Mill on the Floss (1860)

Maggie and Tom, children of Bessy (Dodson) and Tom Tulliver are best friends: Tom is domineering and block-headed while Maggie is free-spirited, intelligent, but submissive to Tom’s wishes. Mr. Tulliver manages his finances poorly, which makes the Dodson sisters angry and judgmental of the Dodson line–they consign Maggie to that branch of the family. Tulliver goes into debt at some point in time (compounded by the fact that he has leant money to his sister Mrs. Moss and does not demand its repayment) and Mr. Wakem takes the Dorlcote Mill. Waken is Philip Wakem’s father, an effete schoolmate of Tom’s who loves Maggie. Maggie promises herself to Philip (a cripple from birth?), despite the fact that Tom will not allow for there to be any connection. Tulliver eventually dies, but not before Tom manages to earn enough money to pay all of his debts. This happens simultaneously. While Tom sets out to buy back the Mill (the dying wish of his father) Maggie goes into town to live with her cousin Lucy, who is being courted by Stephen Guest. Stephen falls in love with Maggie, but Maggie resists him for the sake of both Lucy and Philip (whom she has seen clandestinely many times, up until Tom caught them. However, Stephen manages to get her to go on a boat ride that carries them beyond the point of their intended meeting with Lucy. They stay out all night. Maggie still refuses to marry Stephen, despite the fact that this would effectively clear her name. Stephen goes abroad and Maggie moves in with the town priest, and begins working to rebuild her name. Tom eventually gets the mill back but one evening the flood comes. Maggie leaves her abode (staying with childhood admirer Bill and family) and canoes over to Tom. She saves him from the house, but they are taken under by the debris. Town life continues; nature repairs its wounds. Tom and Maggie are buried together.


Strange narration frame: the impossible anonymous narrator that opens the story does not return to close it.

Flood imagery: throughout water is associated with the dangerous overflow of sentiment: different only in degree from the violent flood that will wipe away the lives of Maggie, Tom, and the novel itself. Connect with discourse of passion and sensibility.

Pastoral: Tom and Maggie’s childhood is Wordsworthian to the hilt. Their transition to adulthood is premised on a move to the urban as well as a consciousness of capital flow and debt. The allegorical connection with England as a whole is unmistakeable.

Characters: As with Silas Marner and Adam Bede, this is a portrait of low people, with the intention of uncovering the tragic in the everyday. Works by apophasis when saying: these stories do not ever get recorded.

Ending: Violent means of solving many oft he tension that Eliot could not otherwise resolve–in particular, the elicit romance between Tom and Maggie. It also is aestheticized (cf. Koven), and thus the death of the characters presages and conditions the move to a mode of representation that can adequately sublimate violence, rather than merely convey or mime it.

Debt: The crucial plot-mover in the novel. Linked with death in that Tulliver can only die when the debt is payed. Link with notion of equilibrium, etc. (Freud, Brooks). It also establishes its own narrative arc that is superseded by the romance that its structure cannot contain. Thus a “normal novel” would end with Tom’s reclamation of the Mill, but this narrative overshoots itself by attempting to pick up the uncontainable energies of Maggie.

Education: Contrast Philip, Tom and Maggie in terms of educational success. A rustic vs. cosmopolitan education, etc.

History: read as an aestheticized historical novel, a eulogy to a time that now exceeds the bounds of representation. How does this history relate to the capacity remember…and how does this relate to the memorializing impulse?




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s