The narrator of The Mill on the Floss describes St. Ogg’s, the town where Tom and Maggie Tulliver grew up, as a place where “ignorance was much more comfortable than at present”—meaning the reader’s present is a more “enlightened” age. Throughout the novel, both Tom and Maggie struggle with the smallness of their home town and its provincial, narrow-minded values. The less bookish Tom eventually manages to find a respected place for himself in this community by turning to practical forms of knowledge in trade and business. Maggie, by contrast, finds that her intellect, passion, and love of learning make her an outcast in St. Ogg’s, putting her at odds with “respectable” society. As a result, Maggie retreats into a private, internal world of books, where she can imagine stories about far-away places. Even as an adult, Maggie retains this appetite for learning as a way of expanding the boundaries of her otherwise constrained existence.
St. Ogg’s is a provincial community in which few people have obtained much schooling at the secondary school level, let alone a university education. Mr. Tulliver admits that he hasn’t had much education himself, but hopes to help his son Tom have more prospects in life by enrolling him in school. Unfortunately, however, Mr. Tulliver’s ignorance of what goes on in a schoolroom prevents him from adequately helping his son. For example, he takes the advice of a friend, Mr. Riley, who knows equally little about education. Mr. Riley recommends Mr. Stelling as a tutor for Tom solely based on the fact that Stelling has a degree from Oxford, which Riley finds very impressive. Mr. Stelling is in fact a poor tutor, since he has no gift for teaching and succeeds mainly in making Tom feel stupid. Furthermore, while Mr. Tulliver had hoped that Tom would learn bookkeeping, Mr. Stelling instead teaches him Latin and geometry—subjects appropriate for a gentlemanly education, but not for a practical career. When Tom visits his uncle Mr. Deane to ask for a job at a shipping company, he finds that his education has given him little preparation for life. Mr. Tulliver believes that he has given his son “a good eddication,” but has actually spent hundreds of pounds on an education that is useless to Tom in practice. In this sense, Mr. Tulliver’s hope to improve his son’s lot in life through education fails because his ignorance about learning is self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, making him unable to choose the right teacher for Tom.
While Tom’s education flounders due to the ignorance of the adults in his life and his own lack of intellectual aptitude, Maggie shows an early ability and appetite for learning. However, her desire to gain more knowledge is stifled by the small-mindedness of St. Ogg’s society, which cannot tolerate such impulses in a woman. Mr. Tulliver is very proud of Maggie’s cleverness, but he is also worried for her—since he says that a woman has “no business wi’ being so clever.” In other words, he is concerned that Maggie’s love of reading will not serve her well in the only role allotted to her in St. Ogg’s society as a wife and mother. Mr. Tulliver’s friend Mr. Riley also disapproves, commenting that Maggie shouldn’t read Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil because the devil is an unsuitable subject for a little girl. For Maggie, her relationship with Philip Wakem, who loans her books and provides her with the intellectual companionship she yearns for, is a precious reprieve from the repression of her daily life and routines, which consist largely of household chores. However, the family hatred of the Wakems, which cuts off her friendship with Philip, prevents her from taking advantage of that outlet for intellectual growth. Still, Philip’s influence encourages Maggie to explore the parts of her nature that are drawn to art, books, and culture. “You will not always be shut up in your present lot: why should you starve your mind in that way?” Philip asks. Philip links intellectual exploration to freedom, suggesting that Maggie can transcend her social and material circumstances by stimulating her mind.
Perhaps the foremost example of the deep-rooted ignorance of St. Ogg’s are the Dodsons, Maggie and Tom's aunts and uncles. The Dodsons embody the provincial values of St. Ogg's, with their rigid standards of propriety and distaste for any behavior that falls outside those norms. They are a wealthy, “respectable” family and pillars of the community, but they also demonstrate exactly what is so oppressive about St. Ogg’s and its ignorance of the wider world. All three of Mrs. Tulliver's Dodson sisters—Mrs. Glegg, Mrs. Deane, and Mrs. Pullet—dislike the Tulliver children. They constantly criticize Maggie for her long black hair and dark skin, which they think makes her inferior to the blond, rosy-cheeked Dodsons. Their contempt for a family member who looks slightly different from them demonstrates their small-mindedness, since they associate familial bonds with similarity in appearance. Because the Dodsons place a premium on appearances, they tend to look with suspicion on anyone who behaves in unconventional or unfamiliar ways, like Mr. Tulliver. In addition, because the Dodsons have never left their hometown, they have little knowledge of values and life experiences that don’t mirror their own—hence their suspicion and distrust of unconventional people like Maggie and Mr. Tulliver.
A central theme of The Mill on the Floss is Maggie’s struggle to escape the constraints of a small town society that doesn’t share her values and stifles her intellectual interests. The narrator constantly comments ironically on the provincialism and ignorance of the town, while showing how Maggie retreats to the world of books to find the deeper love and connection that she craves. The novel suggests that ignorance doesn't just stop people from learning more about the world; it also keeps them trapped in roles and positions in life that oppress them and stop them from reaching their full potential. At the same time, however, reading allows Maggie to expand her worldview beyond the narrow reaches of her everyday life, suggesting that knowledge has the power to transform people’s lives, even in a small town like St. Ogg’s.
Knowledge and Ignorance ThemeTracker
Knowledge and Ignorance Quotes in The Mill on the Floss
“I want him to know figures, and write like print, and see into things quick, and know what folks mean, and how to wrap things up in words as aren’t actionable. It’s an uncommon fine thing […] when you can let a man know what you think of him without paying for it.”
“No; you couldn’t,” said Tom, indignantly. “Girls can’t do Euclid: can they, sir?”
“They can pick up a little of everything, I daresay,” said Mr. Stelling. “They’ve a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn’t go far into anything. They’re quick and shallow.”