Remption of the Tulliver Family in “The Mill on the Floss

           In “Mill on the Floss”, George Eliot creates a central family with the heroine, Maggie Tulliver, in both domestic and social framework. This is a story about a Victorian middle-classed family searching their identity and way to happiness. With Eliot’s descriptions, readers can see how the Tullivers struggle in Capitalism society, facing their problems, and being redeemed by the narrator’s arrangement in the ending. To explain the family situation, we will start with its four members. It has four middle-classed family members, formed by father, mother, a son and a daughter.


The Tulliver Family as   Victims of Capitalism and Patriarchy

Mr. Tulliver, the head of the family, lives by the mill on the Floss river with his family. As a father, he is soft with his wife and daughter. He is a nice person, not rich, but wants to be so. His expectation for the young generation, Tom and Maggie, is to help them gain better social position in both fame and financial status. However, Mr. Tulliver's financial downfall ruins the dream and causes his illness. This frustration also influences the rest of the family. To Mr. Tulliver and his son, the defeat of law case with Mr. Wakem becomes a reason of hatred, even if the bankruptcy also has something to do with the result of Mr. Tulliver’s own single- mindedness, rashness and pride.

Just as the other main characters of The Mill on the Floss, Mr. Tulliver seems to be a victim of his own value and the circumstances of Capitalism society. Although Tulliver is somewhat more intelligent than his wife, yet he is still puzzled by malicious economic world, as well as the complexities of language, manners and values, and Mr. Tulliver is so overwhelmed by the changing world around him, that explains why ‘the world is too many’ for him.

Part of the novel will concentrate on the diminishment of traditional provincial life when facing newly materialistic, entrepreneurial forces. For example, as Mr. Tulliver must go outside his family structure to borrow five hundred pounds from a client of Lawyer Wakem's, he is actually defeated and be used by those ‘gentlemen’ who knows how to make a living in materialistic capitalism.

Tom is the Tullivers' older son. Like his father, Tome grows up as a decent man who has his own clear values of duty, justice, and fairness. These standards affect him in action rather than in emotion. Tom, in some way, is sometimes too narrow-minded, rational. Unlike his impetuous, romantic sister, he has a strong, self-righteous sense of "fairness" and "justice" which often figures into his decisions and relationships more than tenderness or emotion. This characteristic becomes one of the reasons that he often argues with Maggie about her relationship with Phillip Wakem.

In order to be successful, Tom joins the ranks of capitalist entrepreneurs who are swiftly rising in the world. Tom used to be his father’s dream as a well-educated gentleman who can gain all he needs to break into the upper class world. Nevertheless, when Mr. Tulliver goes bankrupt, Tom must go to work at a young age, hardly with experience in practical business matters. Fortunately, Tom still brings the family out of debt and finally becomes a promising young worker at Uncle Deane's company.

To compare with Maggie, surely Tom is not that clever as Maggie when it comes to bookish knowledge, in fact, he is more suited to practical knowledge. In order to show how the relationship between nature and the two kids, in Eliot’s descriptions of outdoor activities and nature, Tom and Maggie are often connected with the imagery of two animals in a serene atmosphere. In his childhood, Tom is close to Maggie during those carefree, happy days. On the other hand, Tom holds strict notions about gender—his biggest problem with Maggie is that she will not let him take care of her and make her decisions for her. Tom seems capable of love and kindness; however, in some way he still inhabits the bitter single- mindedness reminiscent of his father.

        As a member of young Tulliver generations, Tom is a witness of the rapid wealth of Mr. Stelling and Mr. Pivart. They are two models of Capitalist— Mr. Stelling rises in the world based on his investment as a learned man; Mr. Pivart rises in the world based on the deceptive, calculation of litigation and invisible waterpower. Yet, as Tulliver’s men, both Tom and Mr. Tulliver do not have heads for these sophisticated skills of money-making and social intercourse. To express the contrast, Eliot arranges the clash between the Tulliver's traditional provincial way of life and the new, clever materialism. The narrator also warns of the dangers of unchecked materialism and uses the whole Tulliver family as the victims of this male-dominant Capitalist society.

        The female host of the family, Mrs. Tulliver, is a dull-witted, stout and hard-working woman. When the details of housework are often neglected by other family members, she always thinks of trivial things of life. Her mind always focuses mainly on tactile objects, like the linens and china. These habits show her soft, careful notices of the family life and enjoyment. Although her husband's bankruptcy makes her confused and listless, however, she never forgets her duty as a mother and householder. Mrs. Tulliver likes Tom more than Maggie as children, but she grows prouder of Maggie as Maggie grows tall, striking, and more demure. As a housewife and a mother, she takes housework as her duty, instead of forcing Maggie to help her with housework.

Within the family, Mrs. Tulliver plays a different role as a manager of order, supporter of cleanness and comfort. When the family lost its original order because of a series of downfall, there is always a sense of order in the house which maintains the family with fullness and female warmness. In addition, when there are the quarrels over financial problems, we can see Mr. and Mrs.Tulliver’s incompatible world views, the imperfection of the marriage and Mrs. Tulliver’s dullness, nevertheless her position becomes more important during Mr. Tulliver’s bankruptcy and illness. Mr. Tulliver seems to be a spiritual supporter of the family while Mr. Tulliver lost his capacity in financial support.

Maggie, the youngest member of the Tulliver family, grows from an impetuous, clever child into a striking, unconventional young woman in her parents’ love. Without Maggie, The Tulliver might be a traditional Victorian family.

Maggie is closes to her brother Tom. Since young, she cares much on his approval and acceptance, but unlike Tom, who feels secure in his actions, Maggie was always wishing she had done something different. On the other hand, her father, Mr. Tulliver is especially fond of Maggie’s cleverness, and he often takes her side in family quarrels. However, even the father’s love excuses Maggie’s personality, rather than supporting it. Although Mr. Tulliver educates Maggie in patriarchic way of thinking, he never neglects her cleverness and enjoyment in books, music and the richness of intelligent conversation.

Maggie's spontaneous, non-conforming, and imaginative sense of self must continuously run against outside censure of her appearance, behavior, and talents. Even if her family's downfall lends her a quieter, troubled side that tends toward self- abnegation, Maggie is never been portrayed as a traditional Victorian women, whether in outer appearance or inner emotion movement. Instead of using rebellious, satanic way of writing to put Maggie in the novel, Elliot reconstructs this Victorian heroine in her (Maggie) own unique thinking and beauty. From her unique preference of praises as ‘quick, clever’ instead of ‘pretty’, we can see that she does not reckon being pretty as the most important thing, because she likes having fun and impressing people, instead of merely pleasing them by not being herself. With her dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes, Maggie’s mystery, profoundness, brightness and sensibility makes her outstand from another traditional young girl in the novel, Lucy. When it comes to the pursuit of Stephen for Maggie, the difference between Lucy and Maggie is especially shown.

In addition, there is always a series of self-identifying descriptions in the narration of “Mill on the Floss”. Both of Maggie’s movement of thinking and feelings convey the self-seeking in relationship with Phillip, Lucy, and Stephen. Her denial of Phillip and Stephen are resulted from different but clear reasons. We can see Maggie is actually as gentle and soft as Lucy is, even if Maggie has her own value of right and wrong with a honest, stern ability to put her thoughts into actions.

Maggie, as a new model of Victorian young woman, has her own self-conscious and judgment toward the outer social conventions and her own relationship with people. While upper class’ men are pursuing money and power, upper class’ women are asking for beauty, dress code, social convention and position on the society, Maggie is not totally believe in these concerns, although she is troubled by people’s expectations and her own. She chooses to fight by her own decision, without sacrificing other’s happiness. Although at young ages, Maggie is deemed naughty by Tom or her mother or other else, she does not reflect on the fairness or unfairness of the judgment against her. In contrast, she focuses on the feeling unloved and being loved. That is also why Maggie craves forgiveness and offers forgiveness to others. The only twist on this is that Maggie does not easily forgive herself.


The remedy for the Tulliver Family

The financial downfall is resulted from the malicious competition of Capitalism which tortures the Tulliver Family spiritually and materially. Yet, is there any remedy that keeps supporting the family though the whole depression? The answer is positive if we emphasizes on the female strength in the family. While the forgiveness, amenability and constancy of Mrs. Tulliver remain to operate the family, young Maggie also tries to attend the family’s expectation by going out to work and arrange her relationship with her lover (who is seen as a family enemy by Mr. Tulliver and Tom). Even when facing her relationship with Phillip, Maggie listens to her brother and then takes her consideration into actions. To sum up, all these effort helps the family to stay as whole after the financial defeat and the tragic death of the head of the family.

Yet, one thing seems unthinkable—although Maggie and Tom, the young generation, symbolize ‘hope’ for the Tulliver Family, they both die suddenly in the ending. Does that tragedy ruins the all the Tulliver Family’s efforts so far? Many critics describe the drowning of Tom and Maggie as "a resource to the Deus ex machina of sudden death", however, some scholars still view the drowning as a new way of redemption for the Tulliver Family. For example, in River Imagery as a Means of Foreshadowing in “The Mill on the Floss”’, Larry Rubin explains how Eliot uses the Floss river functions to plot Maggie’s state of mind throughout the novel. In Rubin’s opinion, the river imagery appears throughout the book, even the first few passages is about the Floss river. He thinks the writer intends to do this. That is why the final scene of Maggie and Tom is them being devoured by the Floss River.

On the other hand, in ‘"Drowned in a Willing Sea": Freedom and Drowning in Eliot, Chopin, and Drabble’, Helen V. Emmitt focuses on the reason of the destructive flood, reckoning that Maggie’s ‘yearning for Tom’ causes her to drown and “reborn as her ‘child self’” (319). She also believes that Maggie’s death is fated in those river-connected descriptions because Maggie cares too much for her brother and does not forgive herself. “The immediate past is unredeemable; neither Tom nor the village will forgive her. Maggie has to go further back, to a time before all the betrayals of adulthood. In any literal sense this is impossible; she cannot go home again-either to the mill (Tom will not let her in) or to childhood. Thus the weather works to make what she wants possible, although the price for that possibility is death” (320). Emmitt argues that the flood is never any kind of ‘Deus ex machia’, because the flood just fits Maggie’s state of mind of ‘transition of death, without its agony’(Oxford 517), and this is her own inner transcendence that  produces "strength, inspired by mighty emotion"(Emmitt 320) to make reconcilement with her brother.

The drowning as a way of solution

        There is hardly narration about woman saving man in a traditional novel, but Eliot seems to break the tradition. Maggie’s determination and capacity of saving people (she even wants to save more people after saving Tom) is shown again in the ending. She is the tragic heroine of ‘the final rescue’. Emmitt reckons the reason belongs to ‘Maggie’s incestuous desire for her brother is founded on an original desire to be one with him [Tom]”(319).That explains how Eliot puts Maggie rescue of Tom in accordance with her childhood memory.

So, what does Eliot convey in the drowning? Is it Maggie’s power of sacrificial nature, or the family reunion by death? In “River Imagery as a Means of Foreshadowing in The Mill on the Floss”, Larry Rubin reckons as that ‘the drowning scene is so heavily foreshadowed throughout the novel that it seems almost artistically impossible for the book to end in any other way’(19). The tragic end has its own meaning, maybe we can take it as the final solution for the depression of the Tullivers. As we put it early, every members of the family seems to be the victims in this cruel capitalistic society. Even the young Tullivers, Tom and Maggie, have been fighting and regaining the family happiness, although they both die in the flood, the work done by them is still reminding readers of their yearning to live and the struggle toward life.

             "The boat reappeared—but brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted: living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisy fields together." (Oxford 521)

This final childhood scene explains that Tom and Maggie were not divided in their death. That might be the thing Eliot intends to emphasize— when the young Tullivers die, they actually return to the childhood peace. On the other hand, the reunion of the family also implies that the major dilemma between social or financial failure and argument are all terminated by the mutual death of Tom and Maggie. Some feminists also view the death as ‘men and women’s reunion’ and the ‘relief’ from Victorian Patriarchy.

To sum up, the redemption for the Tulliver family is revealed in the ending. Both Tom and Maggie physically die, but they return to the peace of childhood spiritually. As they grow up, they have been influenced much by outside world, especially after Mr. Tulliver’s downfall. Nevertheless, Maggie never forgets the childhood spiritual peace, which encourage her love for Tom and even saves both of them by death. That is also a moral lesson that every worldly human beings need to remember—instead of those financial pursuit and power-gaining, childhood love for the family, and its innocence, peace, happiness always heals their spirits last for long, even after death.



Work Cited

Eliot, George, and Haight, Gordon S. Oxford World's Classics: The Mill on the Floss”, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Emmitt, Helen V. "Drowned in a Willing Sea": Freedom and Drowning in Eliot, Chopin, and Drabble Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2. (Autumn, 1993), 315-332.


Rubin, Larry. “River Imagery as a Means of Foreshadowing in The Mill on the Floss” Modern Language Notes, Vol. 71, No. 1. (Jan., 1956), 18-22.

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