The Mill on the Floss
As a Novel
The Varieties of Love
Dr. Sandip Sarang
(Lecturer in English)
The Mill on the Floss As a Novel
The Varieties of Love Theme
It may be tempting to call The Mill on the Floss a poignant
and tragic love-story of Maggie and her involvement with
But more clearly, it is a novel about the failure of human
relationships, particularly in love as opposed to social
custom and morality.
George Eliot was here portraying a love knot or tangle
which is inextricably linked with larger issues like
respectability, duty; class, and values of different cross
sections of the English Society.
The complexity of Maggie's relations can best be judged by
observing and analysing the limitations or boundaries of
love in different contexts.
Broadly speaking, The Mill on the Floss presents three type
of variations on the love theme:
The brother-sister theme.
Maggie's relationship with Philip Wakem oscillating
between renunciation and indulgence.
Finally the Maggie-Stephen episode which is based purely
on passion and sexual attraction.
The difference between these relationships is marked in
the sense that Maggie's growth in terms of intellectual and
religious development alters successively the nature of
She is the common factor in the complex web of change
and growth, her willfulness, childhood histrionics and
affectionate possessiveness to renunciation, tolerance and
Maggie is raised to the level of those from whom much is
She is one of those who seek perfection.
Her returns to it make her one of the most interesting
cases among George Eliot's characters.
Her story is problematic and turns The Mill on the Floss
into a problem novel.
The brother-sister theme is the one that overlaps the rest of
The love of Tom and Maggie is rooted in the soil, in their
life at Dorlcote The Mill on the Floss where they can
imaginatively look back to an invisible past and its
The language of childhood love and its quick mercurial
nature is reflected in the contrast between Maggie's
imaginative and reflective nature and Tom's practicality.
Apart from her deep sense of possession and love for Tom.
Maggie always looks for an object for idolatory and
In this relationship it is Tom. and to some extent
Mrs.Tulliver who predicts a "death by the water" for Maggie
due to her irresponsible acts and wilful temper.
Tom's rebukes have a similar effect in that Maggie reacts to
them either furiously or with extreme sentimentality.
George Eliot herself had been having like relationship with
her brother and regretted his indifference for almost in her
It is not clear whether Maggie's love, passion and admiration for
Tom is purely out of a protective feeling or feminine crush, or it
has some extra filial attachment.
George Eliot nowhere hints at the idea of sex or incest.
But Maggie's depression, her missing Tom while he is at
school, his slightest rebuke at her folly, and his finally trying to
make her-laugh or reconcile indicate her strong desire to be
near him and to be admired and cared for by him.
She carries this childhood need which develops as a complex
into her adolescence and adulthood.
The results of this wilfulness and impetuosity prove disastrous.
Behind this personal disaster and misfortune of Maggie are
factors which are beyond her control.
The falling apart of Tom and Maggie is also in part due to the
respective role assigned by society to the man and the woman
or the conflict of duties.
When Mr. Tulliver loses his property, falls off the horse, is sick
and humiliated, Tom has to go out and retrieve the family
Maggie has nothing else but her golden memories and
romantic memories to bank upon or to fret about.
The economic loss, the Dodson, Tulliver code of conduct,
the social pressures and restraints underline the flux and
confrontation between Tom. and Maggie.
While Maggie's instinct is of revolt and freedom.
Tom, like the Dodsons believes in triumphing over destiny
the hard way but also submits before fate and events.
Tom-Maggie relationship, the fabric of emotional and
passionate life amidst placed surroundings, settled and
economic comfort is destroyed due to the loss of law suit
which uproots Tom and alters Maggie's whole way of
Her growth from adolescence to womanhood is marked by
this depression, loneliness and the increasing alienation
The emotional outlet is now blocked and she feels stifled
for want of love and attention.
There is also George Eliot’s special treatment of crises and
She, either implicity or through authorial comment gives an
impression of inevitability.
Her characters, Maggie in particular, make a moral
possibility of love. Happiness and imaginative life is
conveyed through the imagery of the river, its enchantment,
its powers, its isolation, its languor and above all, its air of
The central contrast of Tom and Maggie is always part of
It is understood in the novel in the fairly explicit critique of
social problem of education and work.
The theme of tragic personal division which is only healed
in death as life could never do, strongly emphasizes the
It is this relation and the indestructible form of love rather
than the formal opposition of two ways of life which is
prominent throughout the book.
This love relationship has an urgency and an elemental
simplicity so that it plays on natural instincts and emotions.
Maggie’s attraction for Philip is rooted in her intense
sympathy and pity for those one cares for.
This is a form of love in which frustration and defeat are
obvious to both Maggie and Philip.
Maggie knows she is caught between her love and
commitment to be warm to Philip
Nobody else in the world knows the futility of his dream of
The relation is caught between a fiery family feud.
Tom’s moral stance and his severe reprimand of Philip’s
ungentlemanly conduct pose a clash between the personal
and the familial.
Perhaps the most successful mentor and rescuer is Philip.
His understanding and love for Maggie are perfectly in
He is one of George Eliot’s characters who convince us of
his humanity as his power of moral criticism.
His elation with Maggie has a strong didactic element,
though practically it does little for Maggie.
He recognizes her need, her constraints and all the
He sees to that, the irony of her temptation by Stephen lies
in the very fact of Stephen’s unworthiness.
For him a relationship is based on partial hope of success
of that “better side” of Maggie’s nature.
It remains a hope because Maggie’s emotional vulnerability
is strong in time of stress and agitation.
Philip like Stephen, feeds Maggie’s sensibilities.
He tempts her too, but more through pity and his tragic lot.
Maggie’s inexperience is nowhere more ironically and
calmly presented than in the account of this love she feels
She breaks in to her dream of renunciation which is just as
romantic as her earlier dream of love beauty and glamour.
The friendly and relaxed gentleness of Maggie’s relation
with Philip meets its contrast in the uneasy embarrassment
of the early stages of her relationship with Stephen.
Before she meets Stephen she thinks that her belief that
she loves Philip, is another of her illusions.
But later the thought of Philip and her eagerness to meet
him makes her realize that after all she does love Philip in
quite another way.
The last phase of Maggie’s love-her strong temptation is
portrayed mostly in terms of sexual attraction.
It is also the part where one finds Maggie falling from her
While, Maggie’s love for Tom is nourished by the rivers,
streams, nature and childhood dreams.
Her relation with Philip is based on understanding,
sympathy and balance.
The encounter with Stephen is sudden and dramatic.
It is carried on in a different world of music, fashion,
affected society and its manners.
This change in social terms, is also a new opening for
Maggie’s yearning for love.
She is now once again carefree, which makes her lose her
balance earlier than one expects.
The strong attraction of Maggie and Stephen is shown as
violent rapid which is entirely reconcilable with sexual
tension and superficiality.
Structurally, too, the novel is hastily done with her return
from Mudport her social rejection, her last temptation and
George Eliot continuously shows her characters in the free
and active process of ‘making’ themselves though always
in the context of social influences and human collision or
In Maggie’s case her encounter with Stephen has elements
of fantasy and dream.
He has handsome personality, richness and artificial
manners and grace.
The difference between her childhood and adolescence is
Now her sexual desires are the stronger having entered
She is equipped with a chance in a series of temptations:
She is tempted to Philip, first resists, then refuses, then
Then comes the stronger temptation by Stephen.
Both are temptations to betray a loyalty rooted in the family
and her childhood.
With Stephen she first resists, then capitulates, then
resists and renounces him.
She oscillates between Tom’s rebukes and her rejection of
This is a pattern of Maggie’s desire and her renunciation.
But now she is ‘more than drift’, for her the drift means
not only uncontrollable desire.
But also an alienation from the family, society, honour
and her earlier resolutions.
In the end, after she has tried to live with her despair, and
a life without Stephen she longs for death which is
answered in the form of the flood.
The flood engulfs Tom and Maggie and there is a calm
only of the grave.
After her tempestuous and impetuous relationship, her
final call for renunciation is answered not by any human
mentor or teacher but the Nature itself.
Tom and Maggie being overwhelmed by the flood from
The Mill on the Floss.