize? What values does the narrator uphold? What does the narrator ask for from the reader?

In what sense is The Mill on the Floss a spiritual novel?

How does Eliot use water imagery? Does this imagery relate to the Floss? What does the Floss symbolize?

Is Mr. Tulliver a tragic character? Is he a tragic hero?

Discuss the Dodsons as a group. Are their values upheld?

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