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The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of George Eliot

Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot) was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, to Robert and Christiana Evans. Like Maggie in The Mill on The Floss, Evans didn’t meet the conventional beauty standards of her day. Worried that their daughter would have little success finding a husband, Mary Evans’s parents provided her with an education, which was uncommon for young girls to receive. After the age of sixteen, Evans continued her education independently, teaching herself from the wealth of books in the library of the estate where her father worked. She became the assistant editor of The Westminster Review, a left-wing journal, in 1951, which was an uncommon role for a woman. Many of her best-known novels, including Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876), center on the interior and private emotional lives of people in provincial communities. By her own account, Evans used a male pen name in order to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, which often associated women’s writing with “light” entertainment. Evans  lived an unconventional life, openly living outside of marriage with George Henry Lewes, a married journalist. As a result, she was estranged from her brother Isaac for many years.
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Historical Context of The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss is set in the 1820s, in the period following the Napoleonic wars. In the wake of Britain’s triumph, many of the inhabitants of St. Ogg’s—a fictional town in Lincolnshire, a region in the northeast of England—feel confident about the British empire and its predominance in the world. At the same time, however, there are some suggestions of social and political unrest. Characters like Mr. Tulliver, Mr. Riley, and Mr. Deane make frequent reference to the “Catholic Question,” which is a reference to the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829). This piece of legislation finally made it legal for Catholics to openly practice their faith, vote, and sit in Parliament, after centuries of disenfranchisement in England (a Protestant country since the sixteenth century). Although this was regarded as a step forward for religious tolerance, some characters in The Mill on the Floss worry that civil liberties for Catholics will lead to rebellion and dissent, suggesting that anti-Catholic prejudice was still deeply held in provincial areas like St. Ogg’s. In addition, The Mill on the Floss is widely regarded as George Eliot’s most autobiographical novel. Maggie Tulliver is often seen as an avatar for Eliot, who also grew up as a bookish and intelligent girl in a rural community, a farm in Warwickshire, that didn’t support her literary ambitions. Maggie’s volatile relationship with Tom recalls Eliot’s relationship with her brother, Isaac. Isaac disapproved of Eliot living with a man (George Henry Lewes) outside of marriage. He and Eliot were estranged for many years as a result, just as Tom rejects Maggie after her botched elopement with Stephen Guest.

Other Books Related to The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss is a bildungsroman—literally a “novel of education”—a book that centers on a young person’s transition into adulthood. The bildungsroman was a very popular genre in nineteenth-century European literature. Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (1759), are prominent examples. With its focus on the coming of age of a young girl, Maggie Tulliver, The Mill on the Floss recalls other classic bildungsroman focused on female protagonists, like Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). In particular, Brontë’s Jane closely resembles Eliot’s Maggie: both women are bookish, passionate, have a rich interior emotional life, and struggle with the restrictions placed on women’s behavior and choices in nineteenth-century Britain. In focusing on the unique challenges facing a woman’s coming of age, Brontë and Eliot subvert the traditional bildungsroman narrative by reminding readers that a woman’s growth into adulthood often involves a conflict between her intellectual ambitions and her prescribed social role.
Key Facts about The Mill on the Floss
  • Full Title: The Mill on the Floss
  • When Written: Late 1850s
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1860
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: St. Ogg’s, a fictional town in Lincolnshire, England
  • Climax: Tom rejects Maggie after her elopement with Stephen Guest, who was engaged to another woman.
  • Antagonist: Mr. Wakem
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on Film. The Mill on the Floss was adapted as a film in 1937, and as a television series in 1978 and 1997.