Plot Structure in The Mill on The Floss and It's Weakness

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      George Eliot’s forte was characterization and not plot construction. Even then her plots are better constructed than those, of most other Victorian novelists. In her novels, “minor characters do not swell to gigantic proportions, dwarfing the principal characters, and her most memorable scenes are always turning points in the action”. These remarks are applicable to the Mill on the Floss also. It is largely the story of Maggie Tullivers, Maggie is the center of interest and all other characters are subordinated to her. No other character has been allowed to overshadow her. There are a number of minor characters, but they all serve to illuminate some aspect or the other of the life and character of the central figure.

      Further, George Eliot’s novels are organic wholes in the sense that character and action are fully integrated with the social and physical environment which acts and reacts upon then. Says Joan Bennet, “the outer circle within which the dramatic situation is contained, is an organic human society, and her novels are deeply imbued with the spirit of a particular time and place. In the Mill an the Floss this outer circle is formed by the society of St. Ogg’s represented by the Dodson and the Tullivers. It is a narrow, rigid, tradition-ridden, materialistic society which represses and crushes all individual and uncommon aspirations, and Maggie is shown as a victim of her repressive environment.” In more congenial surroundings, she would have realized her environment.” In more congenial surroundings, she would have realized her aspirations, in St. Ogg’s she is crushed and destroyed.

      The central theme of the novel—the spiritual history of Maggie from childhood to her death—remains dominant throughout, and the action has a straightforward logical development. We first get an account of the early life of Maggie and Tom. This is followed by an account of the school days of Tom. Philip is introduced and Maggie is drawn to him because he is deformed. Thus is established a relationship of far-reaching consequences. The school days suddenly come to an end owing to the financial bankruptcy of Mr. Tulliver, and Tom shows his metal as he works hard to redeem the family honor. Maggie, too, grows up into a fine young lady. Then follows the love affair of Maggie and Philip, resulting in the cruel injunction of Tom that Maggie should never meet Philip again. Their love affair is further complicated by the presence of Stephen Guest, Lucy’s lover. Maggie’s elopement with Stephen follows as a result of a momentary weakness or self-indulgence. Renunciation and self-sacrifice characterize Maggie, from the beginning, she gives up Stephen and returns to St. Oggs in disgrace. True to his own nature, Tom shuts his doors on Maggie. The reconciliation between the two is finally brought about by the flood and the two are united forever in death. Even this death by drowning is foreshadowed from the very beginning, for Mrs. Tulliver again and again expresses the fear that Maggie would surely be drowned, one day. The prophecy at last comes true.

      The above review clearly brings out the fact that the plot of the novel is easily divisible into two parts. The first part deals with decline in the fortunes of Mr. Tulliver and it ends with his death. The second part deals with the Maggie-Philip-Stephen-Lucy love tangle with all its terrible consequences, and it ends with the death by drawing of the brother and sister. In the first part of the novel, which deals with the downfall and death of Mr. Tulliver, the action is single and simple, intensely dramatic without surplusage and without any dissipation of interest Mr. Tulliver is the central figure of the plot, and all the other characters, standing in well-defined relations to him, act and react on his destiny. The aunts and uncles, Bob Jakin, the Stellings, the Wakems, and Mr. Railey are all minor characters; While they contribute to the richness and variety of the scene, they do not introduce any action extraneous to the main one. There is a gap in interest which, coincides with a gap in time between the end of the first part and the beginning:

      There are plenty of links between the two parts of the story. The background of the aunts and uncles, Bob Jakin and the Wakems, and the enormous imponderable symbol of Dorlcote Mill remains the same.

      As the river flows on, so does life in St. Ogg’s and Mudport; the life and death of Mr. Tulliver form only a ripple on its surface which soon vanishes and is swiftly forgotten, The most significant link between the two parts of the plot, however, is the family feud between the Tullivers and the Wakems, After the death of Mr. Tulliver it continues to embitter the lives of Mr. Tullivers children and also of Philip. But for this heritage of haired, Tom would have taken up a more reasonable attitude to the love of Maggie and Philip, which, as has been pointed out above, began quite early during Tom’s schooldays.

      The Mill on the Floss is a great work of art, and its plot is more coherent and well-knit than that of the other novels of George Eliot. Even then its structure suffers from a number of shortcomings, and has evoked a great deal of criticism. According to W. J. Harvey the major defects of the novel are structural. “Book I and Book II are disproportionately elaborated.

      In Book II there are a large number of authorial intrusions and comments which hold up the action and are often tiresome and boring. There is a want of economy in this section. We may grant that the theme of education is related in various ways to the main themes of the book. Tom’s book learning is contrasted with the hard facts of life he has to learn. Mr. Tullivers concept of education reveals the materialistic nature of his society, and so on. But the education theme is not in itself central or very important, and the suspicion that in Book II George Eliot is indulging herself in one of her pet topics is increased by the number and length of her intrusions.

      “The failure of the Mill on the Floss is not so much due to idealization of Maggie as Dr. Leavis and others think, but rather— as George Eliot herself suggests—to a simple structural disproportion. It is not the fact that Stephen is the object of Maggie’s infatuation that worries us, nor the emotional intensity of the relationship; worthless popinjays no doubt frequently arouse intense emotions. The trouble is that even as a worthless popinjay, Stephen isn’t adequately realized, he is really never there as a force at all. It is not the fact that he is a shallow dandy, an unworthy object of Maggie’s passion, that he is at fault; rather it is the fact that aesthetically he simply isn’t substantiated.

      Stephen as an overdressed dummy of a man would be acceptable, but there is all the difference in the world between a full picture of a character who is in fact shallowly egoistical and an inadequate sketch of such a picture. Stephen is only a sketch, he is gestured at, not portrayed; certainly, he is insufficiently elaborated to make his relationship with Maggie convincing. And the simple truth of the matter is that George Eliot had no time to portray him; given the space left at her disposal, she could no more than sketch him in a few gestures. It is not the difference in the quality of Maggie’s and Stephen’s characters, but the difference, in the realization of them, which is the true cause of the book’s disharmony.

      “Given this disproportion—Maggie fully and leisurely portrayed, Stephen hastily sketched in—we can see the increasing tempo of the book as indicating not the natural crescendo of the catastrophe but rather the breathless rush to finish things off within the limits of the conventional three-decker novel. This is particularly apparent in the device which George Eliot uses to reach her conclusion, a fully premeditated conclusion as we learn from a letter: “To my feeling, there is more thought and more profound variety in The Mill than in Adam; but Adam is more complete, and better balanced. My love of the childhood scenes made me linger over them; so that I could not develop as fully as I wished the concluding Book in which the tragedy occurs and which I had looked forward to, with much attention and p remediation from the beginning.’As George Eliot herself realised, there remains a gap between intention and achievement.

      The method of compression and concentration adopted in the concluding portion contrasts too radically with the leisurely narrative of the rest of the novel; we are switched from one mode of fiction to another and we cannot but feel the jerk as the gears change and the action accelerates.

      In the final section Maggie in agony falls on her knees in prayer: Oh God, if my life is to be long let me live to bless and comfort—at that very moment, Maggie felt a startling sensation of sudden cold about her knees and feet; it was water flowing under her.

       At this climatic moment one cannot but feel that the novel comes perilously close to the ludicrous, so promptly is Maggie’s prayer answered so put upon its cue does the river enter. It is all forced, unnatural, and melodramatic. And the disquiet we feel here is mainly the result of enforced speed. This over-compression may also give rise to more serious doubts; to the view for instance, that the catastrophe is really an evasion by George Eliot of the moral problems she has posed in the rest of the book, rather than a true and satisfying conclusion (W. J. Harvey). It all strikes one as a moral melodrama.

      According to Robert Speaight, the death of Tom and Maggie comes upon us as something fated and waited for, but not as something inevitable. There was no reason why Maggie, having surmounted her crisis, should not have remade her life. She could plausibly have gone off with Stephen and reaped the bitter fruit of selfishness: she could plausibly have committed suicide.

      In either case, we should have said that she was a creature of extremes and that her end was already in her character. As it is, we are only prepared to say that her end was already in her fate. It is an unhappy accident, but it is not a necessary doom.

      Leslie Stephen finds fault with George Eliot’s portrayal of male characters—of Tom Tulliver and of Stephen Guest. “Many brothers would ride roughshod over sisterly sensibilities; but if we are to retain, sympathy for their better nature, they should experience some pangs of conscience.

      Tom’s profound conviction that whatever he did was right, was no doubt characteristic; but he could have been represented as feeling that he was doing a painful duty, and not shown as utterly insensible to the claims of the old childish affections. It is here that George Eliot seems to have erred in her portrayal of the masculine character.”

      Another weakness of the novel is the abject submission of Maggie to the dictates of her self-righteous brother. George Eliot herself admitted that the scene of quarrel between brother and sister was not quite satisfactory.

      Maggie is too passive and tamely submits to Tom’s imperious interference. Tom’s behavior makes him simply offensive to most people, though we are expected to retain a certain regard for him. George Eliot seems to have felt some sympathy with the conservative view that the family should be under masculine supremacy.

      In short, The Mill on the Floss is a great work of art, but it has its own faults. It is a great, but flawed novel.

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