Friday, September 4, 2009

253. The Mill on the Floss – George Elliot

September 2009
History: This book was first published in three volumes in 1860. The book is fictional autobiography in part, reflecting the disgrace that George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) herself had while in a lengthy relationship with a married man, George Henry Lewes. The flood is considered by some to be a deus ex machina. It is kind of a way of getting out of the corner the author wrote herself into. Those who do not support this view cite the frequent references to flood as a foreshadowing which makes this natural occurrence less contrived.
Plot: The novel details the lives of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, a brother and sister growing up on the River Floss near the village of St. Oggs in the United Kingdom, evidently in the 1820s. Both the river and the village are fictional.
The novel spans a period of 10-15 years, from Tom and Maggie’s childhood up until their deaths in a flood on the Floss..
Maggie Tulliver holds the central role in the book, as both her relationship with her older brother Tom, and her romantic relationships with Philip Wakem, a hunchbacked, but sensitive and intellectual, friend, and with Stephen Guest, a vivacious young socialite in St. Oggs and assumed fiancé of Maggie’s cousin Lucy Deane, constitute the most significant narrative threads.
Tom and Maggie have a close yet complex bond, which continues throughout the novel. Their relationship is colored by Maggie's desire to recapture the unconditional love her father provides prior to his death. Tom’s pragmatic and reserved nature clashes with Maggie’s idealism and fervor for intellectual gains and experience. Various family crises, including bankruptcy, Mr. Tulliver’s rancorous relationship with Philip Wakem’s father, which results in the loss of the mill, and Mr. Tulliver’s untimely death, serve both to intensify Tom and Maggie’s differences and to highlight their love for each other. To help his father repay his debts, Tom leaves his desultory schooling to enter a life of business. He eventually finds a measure of success, restoring the family’s prior estate. Meanwhile Maggie languishes in the impoverished Tulliver home, her intellectual aptitude wasted in her socially isolated state. She passes through a period of intense spirituality, during which she renounces the world, spurred by Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ.
This renunciation is tested by a renewed friendship with Philip Wakem, with whom she had developed an affinity while he was a fellow pupil with Tom. Against the wishes of Tom and her father, who both despise the Wakems, Maggie secretly meets with Philip, and together they go for long walks through the woods. The relationship they forge is founded partially in Maggie’s heartfelt pity for broken and neglected human beings, as well as an outlet for her intellectual romantic desires. Philip and Maggie’s attraction is, in any case, inconsequential due to the family antipathy. Philip manages to coax a pledge of love from Maggie. When Tom discovers the relationship between the two, however, he forces his sister to renounce Philip, and with him her hopes of experiencing the broader, more cultured world he represents.
Several more years pass, during which Mr. Tulliver dies. Lucy Deane invites Maggie to come and stay with her and experience the life of cultured leisure that Lucy enjoys. This includes long hours conversing and playing music with Lucy's suitor, Stephen Guest, a prominent St. Ogg’s resident. Stephen and Maggie, against their rational judgments, become attracted to each other. The complication is further compounded by Philip Wakem’s friendship with Lucy and Stephen; he and Maggie are reintroduced, and Philip’s love for her is rekindled, while Maggie, no longer isolated, enjoys the clandestine attentions of Stephen Guest, putting her past professions for Philip in question. In the event, Stephen and Maggie, though they try to forswear each other, allow themselves to elope, almost by accident – Lucy conspires to throw Philip and Maggie together on a short rowing trip down the Floss, but when Stephen unwittingly takes a sick Philip’s place, and Maggie and Stephen find themselves floating down the river, negligent of the distance they’ve covered, he proposes they board a passing steamer to the next substantial city, Mudport, and get married. Maggie struggles between her love for Stephen and her duties to Philip and Lucy, contracted as it were in her past, when she was poor and isolated, and dependent on either of them for what good her life contained. Upon arrival in Mudport she rejects Stephen and makes her way back to St. Oggs, where she lives for a brief period as an outcast, Stephen having fled to Europe. Although she immediately goes to Tom for forgiveness and shelter, he roughly sends her away, telling her that she will never again be welcome under his roof. Both Lucy and Philip forgive her, she in a moving reunion, he in an eloquent letter.
Maggie’s brief exile ends when the river floods. Having struggled through the waters in a boat to find Tom at the old mill, she sets out with him to rescue Lucy Deane and her family. In a brief tender moment, the brother and sister are reconciled from all past differences. When their boat capsizes, the two drown in an embrace, thus giving the book its Biblical epigraph, “In death they were not divided.”
Review: The Mill on the Floss is funny and moving and philosophical. Eliot does so many different things well; she's witty and detached, and then she writes a love scene that makes your knees go wobbly. She was something of an independent thinker for her time, and caused a scandal by eloping with a married man, something she spent a long time considering. It's sort of a novel about adultery without actually being about adultery. It feels very modern and unflinching, the more so because George Eliot actually spent much of her adult life in a happy but socially-isolating relationship out of wedlock. In the mill on the floss, the characters do not produce humor through witty or amusing remarks, but all the same cause laughter in others. George Eliot's comic characters talk with utmost seriousness about household linen, furniture etc. George Eliot was interested in moral choices and in how to live a 'good' life. She often shows how one mistake can influence the whole course of a life. This book is ultimately about how Maggie Tulliver craves the acceptance of her brother, Tom, but never receives it.
Opening Line: “A wide plain with a broadening floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea and the loving tide rushing to meet it checks it’s passage with an impetuous embrace.”
Closing Line: “The tomb bore the names of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, and below the names, it was written, ‘In their death they were not divided’.”
Quotes: "I should like to know what is the proper function of women, if it is not to make reasons for husbands to stay at home, and still stronger reasons for bachelors to go out."
“If boys and men are to be welded together in the glow of transient feeling, they must be made of metal that will mix, else they inevitably fall asunder when the heat dies out.”
Rating: Very Good.

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