Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Mill on the Floss

I've been looking forward to reading The Mill on the Floss for years, and finally got to it during my current project to read all of George Eliot's novels and stories in the order they were written. I've heard for years about what a wonderful character Maggie Tulliver is, and I knew it was a tragedy and had a rough idea of how it ended.

As with so many long anticipated treats, I was a bit disappointed but extremely glad I have read the book and do plan to reread it at some point. Maggie was an interesting character. The afterword to the edition I read made the point that in Eliot's previous novel, Adam Bede, she contrasts two female protagonists, Dinah and Hettie, but in The Mill on the Floss, she provides contrasting forces that struggle within a single female character. I like this way of looking at Maggie, but I think for me her single overriding characteristic is her impulsiveness. It seems she has no filter between what she feels and how she acts, whether it be high or low, manic or depressive. Even near the end, when she is in a stupor, lulled beyond the point of no return by the river and Steven, there is an impulsive, careless quality to her willingness to remain torpid.

I had expected to identify more with Maggie, and perhaps I might have if I had read this book when I was high school or college-aged. I appreciated her mind and thirst for education and knowledge, but her devotion to her churlish brother Tom I found irritating. I admired her friendship with Philip Wakem and understood her passion for Steven Guest and sympathized with her relationship to her cousin Lucy, but I couldn't reconcile all this with her continued role as doormat for Tom.

It's been interesting to see Eliot's progress as a novelist. In a way, Philip Wakem is another take on the physically debilitated hero with an unfortunate keenly developed sense of self and destiny that she introduced in Latimer in The Lifted Veil, the work immediately preceding The Mill on the Floss. In The Mill on the Floss she has written a true tragedy, something she approached with Adam Bede but backed away from in the end.

And then there is the river. While I appreciate a good metaphor, I think that Eliot is far too overt with the symbolism she infuses into the river Floss. Throughout the book she talks of Maggie being swept away on currents of thought and feeling, the inevitability of time rushing on, as well as the ebb and flow of current, the unchangeability of people and society over the long haul, the force contained within the movement of the water. I really felt she was hitting the reader over the head with all this. At times the writing was poetic and true and beautiful, and at times it became melodramatic and banal. That said, I did glimpse from time to time the kind, sympathetic, and just narrator that I so love in Middlemarch.

Now, on to Silas Marner, though it will be a bit before I can tackle it as I signed up to review Hard Times for the Classic Circuit's Dueling Authors (Austen vs Dickens) Tour on May 19, and have a couple of books to finish up before I even start that one. However, I am eager to read Hard Times and compare it to Gaskell's North and South, which were written at about the same time and with the basically subject matter.

Final note, I usually watch an adaptation or two after finishing a classic, but I'm not sure whether I will go this route this time. Netflix has two versions--a 1997 90-minute version with Emma Watson as Maggie, and a 1998 212-minute version with Pippa Guard as Maggie. I'm open to input on which is best or if either is worth watching.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Jane. I wish I could feel as you do about this book, but I know I'll never read it again - I can only torture myself so much. I love Middlemarch, so I began Mill on the Floss with high expectations. I wasn't pre-warned about the tragedy. I felt totally cheated by the ending. I'd invested so much time and so much caring for Maggie that I felt was all wasted effort.

  2. This is probably my favorite Eliot (having also read Silas Marner, Middlemarch, and Adam Bede). I don't disagree with any of your criticisms, but I still adore Maggie, with all her flaws. Some of it might be that I did read it for the first time when I was in college and I didn't have particularly high expectations, so I ended up being totally swept away--and I'll admit to being a sucker for a tragic ending.

  3. AnonymousMay 01, 2011

    I've yet to read Mill on the Floss, but I absolutely ADORED Middlemarch, and loved what you mentioned about Eliot playing with duel forces exerting themselves on the same character. Thanks for a great review!

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  5. How funny that I posted on one of your favorite novels the same day you reviewed one of mine! I admit it is not Maggie that makes me adore this book so much, but the agonizing tragedy of the end. I have rarely been so emotionally moved by a tale. Enjoy Silas Mariner, another favorite, but I admit that I am most anxious to hear your perspective on Daniel Deronda, which I think is the most magnificent of Eliot's books, a writer who left us such a magnificent legacy.

  6. The Mill on the Floss is one of those books I will get round to reading, eventually, so thanks for the warning about the tragic ending. I have Silas Marner on my TBR shelf, so I will read that one first.

  7. I loved The Mill on the Floss when I first read it when I was in my 20s. I tried re-reading it in my 40s and was very surprised that I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had - in fact I gave up on it!

  8. I see from the range of comments that this book can inspire devotion, but I find that my reaction to 'The Mill on the Floss' is very close to yours. And as usual, you articulate very well the factors that may account for the uneasy dissatisfaction I felt after reading it.
    I could not relate to Maggie's personality or her co-dependence on Tom. I also think you're right that the river as symbol is too self-consciously employed. Making the river such a large force in the novel seemed to drain some of her characters of their intrinsic force. Yet the tragedy, perhaps borne of their weakness, was so out of proportion in melodrama to the somnolent tone of the whole.

    I'm glad Eliot didn't stop here, but was able to go on and reach her full potential as a novelist in 'Middlemarch' and 'Daniel Deronda.'

    I look forward to reading your post on 'Hard Times' for the "Dueling Authors" tour!

  9. AnonymousMay 06, 2011

    I'm planning to read Mill on the Floss this year. I've read about it being compared to Gaskell's The Moorland Cottage and some people even think Eliot was inspired by the novella.

    Looking forward to your comparison of Hard Times and North and South.

  10. Katherine - I've read the comparison of Mill to Moorland myself, and frankly I don't see it. I guess I need to read Moorland Cottage again, but I'm not sure what critics are talking about.

  11. AnonymousMay 06, 2011

    Based on how you describe Maggie Tulliver she certainly sounds far more passionate and Marianne Dashwood-like than Moorland Cottage's heroine they seem to share little in common other than their name and devotion to their brother. I know what I'll be reading after my event for Vol. 1 of Ruth ends. ;)

    I have seen both adaptions of Mill on the Floss, and although it's been awhile the 1998 version with Emily Watson stands out.

  12. I read TMOTF about 40 years ago, in my 20s. I loved Maggie Tulliver, but as the end approached, I was sick of the way it was all winding into a mess. And the end made me so angry I will never read it again, although I absolutely love the rest of GE's books, expecially Middlemarch. The end of Mill is almost as bad as the end of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, although Maggie is much more engaging than Tess.

  13. I really didn't see the likeness of Moorland to Mill. I enjoyed Moorland Cottage so much more. I haven't read most of Eliot's works. I have watched all the movie/Tv versions however of all the works mentioned above. For some reason I could do Tess moreso than Maggie. At least from what I recall. Suzan