Friday, December 16, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I did it! I finished the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge!

My classic-written-by-a-female-author choice was The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. Previously for a classics challenge (I can’t believe it was more than 3 years ago) I read Eliot’s Middlemarch and loved it. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to get to The Mill on the Floss.

This is the story of an ordinary woman, Maggie Tulliver, the daughter of a miller, in a tiny English village on the river Floss. The family is of respectable means, but not as well-off as her father likes others to think. He’s a rather narrow-minded man who feels everyone is out to cheat him and so has had multiple run-ins with other people’s lawyers. He wants his son, Tom, to get an education so that he can be a match for them. To that end, he sends Tom off for private instruction.

Tom is not particularly smart. He’s an upright young man, given to feeling morally superior to everyone else. He has common sense and would make a fine miller, but he’s no scholar. Unfortunately, Maggie got the brains in the family, which makes her a bit rebellious. She also got the heart, which makes her impetuous.

Maggie adores her older brother and is desperate to be adored in return. While Tom is sometimes kind and generous, he disapproves of her sentimentality and rash emotions, and tends toward being a bully and a scold. This is all rather heart-breaking for Maggie in her childhood days, but gets even worse as she grows into a young lady.

In a Romeo-and-Juliet-like twist, Tom’s fellow pupil is the son of Mr. Tulliver’s arch enemy, a wheeler-dealer whose various money-making schemes always seem to infringe upon the rights of the mill. Tom doesn’t particularly like Philip Wakem but Maggie, who treats everyone kindly, visits Tom and befriends Philip. As Philip doesn’t have many friends (due to a physical deformity), he is overwhelmed by Maggie’s affectionate generosity. The children grow up. The Tullivers experience tragedy that is laid directly at the door of Mr. Wakem, and they are forbidden by their father to have anything to do with the Wakems.

It may be expected that Maggie and Philip find a way to disobey the charge to keep apart and that love blossoms between them. But this isn’t the whole of the tale. Maggie’s need to please and her delight when she finds herself admired lead her into a situation where she knows she will hurt the people she loves most, no matter which path she chooses. Worst of all, she will be estranged from her brother.

Many readers will be heartily sick of Tom Tulliver early on in the book, and will wish Maggie capable of turning her back on him as readily as he can shun her. But Maggie, as inconsistent as she is in some areas, is consistent in her determination to be loved by her brother.

This is a beautiful and tragic story. Eliot spends a great deal of time bringing the reader into the small world and rather cramped lives of the Tullivers’ extended family and few friends. The character studies, particularly of Maggie and Tom, are richly rendered. The reader understands how they think and why they do what they do. The omniscient narrator provides details that condemn, but at the same time gives explanations that excuse, their actions. The narrator also offers up insights into the psychology of the characters and more broadly analyzes human nature in such compelling passages that she sweeps the reader along. The events are tragic on a small, personal scale, but that doesn’t make the story any less gripping.