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A Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

1860, William Blackwood and Sons

This is the story of Maggie and her older brother Tom set in the English countryside, in 1829-1840. They live in a mill house on the river Floss with their parents, who make their living running the mill. Maggie, a dreamer and free spirit, adores her brother Tom who doesn't always return her love, and is more conventional. As young adults, Maggie's behavior leads Tom to reject her, much to her dismay.

The sibling relationship topic attracted me to The Mill on the Floss, and I liked reading it, certainly more than my friend and fellow book clubber, Yvonne, as became clear in our recent discussion.

Yvonne: I found The Mill on the Floss a bit hard to get into, mainly because of the description-heavy first few chapters.

kb: I got into it right away, but it's true that a few times while reading before bed, I got a bit sleepier than usual. There was some rambling in the writing, and I wondered why it was required reading for high school students in the UK for so long! Maybe since the characters were young it was supposed to appeal to younger readers.

Y: It was difficult for me to identify with any of the characters apart from Bob Jakin, who was at best a minor character. Tom, especially, is so cruel and arrogant, and it's not at all clear why his younger sister Maggie is so loyally and fanatically devoted to him. Maggie even acknowledges Tom’s major shortcomings as a brother, but she cannot help but blindly love him!

kb: I didn't think of Tom as arrogant. Brothers and sisters are often hard with each other. Also, I think I would blindly love my brothers, even if they weren't so nice; they're my family.

Y: The author mentions that family ties justify Maggie's devotion to Tom, but Maggie feels no such connection to her mother who is just as critical and indifferent to her.

I did like the fact that most of the characters were complex and layered, each with their virtues and flaws. I really enjoyed Eliot's satiric depiction of the narrow provincialism of the town, portrayed through the eyes of the “respectable” relatives.

Eliot’s rebellion against the patriarchal nature of Victorian society and women’s place within it also struck a chord, but she couldn’t help comparing it to Jane Eyre, which was a much more satisfying read!

kb: I found her portrayal of Victorian society and Maggie's place in it fascinating, as compared to the author's own life. For example, George Eliot was born Mary Anne Evans; she had to use a man's name to publish. It's interesting that Mary and Maggie are fairly similar names, too. I think Eliot sees herself in Maggie.

Y: I found Maggie’s continual ditziness really aggravating, like when she stupidly decides to go off on the boat ride with Stephen, paying no attention to where she was and not realizing the potential consequences to her reputation. OK, she was attracted to him, but still! Then she insists on staying in the town after the “scandal” to convince everyone of her innocence instead of leaving, in spite of the pain caused to her family. Come on, is this a heroine that actually lived in Victorian society?

kb: Yes, I'd say in fact, it is! For me, Maggie represents George Eliot who also went against societal norms, living with George Henry Lewes without being married, which caused a rupture with her beloved brother who couldn't tolerate her behavior.


Y: Okay, but really, please, the ending…what a cop out. The plot device of the flood in the last couple of chapters, as a means of softening the hitherto rigidly disapproving brother, was contrived and not at all believable, given the history of their relationship. After all, Maggie agreed that her brother had the right to be bitterly angry when she carelessly "ruined her reputation" in the neighborhood after his painful sacrifices to rehabilitate the family's name. The happy end after all the events leading to the climax was incongruous. It was much too rushed, and left unresolved all the plot threads and character development Eliot had built up throughout the book. She took an easy-out. I wondered if this was a fantasy reconciliation based on Eliot’s real-life alienation from her own brother.

kb: Yes, to me it was definitely a fantasy reconciliation. I was shocked by the end, maybe because it was so unexpected, but also because it's sad that she felt drowning together was the only way to reunite. And did you say, happy end? Drowning in the river is a happy end? Even if they’re “reunited” it’s more tragic in my view!

Y: Yes, happy end because that’s what Maggie wanted!

kb: Did she want to die?

Y: No, she wanted to be reunited with her brother.

kb: I don't think it's a happy ending, but I'm beginning to see why you think it's an "easy out." If we're talking just about the story, not about George Eliot, her life and her fantasy of reconciliation with her brother, maybe a different ending would have been more realistic. But I don't mind if she goes with the fantasy ending.


Quotes from A Mill on the Floss

Tom to Maggie:

I don't want your money, you silly thing...I've got a great deal more money than you, because I'm a boy. (p 87)

On Maggie:

...her need of love had triumphed over her pride. (p 91)

On childhood chagrin we don't remember:

Every one of those keen moments has left its trace and lives in us still, but such traces have blent themselves irrecoverably with the firmer texture of our youth and manhood; and so it comes that we can look on at the troubles of our children with a smiling disbelief in the reality of their pain...(Here, the author gives examples such as: being left out of a game by friends, being bored to idleness then mischief then defiance into sulkiness)...Surely if we could recall the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the griefs of our children. (p 122)

While the possible troubles of Maggie's future were occupying her father's mind, she herself was tasting only the bitterness of the present. Childhood has no foreboding; but then, it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow. (p 145)

After Maggie pushed her cousin Lucy into the pond:

Usually her repentance came quickly after one rash deed, but now Tom and Lucy had made her so miserable, she was glad to spoil their happiness- glad to make everybody uncomfortable. Why should she be sorry? (p 164)
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