My first George Eliot novel. There has been one main reason why I haven’t read The Mill on the Floss yet. I saw most of the 1998 film adaptation starring Emily Watson some years ago. That was how I discovered this book; I had heard of Middlemarch, but not of this work until I saw the film. The plot stayed with me because I was perplexed by the ending so much I had to read literary criticism on it afterwards to understand it.
There are elements of tragedy in this novel. This is a coming of age novel at its core. It depicts both Tom and Maggie Tulliver through their childhoods, adolescence and adulthood through tragedy and hardships. The novel was published in 1860, but is set in the 1820s right after the ascension of the Prince Regent to George IV as King. The storytelling, mode and feeling is traditional and rural, but also Victorian in the way the people are changing. There is an unusual narration technique. The narrator is introduced as first person, but they are omniscient and not a character in the story. They act more like a third person narrator, but once in awhile, the author uses an “I” which reminds you that this is someone recounting a story.
From the beginning, Maggie is a girl that everyone except her father thinks must be kept in check. She adulates her brother, and they are close. Tom cares for her deeply and as children, they share the dream of living together happily. But oddly enough, he also thinks that when they live together, he needs to “punish her when she did wrong.” There is this cold, self-righteous aspect about Tom throughout the novel and how it contrasts to Maggie.
Maggie’s insatiable need to be loved and admired is the cause and result of many conflicts in the novel. This is something that the movie couldn’t display really that way and Eliot’s psychological insight gives.Maggie’s not wrong in this, and her love seems altruistic in a way. She really wants others to be happy and not hurt. It is also destructive though because she is very passionate and sensitive.
I liked most of Maggie’s scenes. Eliot is very good at setting the emotional tones of scenes, the awkwardness and the tensions. It’s wholly realistic. Most of the characters in the novel are not wholly good or bad. They have reasons for their actions however the reader may disagree or dislike it.
I got a sense that Eliot really knows her characters, especially Tom. He seems very consistent in the story. He grows up, he learns a few things, but like many people, there is a core person to him. For example, he remains very black and white, proud, and attuned to his own sense of justice. There are times when I or Maggie were annoyed with Tom, but then he would do something to make it right to her and all be in character. Also, many of the characters seem to be perceptive and the narrator describes their observations acutely e.g. Philip observing Stephen and Maggie.
While there is realism in the novel, there is the often occurring juxtaposition of Victorian dramas to put the realistic things with the dramatic. For example, Mr Tulliver’s revenge and feelings about Mr Wakem. Another example is Stephen’s feelings for Maggie and his sense of rejection and passion. They border slightly into the melodramatic in modern terms.
There are lots of moments in this novel where it feels life is slowed down and it’s introspective or reflective, but when it gets dramatic, it really is. The dialogue and insults are very sharp. The confrontational scenes are rather gripping.
While the novel is a coming of age story, I also feel it is very circuitous. Maggie and Tom’s relationship go through the same rhythms over and over until the end of the novel. While I feel both of them have endured and learned a lot from their hardships and tragedies through the novel, what they feel for each other and their own personalities do not really change all that much. It makes the ending understandable because Maggie’s only true love is that for Tom. It’s at least consistent. They come full circle by the end.
I also think the novel does a good job of discussing how romance and love is often a product of one’s own projection. What Maggie feels for Philip, Stephen, and even Tom is based off her own need and psychology. Similarly, these men project onto Maggie. Philip is also needy for affection. Stephen desires passion, rebellion, and romance. Tom sees Maggie as what he isn’t, but he loves Maggie the most in some ways because he knows her best. I think Philip was the most compatible to Maggie, but her affection for him isn’t romantic love.
I am glad to have finally read this book, and while it started off rather slow, I liked it in parts. Eliot is a meticulous writing who knows her characters so I look forward to reading more of her works.
Read June 13-17th 2012.