Chapter I - The Return to the Mill
Five days after Stephen and Maggie first disappear, Tom is back at Dorlcote Mill. Thanks to the news that Bob Jakin saw Maggie and Stephen get off a boat together, he knows there has been no accident. He sees Maggie approaching, and can tell immediately that she is not married, confirming his worst fears.
Maggie tells him that she has come to him for refuge, and to confess everything, but he tells her that she will never have a home with him for she has disgraced their family and deceived and deeply hurt those who cared about her most. He tells her he will support her if she needs it, but she can never enter his home. Mrs. Tulliver, overhearing this, tells Maggie that she will go with her. Not daring to seek shelter with any of the aunts, they go to Bob Jakin’s. Bob happily takes them in, and tells Maggie that he and his wife named their baby after her.
Chapter II - St. Ogg's Passes Judgment
Because Maggie returns to St. Ogg’s unmarried, everyone assumes Stephen chose not to marry her, and that she is fallen, so she is condemned by the town. Despite a letter Stephen writes to his father in which he assumes all of the blame, disapproving gossip spreads through the parish. Stephen traveled on to Holland from York and thus stays away from Lucy for the time being. Maggie lives in a state of constant guilt and despair, not expecting to ever feel happiness again, hoping only to never give into another such temptation.
Maggie goes to see Dr. Kenn, and tells him everything. He says that he admires her instinct to come back to her roots and that it is a very Christian ideal, but that in this case, he fears that the town has condemned her beyond the actual evils of her case, and she might be much happier at a distance. Maggie says she can’t bear to cut herself off, and she thinks her best chance of showing Lucy how sorry she is is to stay in St. Ogg’s. Dr. Kenn promises to help her any way he can.
Chapter III - Showing That Old Acquaintances Are Capable of Surprising Us
Mrs. Glegg, when Maggie first disappears, is sure she is dead, for she cannot believe the alternative, and she scorns Tom for doing so so easily. When Maggie returns unscathed, she doesn’t emerge from her bedroom until she hears of the arrival of Stephen’s letter, which she feels gives her enough ground to defend Maggie to anyone who insults her. She tries to talk to Tom about it, but even in the face of Stephen’s letter largely absolving Maggie, he is irresolute and only believes the worst in his sister because of her history of indulging whims.
Mrs. Tulliver goes to see Mrs. Glegg, who tells her that Maggie is always welcome under her roof and she will defend her from those who speak ill against her. Maggie is very grateful to hear this, but still firmly wants to be independent, and doesn’t feel prepared to see anyone besides her mother and Dr. Kenn just yet.
Mrs. Tulliver has also been to see Lucy, who has heard Stephen’s letter, and seems to be regaining her health. Maggie is desperate to hear news of Philip, but Dr. Kenn hasn’t heard anything verifiable about him and her mother can’t find out anything. Finally, she gets a letter from him in which he tells her that he saw what was happening between her and Stephen and he knows that she tried to resist it for Philip’s sake as much as she could. Ultimately,he admires her and is better for the chance to have loved her, and does not want her to feel any pain for his sake. Indeed, he will always love her.
Chapter IV - Maggie and Lucy
Dr. Kenn tries to find employment for Maggie, but all the women of St. Ogg’s are still set against her. Finally it becomes clear that the only option is for him to hire her himself as governess to his children, which she gratefully accepts. This leads the townspeople to speculate on the relationship between the two of them. Stephen’s sisters, having been dismayed by Stephen’s attachment to Maggie, report these rumors to him by mail.
Maggie wants desperately to see Lucy, but knows that she can’t go to her house, and Lucy isn’t well enough to be seen by chance anywhere in the town. Lucy sneaks out one night, however, to come and see Lucy, and they embrace. Lucy tells her that she is going away with Stephen’s sisters in a few days, but when she returns and has regained her full strength, she’ll be able to see Maggie whenever she wants to. They embrace tearfully.
Chapter V - The Final Conflict
Dr. Kenn hears of the rumors spreading about his relationship with Maggie, and finally feels that because of his moral responsibility to his parishioners, he can’t give them any reason to doubt him. He releases Maggie and tells her that he thinks she must move to another town. She goes home and, feeling very weary, tries to mentally prepare herself for such a change. It rains constantly, so she is stuck inside.
A letter from Stephen arrives. He has, unbeknownst to anyone, returned to Mudport, and he pleads with Maggie to let him come to her. She feels, suddenly, that her temptation has only just begun, for after the two months of constant pain, the joy his love offers feels even more powerful than it did when she first renounced it, and she is so pained by the despair in his letter that she wants more than anything to relieve him of it. She comes very close to telling him to come, but holds out, instead burning his letter and deciding to write to him in the morning to say goodbye forever.
Suddenly she realizes that the house is flooding. She runs upstairs to wake Bob and his family, and they get into the boats. Hers is swept away, and she knows she must try to make her way to the mill to help her mother and Tom. She finally makes it to the mill, where she finds Tom is alone - Mrs. Tulliver has gone to the Pullets' - and he climbs into the boat with her.
They row towards the town to check on Lucy, but soon the current brings huge debris towards them, and they have no chance to get out of the way. The mass goes right over their boat, which rises again soon after, but without Maggie and Tom in it. They drown together.
Five years later, St. Ogg’s looks much like it did before the flood, although there are some scars that remain. Besides Maggie and Tom, everyone survived the flood. Both Stephen and Philip still visit Maggie’s tomb; Stephen eventually marries but Philip remains solitary.
Since The Mill on the Floss’s original publication, almost all critics have felt dissatisfied with the seventh and final book. Throughout the rest of the novel, Eliot certainly foreshadows that Maggie will die by drowning, and water and flooding is frequently alluded to. So it may not be unexpected, but still many feel that in drowning Maggie in the middle of her most emotional struggle, Eliot leaves too many questions unanswered and prevents Maggie from having to see through the results of her decisions.
Maggie’s death comes soon after she has decided to, again, renounce Stephen and the happiness he could bring her. Yet she herself feels that “her real temptation had only just begun” (416), and though she symbolically burns Stephen’s letter, the reader is not convinced that, faced with having to leave St. Ogg’s and return to lonely, unglamorous work, she would not have ever relented, especially as she seems to have gained Philip and Lucy’s forgiveness. Thus by killing her, Eliot allows Maggie to escape the grueling difficulty of following through on such a decision.
Although in some ways it is true that Maggie’s death leaves certain of the novel’s themes feeling unfulfilled, her death does ultimately feel appropriate in that it highlights how difficult it was for a woman of her intelligence and creativity to thrive or survive at all in the very narrow, claustrophobic world of a small town like St. Ogg’s in that time period. Though her death begins with a decisive action - getting into the boat and steering towards Dorlcote Mill to save her family - in the end she is utterly powerless as the current - like in her elopement with Stephen - carries her swiftly to her doom.
The ending also seems to resolve Maggie and Tom’s troubled relationship, but this too feels insufficient to many critics. It is abrupt and a repetition of the pattern common throughout the novel - in the face of great trouble and tragedy, Maggie and Tom are overcome with their love for each other. Yet in every other instance in the novel, this mutual regard would soon fall apart in the face of their very different characters and desires, and it is unclear whether their final union would have held if they had survived long enough to test it.
In addition, the final image of the siblings finds them “living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together” (422). This idealized vision of childhood rings clearly false to the reader, who better remembers incidents when, for example, Tom told Maggie he didn’t love her, or ignored her while he played with Lucy, or laughed at her for cutting her own hair. Though they did have happy moments of love and reconciliation in their childhood, they were fleeting, and so imagining them in such idealistic terms makes the whole resolution feel oversimplified.
This does, however, reinforce the theme of looking back on the past with nostalgia which is important in the novel. It is also not the only time the narrator glosses over pains of childhood to imagine it as edenic - at the end of the second book when Tom and Maggie have their loss of innocence, the narrator similarly idealizes what came before the loss. This idealization could be part of what makes the past’s ties so strong for Maggie, to the extent that she comes back to St. Ogg’s and chooses to remain there even though to do so is to cut herself off from almost all society and opportunities to support herself.
In light of the autobiographical nature of The Mill on the Floss, this deus ex machina ending (where a writer resolves a problem for his or her characters' lives through a contrived action) provides closure to Eliot's relationship with her own brother, which was never resolved in her lifetime.
The Mill on the Floss
The following entry presents criticism of Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss (1860). See also Felix Holt, the Radical Criticism, Adam Bede Criticism, The Lifted Veil Criticism, and George Eliot Poetry Criticism.
The Mill on the Floss is George Eliot's second novel and her most autobiographical work of fiction. It tells the story of Maggie Tulliver, detailing her relationship with her brother Tom and her inability to conform to the rigidly traditional society in which she lives. Commentary on The Mill on the Floss has focused on its conclusion—which many critics consider abrupt—and on its complex characterizations and sociological insights.
In its portrayal of the childhood, adolescence, and young womanhood of Maggie Tulliver, The Mill on the Floss is closely identified with Eliot herself—intellectually gifted, impulsive and passionate by nature, and living in a familial and social setting that did not value these qualities in her. In particular, her focus on her protagonist's relationship with a beloved but tyrannical and disapproving older brother closely mirrors Eliot's own relationship with her brother: Maggie and Tom Tulliver are given the same birthdates as Eliot and her brother, who for twenty years spurned Eliot while she lived with the married philosopher and essayist George Henry Lewes. It was not until Lewes died and Eliot married that the rift with her brother was mended. Maggie's need for Tom's love and acceptance has often been compared to Eliot's desire for her brother's acceptance; Barbara Hardy asserts: "As she dwells on the relationship between a brother and sister we can discern an understandable and undisfiguring nostalgia; a need to explain and justify in concretely imagined terms; and the falsifying pressures of a wish-fulfilling reconciliation."
Plot and Major Characters
Written in seven books, The Mill on the Floss chronicles Maggie and Tom Tulliver's lives from childhood to young adulthood. Books I and II concentrate on Maggie's childhood, establishing her impulsive temperament and her dependence on Tom. Eliot recounts several episodes between brother and sister, and, as John Hagan has noted, "in nearly every one … there emerges a sequence of actions which dramatizes Maggie's hunger for Tom's love, the frustration of that hunger, her rebellion, and the pleasure she receives from reconciliation." This section has been described as one of the most sympathetic and psychologically acute literary portrayals of girlhood in English literature. In the following books, the Tulliver family becomes impoverished and Maggie grows increasingly estranged from her father and brother. She becomes involved with the son of the man who bankrupted her father, and is also attracted to another man who is engaged to marry her cousin. On learning of these relationships, Tom turns Maggie out of his house and refuses to speak to her. Maggie's subsequent life is spent in service as a governess and in struggle with temptation and self-renunciation. As George Levine has noted, she ultimately submits herself "to the higher responsibility despite the loss of the possibility of self-fulfillment." Just as she offers up a prayer to the "Unseen Pity," the river begins to rise, and she sees Tom being swept away by the flood. Maggie rushes to Tom's rescue, and they drown in each other's arms, fulfilling the novel's epitaph, "In death they were not divided."
Critics assert that Maggie's need for love and acceptance is her underlying motivation throughout The Mill on the Floss, and the conflicts that arise in the novel often stem from her frustrated attempts at gaining this acceptance. Alan Bellringer has commented, "The two main themes of the novel, growing up and falling in love, lend themselves to amusement, but it is stunted growth and frustrated love that are emphasized." Commentators have often focused on the constant rejection of Maggie's talents and mannerisms by her family and society. Even the cultural norms of her community deny her intellectual and spiritual growth, according to Elizabeth Ermarth, "They are norms according to which she is an inferior, dependent creature who will never go far in anything, and which consequently are a denial of her full humanity."
Commentators have varied in their analyses of The Mill on the Floss. Many critics concur with U. C. Knoepflmacher's assessment of the novel's conclusion as "at best pathetic, for it asks us to believe that the muddy waters of the Floss have briefly restored an Eden that never existed," but others defend the ending as appropriate and inevitable, consistent with the details of the plot and the novel's themes. The autobiographical nature of The Mill on the Floss has been deemed aesthetically damaging by some critics because, they charge, it led Eliot to place disproportionate emphasis on the first two books. However, Bernard J. Paris contends "that the novel's weaknesses are closely related to its strengths, for if George Eliot had not been so intimately identified with Maggie she could hardly have given us a portrait of such subtlety and interest." Critics consistently praise Eliot's touching portrayal of Maggie Tulliver's childhood; the novelist Henry James stated in an early review of the novel, "English novels abound in pictures of childhood; but I know of none more truthful and touching than the early pages of this work."