Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This post contains spoilers. 

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is the story of Maggie Tulliver. It is a brilliant character study. The tale starts during Maggie’s childhood. She is very close to her brother, Tom. The relationship between the two siblings plays a key role in this story.  At the book’s beginning, Maggie’s father, a fairly prosperous mill owner, is embroiled in a legal battle with a neighbor, Mr. Wakem, the result of which leaves him ruined. The balance of Tom and Maggie’s adolescence is spent in financial straits.

Maggie is sensitive. She is a free thinker who appreciates art and culture. She is different from those around her. Much of the tale illustrates how her gifts and virtues are underappreciated. This lack of appreciation stems from the unfair way that women and girls are viewed, as well as the fact that the people around her are unimaginative and lack understanding. 

Tom grows up to be dull, cold and unappreciative of culture. At times, his behavior is terrible. He takes advantage of Maggie’s great affection for him and uses these feelings to control her. For her part, Maggie has an almost unnatural connection and love for Tom.

Philip Wakem, a character who suffers from physical deformities, is a member of the rival Wakem clan. He is extremely intelligent and sensitive. He and Maggie develop a great affection for one another. Their relationship falls short of romantic love and can best be characterized as spiritual love. Their potential marriage is opposed by Tom, who forces them to separate.

Later in the story, Maggie and Phillip reestablish contact. But they continue their relationship in an unrequited manner. When wealthy Stephen Guest appears on the scene and establishes a romantic connection with Maggie, the situation becomes very complicated. Much of the balance of the book is devoted to the conflict between Maggie’s spiritual feelings for Philip and her romantic feelings for Steven. 

This novel is a great character study. Maggie is a wonderful literary creation. The book is also filled with wisdom that comes served on platter of delectable writing. In the below passage, the mundane character of everyday life is compared to the old days when things were supposedly grandeur,  

“Journeying down the Rhone on a summer's day, you have perhaps felt the sunshine made dreary by those ruined villages which stud the banks in certain parts of its course, telling how the swift river once rose, like an angry, destroying god, sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils, and making their dwellings a desolation. Strange contrast, you may have thought, between the effect produced on us by these dismal remnants of commonplace houses, which in their best days were but the sign of a sordid life, belonging in all its details to our own vulgar era, and the effect produced by those ruins on the castled Rhine, which have crumbled and mellowed into such harmony with the green and rocky steeps that they seem to have a natural fitness, like the mountain-pine; nay, even in the day when they were built they  earth-born race, who had inherited from their mighty parent a sublime instinct of form. And that was a day of romance; If those robber-barons were somewhat grim and drunken ogres, they had a certain grandeur of the wild beast in them,– they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending, not the ordinary domestic grunter; they represented the demon forces forever in collision with beauty, virtue, and the gentle uses of life; they made a fine contrast in the picture with the wandering minstrel, the soft-lipped princess, the pious recluse, and the timid Israelite. That was a time of color, when the sunlight fell on glancing steel and floating banners; a time of adventure and fierce struggle,– nay, of living, religious art and religious enthusiasm; for were not cathedrals built in those days, and did not great emperors leave their Western palaces to die before the infidel strongholds in the sacred East? Therefore it is that these Rhine castles thrill me with a sense of poetry; they belong to the grand historic life of humanity, and raise up for me the vision of an echo. But these dead-tinted, hollow-eyed, angular skeletons of villages on the Rhone oppress me with the feeling that human life– very much of it– is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather tends to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception; and I have a cruel conviction that the lives these ruins are the traces of were part of a gross sum of obscure vitality, that will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers."

The writing is so good in the above passages. The imagery of the monumental things and people of the past is very impressive. It makes such an effective contrast with the more modern “dreary” and “ruined” villages. In the above quote, even the villains were magnificent, they were  “demon forces forever in collision with beauty” and “they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending.”  The prose also creates such an effective contrast between the mundane aspects of life and the awe-inspiring parts of human existence.

Eliot goes on to observe that the giants of the past also overshadow the story’s current characters. 

“Perhaps something akin to this oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you in watching this old-fashioned family life on the banks of the Floss, which even sorrow hardly suffices to lift above the level of the tragi-comic. It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and Dodsons, irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith; moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime; without that primitive, rough simplicity of wants, that hard, submissive, ill-paid toil, that childlike spelling-out of what nature has written, which gives its poetry to peasant life. Here one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish, surely the most prosaic form of human life; proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build; worldliness without side-dishes.”

The Tullivers and Dodsons mentioned above are Maggie’s maternal and paternal families. Her aunts and uncles are often jealous, vindictive, braggadocios and constantly bickering. While her father is not without his virtues, he becomes obsessed with vengeance upon the Wakems. Tom can be cold and controlling. He becomes work obsessed. He holds no romantic thoughts at all. 

I think that the above quotes are a key to this novel. Maggie’s life can be viewed as the exact opposite of the “sordid life” lived by her relatives. Her relations often live a “a “narrow, ugly, groveling existence.” These passaes come early in the book. In retrospect, Maggie’s story seems to reach the level of magnificence embodied in the past as described here. Her relatives are often vulgar, but she is not. She strives for sublime principles and experiences romantic visions. She has a strong faith and tries to do what is right. Almost everything mentioned in the above paragraph characterizes positive things about Maggie and negative things about her relatives. One cannot help but to think that Maggie would be better suited had she lived in the times of romance, robber barons and drunken ogres. It is a testament to just how much her character shines and that one could picture her among such heroes and villains. 

The angry, destroying god” that made  “their dwellings a desolation” also foreshadows a terrible flood that eventually sweeps away much of the world depicted in this story. 

This book is also filled with ideas, philosophy and observations on human nature. These ruminations are often tied to the story’s themes. Like Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” this work brims full of references to various art forms. 

The plot develops very slowly. Eliot is more interested in developing characters and ideas than in moving things along. Those looking for a plot driven narrative might be bored with sections of this novel. However, the thoughtful and patient reader will be rewarded. 

There is so much to this book. At its heart, it is a great character study told in magnificent prose. In addition to Maggie, it is also filled with complex and well wrought out characters. It is full of philosophy, wisdom and culture. It is an interesting story. Ultimately it is a brilliantly written exploration of characters and ideas. 


Suko said...

Brian Joseph, this does sound like a brilliantly written exploration of characters and ideas! I think I'd relish reading this novel. Excellent review!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

That whole chapter, "A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet," was quite something, a real puzzler from the title on down. Wait, why are we in France? "It is a sordid life, you say" - what, no! That was you, George, if that is your real name. I said no such thing.

Quite a chapter, anyways. Quite an argument. My tastes run more to the hilarious "Mrs Tulliver's Teraphim, or Household Gods."

seraillon said...

Decades since I read this, but I'm still there with Maggie, running away with the gypsies. I've been tinkering with the idea of attempting Middlemarch this year, but now you have me wanting to reread The Mill on the Floss.

Mudpuddle said...

reading David Cecil's "early victorian novelists"(Penguin paperback, 1947), he describes GE's works as excelling in conveying her characters gradual moral developments over time, and has praise for her well thought out plots; and goes on to speak of her "creative imagination" as being somewhat smaller in range than many of her fellow victorians... concluding that while being a very great writer, she was rather puritanical in her overall conception, being limited in the treatment of more outre features of human existence. after reading Cecil's essay, and having read several of GE's books, i don't think i quite agree with his expressed opinions... to be sure, she wasn't tuned in to some of the sex and violence common in modern novels, but she explored every meaningful sort of relationship that a late 19th c. author could well deal with, and, i think, achieved more than a little expression of many of the major human concerns and problems within her chosen compass... great excerpts and post... many tx...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Perhaps the French thing was an attempt to contrast the grandeur of the French countryside and its history with the countryside around the Floss.

"Mrs Tulliver's Teraphim, or Household Gods." was hilarious.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko,

There are lots of good things in this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - The passage with the gypsies was a great one.

I really liked this book. But I liked Middlemarch better.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle -

I am thinking about Cecil's quote in terms of this book as well as Middlemarch. Eliot really was a range of emotions and relationships so I think I also disagree with the statements.

Jonathan said...

I watched the 1997 film version starring Emily Watson just the other day and thought it was done really well. I want to read the book now.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Johnathan - I have not seen the film. I must catch it.

Carol said...

I have mixed feelings about George Eliot's writing. Really enjoyed Adam Bede; Silas Marner was ok and I read Middlemarch some time ago but I don't remember liking it very much. Mill on the Floss sounds good & I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

Gently Mad said...

A failed attempt to get through Silas Marner in high school has prevented me from ever reading Eliot. I must reevaluate this attitude of mine.

A question: You call the protagonist a "free thinker". What is your definition of "free thinker"? Someone who defies societal norms?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I agree that a free thinker does not accept all social norms. But I would add that a free thinker does not rebel mindlessly and just for rebellions sake. They choose what to accept and reject. Maggie's refusal to scorn a young Philip, despite others doing so is an example.

I never read Silas Marner. With that, I do not think that I would have like George Eliot when I was in high school.

Have a great weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I never read Adam Bede or Silas Marner but I loved Middlemarch. I thought it was better then this book so I am not sure if you would enjoy this one.

Caroline said...

Like Scott I was thinking of finally reading Middlemarch but I haven't read this one either and you made it sound so great. I have a feeling this is a heroine, I'd like. Great post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- As much as I liked this I liked Middlemarch more. That book also had a brilliantly crafted heroine. I think that you will not go wrong with either book.

Kathy's Corner said...

I haven't read George Elliot but your review and the passages you quoted makes me realize that I must give Middlemarch a try. As for The Mill and the Floss I particularly liked tne passage where Elliot looks out at the banks of the river and compares life in Medieval England to the Victorian age in which the novel is set. I guess its human nature to romanticize the past.

James said...

I love all of George Eliot's novels. They are all excellent and your review of The Mill on the Floss provides insights into that excellence. You have reminded me that I am overdue to reread one of her novels, or perhaps tackle Romola, the only one I've never read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I have only read this one and Middlemarch. I have much to look forward to.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - That is a great passage.

JacquiWine said...

I remember reading this novel at school and really enjoying it. Unusual for me as the process of studying and analysing a set text tended to suck the life out of the story. Thank you for a lovely reminder.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - it seems a lot of folks read George Eliot in school.

It is interesting. I love analyzing books. I even liked it back at school.

Citizen Reader said...

Yet another great review.
I have never read George Eliot, which just seems wrong. My only defense is that I was so busy reading Bronte and Austen a million times (each book) that I had no time left for other classics!
I so wish I had read more in high school and college when I had the time. I remember reading East of Eden by Steinbeck and Of Human Bondage by Maugham during that time and it was very pleasurable just to immerse myself in the classic prose styles. I honestly don't think I'd have the patience anymore. Sad.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Citizen.

There is so much to read and time is always an issue. As much as I liked this book I would recommend Middlemarch if you ever decide to try Eliot.

Maria Behar said...

Thanks for another outstanding, well-written post, Brian!!

WOW. I have never read any of George Eliot's work, but I can see that I've really been missing out! The woman was obviously a BRILLIANT writer!! I was blown away by the two quotes you provided in your review. I love her elegance of style, her vivid metaphors, the way she contrasts different historical periods and cities. She was also obviously a woman of great culture.

How very sad that she felt it necessary, as the Brontë sisters did, to use a masculine pen name so that her work would be taken seriously.... Indeed, she has gone down in literary history as "George Eliot", and not Mary Ann Evans, which was her real name.

Interestingly, there was a 20th-century SF writer who also used a male pen name. I suppose hat was because of her chosen literary genre. I'm referring to James Tiptree, Jr., whose real name was Alice Bradley Sheldon. I'm sure you must have read her works, since you enjoy SF fo much.

It wasn't until 1977, ten years before her passing, that it became widely known that Tiptree was really a woman. This quote from Wikipedia is very interesting: "She was most notable for breaking down the barriers between writing perceived as inherently 'male' or 'female'—".

In this vein, here's another interesting, and even ironic, quote from the same Wikipedia article, and coming from none other than Robert Silverberg! It has a marked sexist tone. Here it is: " "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing." " I can't believe this, from a fellow science fiction writer!!

Then there's the case of J.K. Rowling, whose publishers thought that her intended reading public -- young boys -- would not relate well to the Harry Potter series if they thought it had been written by a woman. She therefore decided to use the initials "JK" (and she actually has no middle name, by the way), instead of her real name, Joanne Rowling. She now also uses the pen name, "Robert Galbraith" for her newer novels, which are written for adults. I guess her motive for doing this was to have people react to her adult books without previous reference to the Harry Potter series. She apparently wanted these books judged on their own merits.

(More coming.....)

Maria Behar said...

Getting back to "The Mill On The Floss", I am now interested in reading it, thanks mostly to your comments about Maggie. She does indeed sound like a very compelling, well fleshed-out character. And she was a misfit in her world, due to her intelligence and high regard for culture. I wonder how many such real-life young people -- whether boys or girls -- around the world, and in different centuries, have felt similarly at odds with, and been stifled by, those closest to them, as well as the society they lived in.....

(At this point, I can hear Archie Bunker shouting in my head, "Stifle, Edith! Stifle!" Lol.)

BTW, I LOVE this quote of your own writing in this review: "The book is also filled with wisdom that comes served on a platter of delectable writing." And what a delectable sentence this is! Bravo!!

Thanks for your very insightful thoughts!! This book is now going on my Goodreads shelves, as well as the other Eliot novels!! Enjoy your weekend!! :) :) :)

baili said...

this story is included our syllabus of master in English literature ,there are many others too.
it is one of my favorite one and read many times though it's end makes me sad but what wonderful characterization and really nicely woven !
i felt glad that today you shared something that i read many times .something from my shelf !
God Bless you.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili.

I am glad to hear that you also enjoyed this book. There is a lot of sadness. But in the wonderful characterization of Maggie, there is also a lot of life.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria.

George Eliot’s prose were fantastic. She was a brilliant author. The fact that she had to use a man’s name is illustrative of the terrible sexism that has been ingrained in the world for a very long time. As your examples show, it is everywhere.

I have been remiss in not reading James Tiptree or more properly Alice Bradley Sheldon. I have been reading more science fiction lately and must give her books a try. As your examples

Maggie is such a compelling character. Indeed, I think that there have always been people like Maggie who shine out above their surroundings. I think that you would like this book.

The Reader's Tales said...

Brian, this is an excellent review. We have this book at home - Sweetheart adores it, it's brilliantly written! One day I will read this novel. I wish you a fabulous week ahead :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Reader's Tales.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought.

Have a great week!