Eliot. The Mill on the Floss

Due to my Victorian Lit class and sitting in on Modern Poetry this term my 12 Books 12 Months Challenge reading slipped a little. But then I remembered that The Mill on the Floss which I read for Victorian is on my 12B12M list.

What to say? I adore Eliot. She is an amazing observer of the human condition, whether individual or group. She is one of the earliest (and best) psychologists and the same can be said of her as a sociologist.

I have not yet read all of her novels but I have read Middlemarch and Silas Marner, along with some of her short stories, like Brother Jacob and The Lifted Veil. I look forward to reading the rest based on my own experience and my Victorian Lit prof also says the ones I have yet to read are all exceptional novels.

I must say upfront that, if read solely as a story, the ending leaves much to be desired. Nonetheless, the ending is fitting in a symbolic sense, although perhaps not on a human level. I am still working out exactly why that is and may need to address it in my final this week. All I’ll say for now is that, in the context of the novel as a whole, it works.

Be aware, this is a tragedy. It may not be epic, nor a study of grand personages, but as a tragedy of the everyday it is superb. [Eliot does comment on this but it is mostly indirect and occurs across several pages so no excerpts.]

Despite it’s being a tragedy, it can be quite humorous, particularly in that dry British way:

“Mr Pullet was a small man with a high nose, small twinkling eyes, and thin lips, in a fresh-looking suit of black and a white cravat, that seemed to have been tied very tight on some higher principle than that of mere personal ease” (56).

“A boy’s sheepishness is by no means a sign of overmastering reverence; and while you are making encouraging advances to him under the idea that he is overwhelmed by a sense of your age and wisdom, ten to one he is thinking you extremely queer” (91).

The whole of Book Fifth: Wheat and Tares,  ch. II, Aunt Glegg Learns the Breadth of Tom’s Thumb (308-25) is pretty funny.

And my favorite bit of humor in the novel, which had me cracking up:

“You don’t call Mumps a cur, I suppose?” said Maggie, divining that any interest she showed in Mumps would be gratifying to his master.

“No, Miss, a fine way off that,” said Bob, with a pitying smile; “Mumps is as fine a cross as you’ll see anywhere along the Floss, an I’n been up it wi’ the barge times enow. Why, the gentry stops to look at him; but you won’t catch Mumps a-looking at the gentry much — he minds his own business, he does.”

The expression of Mump’s face, which seemed to be tolerating the superfluous existence of objects in general, was strongly confirmatory of this high praise (284).

Some of the themes we discussed in class and will perhaps see on the final Wednesday:

  • Contrast the Tulliver and Dodson mentalities, and how played out in Tom and Maggie.
  • Compare the education of Tom and Maggie.
  • Relevance of the town of St. Ogg’s as a character; the legend.
  • Eliot’s reflections on childhood.
  • Tragedy: In what sense is Tulliver a tragic figure? Can this family be tragic? How do Tom and Maggie differ in their reactions to the tragedy? Mrs. Tulliver and her family’s reactions?
  • Hellenism versus Hebraism (ala Matthew Arnold We read a small bit from Culture and Anarchy, in particular a portion of ch. 1 “Sweetness and Light” and of ch. 5 “Porro Unum Est Necessarium” [But One Thing is Needful])
  • Ethics/morality: Intentionalism, Consequentialism, principle, self-interest, Categorical Imperative, natural law, social code.
  • We also discussed relationships: Tom & Maggie; Tom & Philip Wakem; Maggie & Philip; Maggie & Stephen; and so on.
  • Duplicitousness.
  • Sexual sublimation.

I quite enjoyed The Mill on the Floss and I hope to reread it again someday soon at a more leisurely pace and focusing primarily on the story and on Eliot’s artistry.