Picture of Contemporary Life in The Mill on The Floss

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      There can be no denying the fact that The Mill on the Floss is basically the story of Maggie Tullivers, of her life and suffering. Maggie Tullivers is the center of action which cannot be fully appreciated unless we look at it from her point of view. But the Mill on the Floss tells us much more than merely the story of Maggie Tullivers. It also gives us a comprehensive and elaborate picture of English rural life in the opening years of the Victorian age, before the dislocation and disintegration caused by the Industrial revolution.

      As Elizabeth Drew points out, George Eliot is the first great sociological novelist, her vision is an integrated one, and she evokes the complete social environment which conditions the life of her principal figures. Both Frelding and Thackeray had practiced the panoramic narrative method, loaded with realistic detail, but no one before George Eliot had established the close organic relationship between the nature of the individual and the nature of the society in which the individual develops and in which he has to function. The novelist was of the opinion that an author should investigate “the natural history of our social classes, especially of the small shopkeepers, artisans and peasantry and the degree in which they are influenced by focal conditions, their maxims and habits, the point of view from which they regard their religious teachers, and the interaction of the various classes on each other.”

      She further said, “It is the habit of my imagination to strive after as full a vision of the medium in which a character moves, as of the character itself and add, “There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life”. She is herself as much at ease in the home of Bob Jakin, the peddler, as in the drawing room of the Deanes, in the very different vicarages of Mr. Stelling or Dr. Kenn, as in the offices of Guest and Company, merchants and shipowners; in the parlor of Mr. Glegg, retired ship’s chandler, as in that of the gentleman farmer, Mr. Pullet, or the poor tenant- farmer, Mr. Moss.”

      The society of St. Oggs’ and its environs is the medium in which Maggie Tulliver moves, and George Eliot was intimately familiar with this medium. St. Oggs’ is a microcosm of Victorian England, the life which is lived there is symbolic of the life which was being lived all over rural England during, that period. The society of St. Oggs’ is formed of the Dodsons and the Tullivers, they are symbolic figures and through them the novelist has studied the whole interrelated social structure which conditions the personal situation. The society of St. Oggs’ is restricted, repressive, brutal and graceless. People like the Dodsons, says Walter Alien, “are conscious only of material things, rising above them only when family pride is involved. Even then, their chief concern is to see that the material possessions of erring members are kept within the family. There is a surprising abstruseness to anything beyond this. Even Mrs. Tulliver is not exempt. One remembers her initial reaction to the prospect of her husband’s bankruptcy. He has had a stroke, and when Tom hears the news and returns home, he discovers his mother alone in the storeroom:

      ‘Oh, my boy, my boy’, she said, clasping him round the neck, “To think as I should, live to see this day. We’re ruined... everything’s going to be sold up...to think as your father should ha’ married me to bring me to this. We’ve got nothing...we shall be beggars...we must go to the workhouse.

      To think o’ these cothea as I spun myself; she went on, lifting things out and turning them over with an excitement all the more
strange and piteous because the stout blond woman was usually so passive; if she had been ruffled before, it was at the surface merely, “and Job, Haxey wove them, and brought the piece home on his back, as I remember standing at the door and seeing him come, before I ever thought O’ marrying your father and the pattern as I chose myself—and bleached so beautiful, and I marked’em so as nobody ever saw such marking—they must cut the cloth to get it out, for if s a particular stitch. And they’re all to be sold—and go into strange people’s houses, and perhaps be cut with the knives, and wear out before I’m dead. You’ll never have one of ‘em, boy’, she said, looking up at Tom with her eyes full of tears, “and I meant’em for you”.

      “Not even Flaubert exposed the values of bourgeois society more mercilessly than did George Eliot in this novel, though at one point, in a chapter of authorial intervention, she defends the Dodsons.” It does not seem to Walter Alien to be an adequate defense:

      “It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and Dodsons — irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no misery and crime—without that primitive rough simplicity of wants, that hard, submissive, ill-paid toil, that childlike spelling out of what nature has written, which gives its poetry to peasant life. Here, one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish — surely the most prosaic form of human life; proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable built; worldliness without side-dishes. Observing these people narrowly even when the iron hand of misfortune has shaken them from their unquestioning hold on the world, one sees little trace of religion, still less of a distinctively Christian creed. Their belief in the unseen, so far as it manifests itself at all, seems to be rather of a pagan kind; their moral notions, seem to have no standard beyond hereditary custom And yet: The Dodsons were a very proud race, and their pride lay in the utter frustration of all desire to tax them with a breach of traditional duty or propriety. A wholesome pride in many respects, since it identified honor with perfect integrity, thoroughness of work, and faithfulness to admitted, rules, and society owe some worthy qualities in many of her members to mothers of the Dodson class, who made their butter and their fragmentary well, and would have felt disgraced to make it otherwise. To be honest and poor was never a Dodson motto, still less to seem rich though being poor; and not only rich, but richer than what was supposed. To live respected, and have the proper pall bearers at your funeral, was an achievement of the ends of existence that would be entirely nullified if, on the reading of your will, you sank in the opinion of your fellowmen, either by turning out to be poorer than they expected, or by leaving your money in a capricious manner, without strict regard to degrees of kin. The right thing must always be done towards kindred. The right thing was to correct them severely, if they were other than a credit to the family, but still not to alienate from them the smallest rightful share in the family shoe-buckles and other property.”

      George Eliot says what she can for the Dodsons, but they are a hard lot, a thorny set of people. Tom Tulliver is the quintessence of Dodsonism, whereas his father represents the very antithesis of the Dodson creed. Although he is the victim of his passions and generosity, Mr. Tulliver is redeemed precisely by his generosity towards his sister—who has married beneath her as he has married above him—and by his puzzled love for his daughter are does not understand Maggie but obscurely recognizes her potentialities, though he deplores them because, by virtue of her sex, they cannot be realized. In the society of the Tullivers and Dodsons alike, Maggie is, as it were, a changeling.

      Such is the social environment in which Maggie lives, grows and matures. It is brutal, mean, and almost completely lacking in Christian charity. It is extremely repressive and Maggie is the victim of its repression. Given a different, more liberal environment, she would have conic to full flowering and realized her aspirations as George Eliot could do in her own personal life. As it is, she is crushed and goes under. It is this which makes Maggie, in Ker aspirations and frustrations, a permanent criticism of the quality of ordinary life anywhere in any age. The novel, says Walter Alien, faithfully—renders that life—the ordinary life of people like the Dodsons—and also provides a scathing criticism of that life.” Hence the far-reaching significance of the novel as a social document.

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