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The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss

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The Mill on the Floss (1860) is a novel by George Eliot about siblings and the familial divides caused by differing perspectives. George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans who wrote under the pen name to be more easily published and respected in the 19th-century Victorian era, a time when it was easier for male authors to be published and become widely read than it was for women.

The Mill on the Floss: George Eliot

Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot was born in 1819 in Warwickshire, England to conservative parents. Evans' parents were fervently religious, in keeping with the provincial norms of the time. She had a mostly one-sided relationship with her older brother, whose approval she continuously sought but was never really granted.

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Mary Anne Evans published her novels under the pen name George Eliot.

Evans started her schooling at Miss Latham's school in Attleborough and then attended the religious Mrs. Wallington’s School at Nuneaton. She finished her education at a Baptist establishment in Coventry. She was a pious and severe young woman until she moved to Coventry with her father after her mother’s death. There she was exposed to more liberal reading material and philosophies.

After her father’s death, she moved to London and became the highly successful subeditor of The Westminster Review. It was here that she met the man with who she would live within what was considered a liberal domestic setup. Evans and George Henry Lewes lived together but he was unable to divorce his wife after condoning her adultery by adopting her illegitimate child. The relationship caused her brother to disown her and they were never reconciled.

Evans lived with Lewes until he died in 1878. During this time, she published all of her now-famous novels under the pen name, George Eliot. Displaying the type of psychological insight that would become a modern novel staple, Evan's works are considered classics of the Victorian age.

Shortly before her death at 61, Evans married John Cross. Evans, by then the most widely read and second richest woman in England, died of kidney disease in 1880. She was buried in unconsecrated ground at Highgate Cemetery.

The Mill on the Floss: summary

Below is a summary of The Mill of the Floss.

Overview: The Mill on the Floss

Author of The Mill on the FlossGeorge Eliot
GenreRomance novel, domestic fiction, psychological fiction
Literary PeriodVictorian
First published1860
Brief summary of The Mill on the Floss
  • The novel focuses on the relationship between siblings Maggie and Tom Tulliver, and the various challenges they face as they grow up and try to navigate the strict social norms and expectations of the Victorian era.
List of main charactersMaggie Tulliver, Tom Tulliver, Phillip Wakem, Lucy Deane, Bob Jakin
ThemesSocial class, marriage, and women's role in society
SettingThe fictional town of St. Oggs in the English Midlands in the 1820s and 1830s.
AnalysisThe novel critiques the restrictive social norms of Victorian society and celebrates the potential for human beings to transcend these limitations through knowledge, compassion, and empathy.

The Mill on the Floss starts with the reminiscences of an unnamed narrator. He or she thinks back to a childhood time when Dorlcote Mill was still owned by Mr Tulliver.

The novel’s protagonist is Maggie, who is the intelligent and sometimes careless daughter of Mr and Mrs Tulliver and the younger sister of the much admired, Tom. She often frustrates her conservative brother and her slightly superficial mother with her unconventional ways.

Mr Tulliver sends Tom away to study with Mr Stelling, so he can become something more than just a farmer. Tom is soon joined by Mr Tuliver’s enemy, Mr Wakem's son, Philip. Philip has a physical disability but is an intelligent student who finds Maggie fascinating when she comes to visit her brother.

More unusually for the time, Maggie is also sent to school but has to return home when her father loses the lawsuit against his neighbour, represented by Mr Wakem. The loss of the suit bankrupts Mr Tulliver. Mrs Tulliver’s affluent family is more interested in maintaining Victorian moral superiority than helping the family financially. Eventually, Mr Tulliver is kept on as a manager on his farm by Mr Wakem, who buys it at an auction.

Tom goes into business to try and earn enough money to pay his father's debts. Bob Jakin, an old friend, encourages him to invest his savings which helps to speed up the process. Maggie and Philip meet in secret and fall in love. Unfortunately, Tom finds out, is cruel to Philip about his disability, and forbids Maggie from seeing Philip again. Rather than hurt her brother and father, she agrees. Tom eventually earns enough money to pay off his father's debts, who dies shortly afterwards.

Maggie visits her cousin, Lucy Deane at St Ogg's and unwittingly falls in love with her cousin's suitor, Stephen, who reciprocates Maggie's feelings for him. They elope to York but Maggie changes her mind and returns. Everyone assumes the worst and Tom refuses to let her stay at Dorlcote Mill. Her mother and their old family friend, Bob Jakin, support her through the ordeal and give her a place to stay. Stephen sends a letter, absolving her of any wrongdoing but it is too late. She is an outcast, considered a 'fallen woman.'

Stephen and Philip both continue to send her letters. Stephen still pleads with her to marry him, while Philip expresses that he does not blame her in any way. Maggie resolves to turn Stephen down again. Lucy visits Maggie in secret, extending her forgiveness too.

The river Floss floods and Maggie jumps into a boat to rescue Tom at Dorclote Mill. He is trapped in the house and gladly accepts her assistance. Their resolution is mostly unspoken but mutually acknowledged. Before they make it to Lucy’s house, the boat capsizes and they both drown. They are buried together and their graves are visited by the survivors, Lucy, Philip, and Mrs Tulliver.

In the Victorian era, a 'fallen woman' was a broad term that referred to a woman who did not conform to the strict moral code of the time. This could be due to an extra-marital affair or premarital sex, an illegitimate child, prostitution or even the suspicion of one of these things.

The Mill on the Floss: characters

The characters in The Mill on the Floss reflect the era and location that Evans lived in and partially her personal experiences.

Maggie Tulliver

Maggie, the protagonist, is beautiful, intelligent, and vivacious. She yearns for the approval of her brother, Tom, who is mainly critical of her and eventually disowns her. Maggie gives up Philip, the man she loves, to please her family but only her mother and her cousin stick by her when her reputation is questioned. In the end, she dies trying to save the brother who rejected her.

Tom Tulliver

Tom is Maggie’s older brother. Less intellectual, more conservative, and preoccupied with propriety, Tom is not a particularly loving or protective brother. He does save the family mill and pay off his father's debts. This is as much due to his need for respectability as for any other reason. Tom prevents Maggie from marrying Philip and rejects her even after Stephen's letter absolving her of any wrongdoing. He does get in the boat when she rescues him in the flood and his acknowledgement of her is a form of resolution between them.

The Mill on the Floss, Characters, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The young Tom and Maggie before Tom is sent away.

Phillip Wakem

Philip is the son of Mr Wakem, the lawyer who buys Dorlcote Mill when Mr Tulliver goes bankrupt. He is sensitive, intelligent and the man who Maggie falls in love with. Tom mocks Philip’s handicap and makes Maggie choose between him and Philip to put a stop to their relationship. Philip remains a loyal friend to Maggie throughout the novel.

Lucy Deane

Lucy is Maggie’s cousin and Stephen's fiancé. She is quick to forgive Maggie, who was actively pursued by Stephen despite his engagement to her cousin. Lucy is portrayed as kind, pretty, and one of the only family members who stand by Maggie when she becomes labelled a 'fallen woman'.

Bob Jakin

A childhood friend who Tom rejected over a cheating incident, Bob returns to the Tulliver’s lives later in the novel. He gives Maggie books and helps Tom to invest his savings to buy back Dorlcote Mill. He also gives Maggie and Mrs Tulliver a place to stay when Tom refuses to allow Maggie to stay at Dorlcote Mill.

What is your opinion of Tom's moral judgement of his childhood friend, Bob and his sister Maggie? Is his rejection of them based on his era's accepted moral principles justified? Do you think that characters in the novel are more nuanced than all good or all bad?

The Mill on the Floss: quotes and themes

The main themes of The Mill on the Floss are:

  1. Family and sibling relationships

  2. Education and knowledge: The novel highlights the importance of education and knowledge in shaping one's worldview and the struggles that women face in accessing education.

  3. Gender roles and expectations: The novel critiques the restrictive gender roles and expectations placed on women in Victorian society, and the limited options available to them.

  4. Love and relationships

  5. Loss and grief

  6. Nature and the environment: The novel celebrates the beauty of the natural world, and emphasizes the importance of human beings living in harmony with nature.

  7. Social class and wealth: The novel critiques the inequalities and prejudices of the class system in Victorian society, and the impact that wealth and social standing have on people's lives.

Another theme in the novel is actions over words.

I am not imposed upon by fine words; I can see what actions mean.

A comment that has become cliched today, in Evan's time the quote above was deemed more revolutionary. This message is personified by Maggie, who despite being a 'fallen woman' saves Bob and dies trying to save a brother who rejected her.

The quote below from the narrator sums up why many consider this novel to have aspects of autobiography, as well as social commentary. In the Victorian era, women who stepped outside the boundaries of the restrictive societal moral code were shunned. Instead of adopting the current mindset, Evans writes a novel about Maggie, an intelligent, brave and self-sacrificing 'outcast'. The central theme of sympathy over rigid morality is linked to this quote.

But if Maggie had been that young lady, you would probably have known nothing about her: her life would have had so few vicissitudes that it could hardly have been written; for the happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history.

Mary Ann Evans lived most of her life with a man who was still married to another woman. Their relationship was long-lived, happy and mutually beneficial. In London, their domestic situation was frowned upon by general society but in her provincial hometown, it was considered scandalous enough for her brother to completely disown her. Evans chose Lewes over her family.

In The Mill on Floss, Maggie chooses her family over Philip. Still, her brother disowns her and the women of St Oggs stir up rumours about the only men who try to assist her once her reputation has been questioned.

Evans highlights the effects of the restrictive and rigidly moralistic era on women through her depiction of Maggie and the choices she is forced to make.

The Mill on the Floss: ending and message

George Eliot is widely praised for her insightful psychological portrayals of characters and their dilemmas. Unusual at the time, this level of character insight has become a feature of more modern novels. Authors like Woolf and Joyce are considered the Modernist writers who came to personify this characteristic, while Eliot is considered a pioneer.

In this context, the development of characters in The Mill on the Floss becomes more interesting as the novel progresses. Maggie continually strives to win her brother’s approval but Tom’s rejection of her unconventional ways only increases up to the point of complete disownment. Having given up so much to appease others, only to be rejected, Maggie is at the point of wondering how long she will need to endure life when the flood happens.

Faced with his own death, Tom decides to break his silent rejection of Maggie, who has risked her life to save him. Realising what she has done for him, he says only his name for her, 'Magsie', before they are both drowned when their boat capsizes. Tom lovingly referred to her by this name, and his use of it in this instance indicates his acknowledgement of their familial bond.

This ending has been criticised for being unrealistic and melodramatic but the final sentence ties in with the epigraph:

In their death, they were not divided

This is a tragic ending but one that makes its point about rigidly misguided morality and its impact on relationships. Tom, after morally judging Maggie despite Stephen's letter, only reconciles with her when faced with death as the only other alternative. Yet Maggie would risk her life to save him, despite his repeated judgement and rejection. Unfortunately, neither survives to enjoy the newly formed understanding between them.

Evan’s point about rigidly applied morality is clear. Sympathy and empathy, in her view, are more important. As commonplace as this belief has become, at her age, Evans was quite revolutionary in her more modern outlook and her psychological approach to the novel.

The Mill on The Floss - Key Takeaways

  • The Mill on The Floss is a book about families, siblings and the divides caused by misguided morality.
  • George Eliot is a woman named Mary Anne or Marian Evans. She wrote under a pen name to be more easily published and respected as an author.
  • The Mill on The Floss’s protagonist is Maggie Tulliver, an unconventional and intelligent woman who sacrifices much, including a relationship with the man she loves, to appease those around her.
  • Tom Tulliver is Maggie's older brother. He is less intellectual and more traditionally conservative. He rejects Bob Jakin and Maggie for his moral reasons, despite both of them being faithful and loyal to him.
  • The ending of The Mill on The Floss is quite depressing but highlights the absurdities of the rigidity of Victorian-era morality.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss can be summarised as a novel that highlights the rigid morality that typified Victorian era society and its effects on relationships. 

It is also a novel about family and siblings, forgiveness and compassion.

The central theme of The Mill on the Floss is one of sympathy over rigid morality.

The Mill on the Floss ends with Tom forgiving Maggie when she comes to save him during a flood. Unfortunately, their boat is overturned and they both die.

The Mill on the Floss was written by Mary Ann Evans, under the pen name George Eliot.

The Mill on the Floss tells the story of Maggie, an intelligent and unconventional woman who sacrifices much for the sake of her family. With a focus on sympathy over morality, the conflicted relationship between Maggie and her brother, Tom is a central focus. The novel ends with their reconciliation and unfortunate deaths.

Final The Mill on the Floss Quiz

The Mill on the Floss Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What is a summary of The Mill on the Floss?

Show answer


The Mill on the Floss is a novel about Maggie, an intelligent and unconventional woman who sacrifices much to appease her family. 

With a focus on sympathy over morality, the conflicted relationship between Maggie and her brother, Tom is a central focus. 

The novel ends with their reconciliation and unfortunate deaths.

Show question


Who wrote The Mill on the Floss?

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George Eliot wrote the Mill on the Floss.

Show question


What are George Eliot's other names?

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Mary Ann Evans and Marian Evans

Show question


What is the central theme of The Mill on the Floss?

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Sympathy over rigid morality.

Show question


What aspects of George Eliot's life can be found in The Mill on the Floss?

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The relationship between Maggie and her brother Tom, reflects George Eliot's relationship with her own brother.

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Who does Maggie give up in order to appease her father and brother?

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Maggie gives up her relationship with Philip Wakem when her brother makes her chose between her family and Philip.

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Who else does Tom judge and reject based on his rigid moral principles?

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His childhood friend, Bob Jakin.

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Which family members stand by Maggie when she is labelled a 'fallen woman'?

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Her mother and her cousin, Lucy.

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What is the difference between George Eliot's choices in life and Maggies?

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George Eliot chose to live with Lewes and lose her family while Maggie chose ti give up Philip to appease her family.

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What happens in the end of The Mill on The Floss?

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Maggie and Tom die in the flood after a brief reconciliation.

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