Places: The Mill on the Floss

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1860

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*English Midlands

*English Mill on the Floss, TheMidlands. Central region of England. The novel is set in what seems like an idyllic country setting, modeled on Warwickshire, in the English Midlands, where George Eliot grew up as the child Mary Ann Evans. Eliot’s protagonist, Maggie Tulliver, and her brother Tom (Evans had a beloved brother named Isaac) love the river and the countryside. There they pick flowers, fish in the Round Pond, and romp with their dog Yap. Eliot suggests that human beings are nurtured by living close to nature, and that people are, in many important ways, a part of nature: Eliot often uses analogies drawn from nature, as in the comparison of Tom and Maggie to friendly ponies shaking their manes at each other.

In the novel, nature is not an entirely benign force. The reader sees conflicts arising between Maggie and Tom, owing to their different dispositions and exacerbated by the misogynist climate of the times. Nature can also be the source of destruction, as seen in the flood that kills Maggie and Tom. In introducing the Floss River into the landscape, Eliot made one alteration to her geographical model. She needed a tidal river to make the flood possible. The configuration of the river and the flood basin suggests the Trent River in Lincolnshire.

Tulliver home

Tulliver home. The precise setting is drawn from Eliot’s childhood memories of growing up in Griff House, on the Arbury estate, where her father managed the property for the landowner. Griff House has survived the years and was converted into an inn. Even the Round Pond has an exact prototype in Griff House Pond. The pond, perfectly round and of unknown depth, suggests the mystery and magic of natural places. The Tullivers’ house is spacious and comfortable, and Maggie’s life there would be perfect were it not for her intelligent and passionate nature, which makes it difficult for her to conform to the confining gender role prescribed for female children in the Victorian age. When her mother reprimands her for losing her sunbonnet, allowing her hair to become disheveled, or running and jumping too boisterously, she retreats to the large attic to nurse her doll and shed tears of frustration. Her self-seclusion in the attic suggests her distance from conventional Victorian society.

A stultifying society puts a curb on her natural desires and abilities. Only her father can be depended on to take her side, frequently taking her on his lap to comfort her. He is the owner of Dorlcote Mill, and a significant person in the web of relationships that surrounds Maggie. The mill, based on Arbury Mill, with its piles of grain and floury spiders is a wonderland for the imaginative child. As Maggie matures, her life becomes more difficult. Her father goes through bankruptcy and is in conflict with the lawyer whom he feels deprived him of the mill. Maggie gains some consolation from meeting her lover, Philip (ironically the lawyer’s son), and they take long walks in the Red Deeps. A lovely spot, again based on a real model, its trees and natural beauties provide consolation, offering a romantic conception of nature. Griff House is close to the town of Nuneaton.

*St. Oggs

*St. Oggs. Town noteworthy for its provincial mind-set and puritanical attitudes. St. Oggs is a representative river town, larger than Nuneaton. The values that define St. Oggs–wealth, social standing, rigid conformity to social rules–put Maggie at odds with her surroundings when, as a young woman, she spends some time there. She cannot be forgiven for an inadvertent social indiscretion. She must struggle against an immovable wall of hostility, and Eliot ends the novel with her drowning in the course of her attempted rescue of Tom from the flood.

BibliographyAshton, Rosemary. “The Mill on the Floss”: A Natural History. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A book-length study useful to beginners. Discusses the novel in relation to Eliot’s life, the historical context, natural history, and literary influences. Includes an annotated bibliography.Barrett, Dorothea. “Demonism, Feminism, and Incest in The Mill on the Floss.” In Vocation and Desire: George Eliot’s Heroines. New York: Routledge, 1989. Argues that three elements discussed separately by previous critics work together in The Mill on the Floss. Emphasizes a positive view of the novel’s “passionate idealism.”Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A reassessment of Eliot’s fiction that refutes other feminist criticisms. Asserts that Maggie Tulliver’s passion represents her desire for knowledge and freedom as well as sexual love, and that Eliot challenged the boundaries of women’s role in Victorian society. Contains an extensive bibliography.Carroll, David. “The Mill on the Floss: Growing Up in St. Ogg’s.” In George Eliot and the Conflict of Interpretations: A Reading of the Novels. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Considers the problem of reading the novel as two kinds of narrative: a realistic fiction containing anthropological treatment of the lives of Maggie’s relatives and a legend of a unified pastoral world of childhood.Creeger, George R., ed. George Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970. An important collection of essays on Eliot’s novels by major Eliot scholars, including an essay on The Mill on the Floss that explores the novel’s philosophical underpinnings. Includes a chronology of Eliot’s publications and a short bibliography.Draper, R. P., ed. George Eliot: “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner.” London: Macmillan, 1977. A collection of extracts from Eliot’s journals, letters, and essays concerning such issues as “realism” and “the Woman Question"; early reviews of Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss; comments on these novels by other famous authors; and critical studies of such issues as sociology, morality, and unity of form in these novels. Includes a short bibliography and an index.Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. George Eliot. Boston: Twayne, 1985. An excellent introductory study of Eliot’s work, including a biographical chapter and a brief study of her intellectual concerns. The chapter on The Mill on the Floss emphasizes the cultural rifts the novel explored at a time when society was rapidly changing. Includes a thorough chronology of Eliot’s life, an annotated bibliography to 1985, and an index.Emery, Laura Comer. George Eliot’s Creative Conflict: The Other Side of Silence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Detailed psychoanalytical readings trace the development of George Eliot’s creative process from The Mill on the Floss (the first detailed expression of Eliot’s unconscious conflicts) to Middlemarch.Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. The most detailed and thorough biography of Eliot’s life, this book includes brief biographical interpretations of her works. It is of special interest, therefore, to students of The Mill on the Floss. Includes a thorough index.Newton, K. M., ed. George Eliot. London: Longman, 1991. An important collection of the best essays on Eliot’s works by current Eliot scholars, including works written from feminist and social perspectives. Includes an introductory explanation of these various critical perspectives, a good bibliography, and an index.
Categories: Places