The Mill on the Floss

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The Mill on the Floss
The Mill on the Floss.jpg
First edition title page
Author George Eliot
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)

The Mill on the Floss is a novel by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), first published in three volumes in 1860 by William Blackwood. The first American edition was published by Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel spans a period of 10 to 15 years and details the lives of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, siblings growing up at Dorlcote Mill on the River Floss at its junction with the more minor River Ripple near the village of St. Ogg's in Lincolnshire, England. Both the river[1] and the village are fictional.

The novel is initially set in the late 1820s or early 1830s – a number of historical references place the events in the book after the Napoleonic Wars but before the Reform Act of 1832.[2] (In chapter 3, the character Mr. Riley is described as an "auctioneer and appraiser thirty years ago," placing the opening events of the novel in approximately 1829, thirty years before the novel's composition in 1859. Additionally, in chapter 8, Mr. Tulliver and Mr. Deane discuss the Duke of Wellington and his "conduct in the Catholic Question," a conversation that could only take place after 1828 when Wellington became Prime Minister and supported a bill for Catholic Emancipation). The novel includes autobiographical elements, and reflects[citation needed] the disgrace that George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) herself experienced while in a lengthy relationship with a married man,[citation needed] George Henry Lewes.

Maggie Tulliver is the central character of the book. The story begins when she is 9 years old, 13 years into her parents' marriage. Her relationship with her older brother Tom, and her romantic relationships with Philip Wakem (a hunchbacked, sensitive, and intellectual friend) and with Stephen Guest (a vivacious young socialite in St. Ogg's and assumed fiancé of Maggie's cousin Lucy Deane) constitute the most significant narrative threads.

Tom and Maggie have a close yet complex bond, which continues throughout the novel. Their relationship is coloured by Maggie's desire to recapture the unconditional love her father provides before his death. Tom's pragmatic and reserved nature clashes with Maggie's idealism and fervor for intellectual gains and experience. Various family crises, including bankruptcy, Mr. Tulliver's rancorous relationship with Philip Wakem's father, which results in the loss of the mill, and Mr. Tulliver's untimely death, serve both to intensify Tom's and Maggie's differences and to highlight their love for each other. To help his father repay his debts, Tom leaves school to enter a life of business. He eventually finds a measure of success, restoring the family's former estate. Meanwhile, Maggie languishes in the impoverished Tulliver home, her intellectual aptitude wasted in her socially isolated state. She passes through a period of intense spirituality, during which she renounces the world, spurred by Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ.

This renunciation is tested by a renewed friendship with Philip Wakem, with whom she had developed a friendship while he and Tom were students together. Against the wishes of Tom and her father - who both despise the Wakems - Maggie secretly meets with Philip, and together they go for long walks through the woods. The relationship they forge is founded partially in Maggie's heartfelt pity for broken and neglected human beings, but it also serves as an outlet for her intellectual romantic desires. Philip's and Maggie's attraction is, in any case, inconsequential because of the family antipathy. Philip manages to coax a pledge of love from Maggie. When Tom discovers the relationship between the two, however, he forces his sister to renounce Philip, and with him her hopes of experiencing the broader, more cultured world he represents.

Several more years pass, during which Mr. Tulliver dies. Lucy Deane invites Maggie to come and stay with her and experience the life of cultured leisure that she enjoys. This includes long hours conversing and playing music with Lucy's suitor, Stephen Guest, a prominent St. Ogg's resident. Stephen and Maggie, against their rational judgments, become attracted to each other. The complication is compounded by Philip Wakem's friendship with Lucy and Stephen; he and Maggie are reintroduced, and Philip's love for her is rekindled, while Maggie, no longer isolated, enjoys the clandestine attentions of Stephen Guest, putting her past profession of love for Philip in question. Lucy intrigues to throw Philip and Maggie together on a short rowing trip down the Floss, but Stephen unwittingly takes a sick Philip's place. When Maggie and Stephen find themselves floating down the river, negligent of the distance they have covered, he proposes that they board a passing boat to the next substantial city, Mudport, and get married. Maggie is too tired to argue about it. Stephen takes advantage of her weariness and hails the boat. They are taken on board the boat, and during the trip to Mudport, Maggie struggles between her love for Stephen and her duties to Philip and Lucy, which were established when she was poor, isolated, and dependent on them for what good her life contained. Upon arrival in Mudport she rejects Stephen and makes her way back to St. Ogg's, where she lives for a brief period as an outcast, Stephen having fled to Holland. Although she immediately goes to Tom for forgiveness and shelter, he roughly sends her away, telling her that she will never again be welcome under his roof. Both Lucy and Philip forgive her, in a moving reunion and in an eloquent letter, respectively.

Maggie's brief exile ends when the river floods. Having struggled through the waters in a boat to find Tom at the old mill, she sets out with him to rescue Lucy Deane and her family. In a brief tender moment, the brother and sister are reconciled from all past differences. When their boat capsizes, the two drown in an embrace, thus giving the book its Biblical epigraph: "In their death they were not divided".[3]

Major characters[edit]

Tom and Maggie Tulliver
  • Maggie Tulliver – young female protagonist
  • Tom Tulliver – Maggie's brother
  • Mrs Bessy Tulliver – Maggie and Tom's mother
  • Mr Tulliver – Maggie and Tom's father, owner of the Mill
  • Philip Wakem – hunchbacked classmate of Tom, and friend/suitor to Maggie
  • Stephen Guest – affluent suitor to Maggie

Minor characters[edit]

  • Mr. Wakem – Philip's father and rival of Mr Tulliver
  • Lucy Deane – Tom and Maggie's cousin, supposed to be betrothed to Stephen Guest
  • Mr. Riley – auctioneer and appraiser, friend of Mr. Tulliver
  • Rev. Walter Stelling – teacher of Tom and Phillip
  • Dr. Kenn – the clergyman of St. Ogg's
  • Bob Jakin – childhood friend of Tom who later helps Tom in business, both Tom and Maggie stay at his house at different times
  • Mrs. Jane Glegg – leader of the Dodson clan, critical and dominating aunt of Maggie and Tom who stands up for Maggie after her scandal with Stephen
  • Mrs. Sophy Pullet – Tom and Maggie's aunt
  • Mrs. Susan Deane – Tom and Maggie's aunt
  • Gritty Moss – Mr Tulliver's sister, mother of 8 children, 6 living
  • Kezia – The Tulliver family maid
  • Luke – the head miller
  • Yap – the Tullivers' dog (white and brown)
  • Dr. Turnbull - Doctor of Dorlecote Mill


Maggie Tulliver, by Frederick Stuart Church
  • Dorlecote Mill – the Tulliver family home for a century
  • Basset – home of Moss Farm
  • Dunlow Common
  • Garum Firs – visited for a treat
  • Midsummer – home of the academy
  • Mudport
  • St. Ogg's
  • St. Ursula
  • Wakem


Like other novels by George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss articulates the tension between circumstances and the spiritual energies of individual characters struggling against those circumstances. A certain determinism is at play throughout the novel, from Mr Tulliver's grossly imprudent inability to keep himself from "going to law", and thereby losing his patrimony and bankrupting his family, to the series of events which sets Maggie and Stephen down the river and past the point of no return. People such as Mr Tulliver are presented as unable to determine their own course rationally, and forces, be it the drift of the river or the force of a flood, are presented as determining the courses of people for them. On the other hand, Maggie's ultimate choice not to marry Stephen, and to suffer both the privation of his love and the ignominy of their botched elopement demonstrates a final triumph of free will.

Critics assert that Maggie's need for love and acceptance is her underlying motivation throughout The Mill on the Floss, and the conflicts that arise in the novel often stem from her frustrated attempts at gaining this acceptance. Alan Bellringer has commented, "The two main themes of the novel, growing up and falling in love, lend themselves to amusement, but it is stunted growth and frustrated love that are emphasized." Commentators have often focused on the constant rejection of Maggie's talents and mannerisms by her family and society. Even the cultural norms of her community deny her intellectual and spiritual growth, according to Elizabeth Ermarth, "They are norms according to which she is an inferior, dependent creature who will never go far in anything, and which consequently are a denial of her full humanity."


The story was adapted as a film, The Mill on the Floss, in 1937, and as a BBC series in 1978 starring Christopher Blake, Pippa Guard, Judy Cornwell, Ray Smith and Anton Lesser.

A single-episode television adaptation of the novel first was aired on 1 January 1997. Maggie Tulliver is portrayed by Emily Watson and Mr Tulliver by Bernard Hill. The production was filmed at The Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent for exterior street scenes.[4]

In 1994, Helen Edmundson adapted the play for the stage, in a production performed by Shared Experience.

A radio dramatisation in five one-hour parts was broadcast on BBC7 in 2009.


  1. ^ Henry, Nancy (2012). The Life of George Eliot: A Critical Biography. Wiley Blackwell Critical Biographies. John Wiley & Sons. p. 26. ISBN 9781405137058. Retrieved 2016-01-28. The image of coal-laden ships floating into port that opens The Mill on the Floss seems to be informed by a memory of coal barges on the canal from Mary Ann's childhood and transferred to her fictional River Floss[...]. 
  2. ^ Byatt, A.S. Introduction to the Penguin Classics Edition, 1985.
  3. ^ 2 Samuel I:23
  4. ^ Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office The Mill on the Floss Article". 
  • The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

External links[edit]