The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot


The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot brown and white houses near body of water painting

Plot and Storyline

“The Mill on the Floss” is a novel written by George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. Set in the early 19th century in the fictional town of St. Ogg’s, the story revolves around the lives of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, siblings who grow up near the river Floss. The novel explores themes of family, love, societal expectations, and the struggle between individual desires and societal norms.

The novel begins by introducing the Tulliver family, who own a mill on the river Floss. Tom, the older brother, is diligent and practical, while Maggie, the protagonist, is imaginative and rebellious. Despite their differences, Tom and Maggie share a deep bond. Their father, Mr. Tulliver, has a contentious relationship with his sister, Mrs. Glegg, and his wife, Mrs. Tulliver, who is portrayed as an overly concerned mother.

As the story progresses, Tom and Maggie’s relationship with their extended family becomes strained due to conflicts over money and social status. Maggie, in particular, faces criticism and judgment from her relatives and the local community. She finds solace in her friendship with Philip Wakem, a hunchbacked and intelligent boy who is the son of their family’s nemesis, Mr. Wakem. Despite their families’ animosity, Maggie and Philip form a deep connection.

As Tom and Maggie enter adulthood, they face various challenges and navigate complex relationships. Tom becomes a successful businessman, while Maggie develops a passionate and tumultuous relationship with Philip. Their love is tested when Maggie’s cousin, Lucy Deane, falls in love with Philip, and he reciprocates her feelings. Maggie, torn between her love for Philip and her loyalty to her cousin, sacrifices her own happiness and chooses to step aside, allowing Lucy and Philip to be together.

The novel takes a tragic turn when a flood strikes the town, leading to the destruction of the mill and the loss of the Tulliver family’s livelihood. In the face of adversity, the members of the Tulliver family are forced to confront their own flaws and reconcile with one another. Tom, who had previously held Maggie responsible for their misfortunes, realizes the depth of his sister’s sacrifices and forgives her. Tragically, however, the flood ultimately claims the lives of both Tom and Maggie, bringing their tumultuous journey to a poignant end.


“The Mill on the Floss” features a rich cast of characters, each with their own complexities and motivations. Maggie Tulliver, the novel’s central character, undergoes significant development throughout the story. She is portrayed as a passionate and independent-minded woman, constantly torn between societal expectations and her desire for personal fulfillment. Maggie’s struggle to reconcile her own desires with the demands of her family and society forms the core conflict of the novel.

Tom Tulliver, Maggie’s older brother, represents the pragmatic and conventional side of society. He embodies the societal expectations placed upon individuals and strives to fulfill his responsibilities as the heir to the family’s mill. Tom’s relationship with Maggie is characterized by love and loyalty, but also by clashes of values and misunderstandings.

Philip Wakem, the hunchbacked son of Mr. Wakem, serves as a foil to Tom. He is highly intelligent and sensitive, and his friendship with Maggie blossoms into a deep and complex love. Philip’s physical appearance and his family’s reputation create obstacles for their relationship, highlighting the societal prejudices and expectations that shape their lives.

Other important characters include Mr. Tulliver, the proud and stubborn patriarch of the Tulliver family; Mrs. Tulliver, a well-meaning but somewhat frivolous woman; and Lucy Deane, Maggie’s cousin and a symbol of conventional femininity. These characters contribute to the exploration of themes such as family dynamics, societal constraints, and the complexity of human relationships.

Themes and Symbols

“The Mill on the Floss” explores several major themes that resonate throughout the narrative. One of the central themes is the tension between individual desires and societal expectations. Maggie, in particular, grapples with her yearning for personal fulfillment and her duty to conform to societal norms. The novel raises questions about the limitations imposed by society and the consequences of rebelling against them.

Another prominent theme is the role of family and its impact on individual identity. The Tulliver family’s dynamics, marked by conflicts and misunderstandings, shed light on the complexities of familial relationships. Maggie’s struggles with her family reflect the broader theme of the individual’s search for personal autonomy within the context of familial obligations.

The river Floss, which runs through the story and gives the novel its title, serves as a powerful symbol. It represents the unstoppable flow of time and the forces that shape human destinies. The river is both a source of comfort and a destructive force, mirroring the ebb and flow of the characters’ lives and emotions.

Writing Style

George Eliot’s writing style in “The Mill on the Floss” is characterized by its depth, introspection, and vivid descriptions. Eliot employs a third-person omniscient narrative perspective, allowing readers to delve into the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters. This technique provides a nuanced understanding of their motivations and struggles.

Eliot’s use of language is rich and evocative, often employing metaphor and descriptive imagery to paint a vivid picture of the settings and characters. For instance, she describes Maggie’s fiery and unconventional nature with phrases such as “her impetuous, undisciplined nature” and “her passionate, rebellious nature.” These descriptions not only capture the essence of the characters but also enhance the reader’s emotional connection to them.

The author also employs various literary techniques to enhance the storytelling. Flashbacks and foreshadowing are used to provide insights into the characters’ pasts and hint at future events, creating a sense of anticipation. Eliot’s skillful use of dialogue further illuminates the characters’ personalities and relationships, revealing their inner conflicts and desires.

The narrative structure of the novel follows a linear progression, tracing the lives of the characters from childhood to adulthood. However, Eliot intersperses philosophical musings and digressions that delve into broader social and moral issues. These digressions, while occasionally slowing down the pace of the story, enrich the novel with Eliot’s profound insights and commentary on society.

Setting and Atmosphere

“The Mill on the Floss” is set in the fictional town of St. Ogg’s, situated along the river Floss. The river and its surrounding landscape play a significant role in creating the atmosphere of the novel. The river is described as a symbol of both beauty and danger, reflecting the characters’ experiences and emotions. Its presence contributes to the overall tone of the story, which fluctuates between moments of tranquility and turbulent upheaval.

The rural setting of St. Ogg’s, with its mills, farms, and close-knit community, adds a sense of authenticity to the story. The descriptions of the natural world and the seasons create a vivid backdrop, heightening the reader’s immersion in the narrative. Eliot’s attention to detail in depicting the physical surroundings helps to establish a sense of place and contributes to the overall atmosphere of the novel.

Historical, Social, or Political Context

“The Mill on the Floss” is set in the early 19th century, a time marked by significant social and economic changes in England. The novel reflects the social and cultural norms of the Victorian era, particularly the expectations placed on individuals based on their gender and social class.

The rigid gender roles of the time are explored through Maggie’s struggles to reconcile her unconventional desires with society’s expectations of women. Her longing for intellectual and emotional fulfillment is at odds with the limited opportunities available to women in that era. The novel also touches upon the theme of education and the restrictions placed on women’s access to knowledge and intellectual pursuits.

Eliot also comments on the class divisions prevalent in Victorian society. The tension between the Tulliver family and the Wakem family, stemming from their different social statuses, highlights the barriers created by class distinctions. Additionally, the economic realities of the time, such as the decline of traditional industries like milling and the rise of capitalism, form a backdrop to the narrative.

Impact and Reception

“The Mill on the Floss” was published in 1860 and has since become one of George Eliot’s most celebrated works. It received favorable reviews upon its release and has continued to be regarded as a significant contribution to English literature.

The novel’s exploration of complex characters, psychological depth, and nuanced portrayal of societal expectations resonated with readers. Eliot’s insightful examination of human nature and her ability to evoke empathy for her characters garnered praise from both contemporaries and later critics.

“The Mill on the Floss” has had a lasting impact on literature, influencing subsequent works in its exploration of themes such as individuality, gender expectations, and familial relationships. Its exploration of the inner lives of its characters and its philosophical musings continue to captivate readers.

In conclusion, “The Mill on the Floss” is a compelling novel that delves into the complexities of human relationships, societal expectations, and the struggle for personal fulfillment. George Eliot’s rich prose, vivid characters, and exploration of timeless themes have secured its place as a significant work in English literature, continuing to engage and resonate with readers to this day.


The Mill on the Floss – Wikipedia

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot | Goodreads

The Mill on the Floss | Victorian England, Family Drama, Tragedy | Britannica