Eliot begins ‘The Mill on the Floss’ elegiacally, with a depiction of the almost baleful beauty of Dorlcote Mill; effervescent beneath the winter sun, as the gentle undulations of the stream echo across the fields which surround it. Yet, for all its beauty, the Mill is the setting for the tragic events which take place during the novel. The first quarter of the novel, which depicts the the childhood of Maggie and Tom Tulliver, is perhaps the weakest, as it lacks the conflict between the two siblings which acts as the bedrock of the story.
Indeed, the relationship between the two-the headstrong, intelligent and imaginative Maggie and the serious, studious and hopelessly dull Tom, explores the role of men and women in Victorian society. Tom’s mediocrity is propped up by his gender, whereas Maggie’s brilliance is weighed down by hers and one gets the sense that Elliot was leagues ahead of her contemporaries in depicting fully realised and sympathetic characters. From the proud Mr Tulliver, to the sensitive hunchback Phillip, whose outlook on humanity has been shaped by his deformity, to the jocose Stephen, whose selfishness sets into motion the events which take over the lives of the characters, each character is depicted with empathy, flaws and all. Elliot’s is (unlike in some of her other novels) able to moralise without being sententious, imploring the reader to sympathise with, rather than judge, the characters. In many ways, each character is imprisoned by their own imperfection, whether it be Tom in his bourgeoisie outlook on life or Stephen in his recklessness.
Whilst ‘The Mill on the Floss’ perhaps doesn’t reach the heights of Middlemarch, it is nevertheless a brilliant depiction of the life of a family in mid-Victorian England and the tragic sequence of events which overtakes their lives.