The Mill on the Floss was first published in 1860 in three volumes by William Blackwood. It was written by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans).

Plot Summary

The novel covers a period of ten to fifteen years, detailing the lives of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, siblings who grew up at Doricote Mill on the River Floss near the village of St Ogg’s in Lincolnshire, England. It begins in the late 1820’s/early 1830’s before the Reform Act of 1832.

Maggie is the protagonist, the novel begins when she is 9 years old, 13 years into her parents’ marriage. Her relationship with her older brother, Tom, and her romantic relationships with Philip Wakem (a sensitive hunchback) and Stephen Guest (a socialite and assumed fiancé of Maggie’s cousin Lucy) are the major foci.

Tom’s pragmatic nature constantly clashes with Maggie’s idealism and her desire for experience. The various traumas that the two siblings go through (bankruptcy, their father’s death, the loss of the mill, etc.) help to intensify the differences between the two siblings, while simultaneously making their bond stronger. Tom leaves school and enters a life of business in order to help his father pay his debts and eventually becomes fairly successful, allowing him to restore the family’s estate. Maggie, however, languishes in the impoverished family home, feeling both socially and intellectually isolated. She passes through a time of intense and strict spirituality.

She renews her friendship with Philip Wakem and, against the wishes of Tom and her father, Maggie secretly meets with Philip for long walks in the woods. Philip eventually manages to coax a pledge of love from Maggie, but when Tom discovers the relationship between the two, he forces Maggie to renounce Philip.

Years later, their father dies and Lucy Deane invites Maggie to come and stay with her in order to experience more cultured society. This visit includes frequent hours spend conversing and playing music with Lucy’s suitor, Stephen Guest. Despite their better judgement, Stephen and Maggie become attracted to each other. This is made more difficult by Philip’s friendship with Lucy and Stephen. Philip and Maggie are reintroduced to each other, causing Philip to fall for Maggie once again, while Maggie seems to prefer Stephen. Lucy connives to put Maggie and Philip on a short rowing trip alone, but Stephen unwittingly takes the sick Philip’s place. While rowing, Stephen proposes to Maggie that they get on board the next passing ship to Mudport and get married. Maggie is too tired to argue, allowing Stephen to take advantage and hail the ship. Maggie struggles on the journey to Mudport with her duties to Philip and Lucy, as well as her feelings for Stephen. Once they arrive, she rejects Stephen and makes her way back to St Ogg’s, where she lives for a small period as an outcast, Stephen having fled to Holland.

Eventually, Maggie’s short exile ends with the river floods. She finds Tom in the old mill and the two set out together to rescue Lucy and her family. Tom and Maggie briefly reconcile before the two capsize and drown in an embrace.

Notes & Quotes

  • There is obviously great potential to conduct an ecogothic reading of The Mill on the Floss. The rains that occur in the novel lead to the devastating flood at the end of the novel. The flood’s ability to cause destruction is increased by human interference, such as through the building of dams for irrigation that burst (Taylor 73). I also love Jesse Oak Taylor’s reading of the floods as the final turn that occurs after years of environmental destruction caused by humans… the weather moves from a background element to the foreground of the narrative. Once again, the atmosphere becomes a major part of the human characters lives and destinies. Taylor’s views of Eliot’s novels is explained more thoroughly in my Middlemarch post.
  • I’m still considering whether the flooding is documenting the effacement of the natural world and the British countryside or if its meant to be symptomatic of the inner lives of Tom and, especially, Maggie. Because of my interest in atmosphere as an agent that blends the interior with the exterior, I feel that the floods become symptomatic of their inner lives while simultaneously representing the effacement of the British countryside. Human lives are as much a product of their environment in Eliot’s work as the environment is effected by human involvement.

The Mill on the Floss (1860) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.