Although The Mill on the Floss covers about fifteen years in the lives of its protagonists, siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the story constantly hearkens back to their childhood. In the novel, seemingly trivial incidences in those early years later take on new significance. Maggie’s conflict with Tom and her desire for his love and acceptance, for instance, is a thread that continues from their early lives at Dorlcote Mill, through their school years, and into their troubled adolescence and adulthood. Similarly, old grudges have a long afterlife. For example, for Mr. Tulliver, Tom and Maggie’s father, the memory of his humiliation at the hands of Mr. Wakem (the lawyer who contributes to the loss of the mill) becomes a force of destruction, conflict, and death long after the originating incident. In The Mill on the Floss, memories of childhood can provide precious comfort against the harsh realities of adulthood, but they can also create a far-reaching cycle of stasis and pain.
When they were children, Maggie worshipped Tom and longed for his approval and affection. However, he tended to punish her harshly when she deviated from his value system and standards of morality, a pattern that continues into their adulthood. When Tom is away at school, for example, Maggie forgets to feed his rabbits. Upon later seeing that his rabbits have died, Tom is furious at Maggie and refuses to accept her apologies, sharply telling her, “I don’t love you.” This distresses Maggie so deeply that she cries in the attic and thinks of starving herself. After their family’s bankruptcy, Tom forbids Maggie to talk to Philip Wakem, the son of the lawyer who has ruined them. When Tom finds out that she has been meeting Philip in secret—and that they have professed their love for each other—he is cold and unforgiving. He forces Maggie to never speak to Philip again and insults Philip’s physical disabilities to his face. Remembering their childhood squabbles, Maggie tells Tom, “you have always been hard and cruel to me: even when I was a little girl […] you would let me go crying to bed without forgiving me.” Here, the patterns of their childhood—Maggie’s transgressions, and Tom’s self-righteousness and reluctance to forgive—perpetuate themselves into adulthood.
For Mr. Tulliver, the persistence of memory has destructive effects. Even over the course of many years, he cannot forgive or forget the actions of Mr. Wakem, who bankrupted him and then spitefully bought Dorlcote Mill, forcing Mr. Tulliver to work as his employee. Mr. Tulliver accepts the conditions of Mr. Wakem’s offer, but he makes Tom swear on the family Bible that he will never forget the injuries done to their family and will one day take revenge. Tom promises that he will “make [Wakem and his family] feel it, if ever the day comes,” ensuring that the cycle of hatred and revenge will continue over time. Even after Tom has managed to earn enough money to pay off the Tulliver family debts, Mr. Tulliver cannot let go of his old hatred of Mr. Wakem. Riding home from town the day the debts have been paid, he encounters Mr. Wakem and brutally beats him with his riding crop. That night, Mr. Tulliver collapses and dies, telling his family “I had my turn—I beat him.” Even years after the bankruptcy, Mr. Tulliver was still preoccupied with taking revenge against the man he perceived as the cause of his misfortunes, rather than building a new life for his family. Obsession with the past, the novel suggests, prevents people from embracing the possibilities of the future.
Dorlcote Mill is closely associated with the Tullivers’ family history. Even when it becomes financially untenable to stay at the mill, the family remains attached to the property because of the memories that have been made there. The narrator explains that Mr. Tulliver’s chief motive in staying at the mill to work for Mr. Wakem is “love of the old premises where he had run about when he was a boy, just as Tom had after him.” In this way, Dorlcote Mill provides a link between the several generations of Tullivers who have owned the property. Mr. Tulliver sees similarities between his own childhood and his son’s, and he doesn’t want to disrupt that continuity. On his deathbed, Mr. Tulliver’s dying request is that Tom should “try and get the old mill back.” By referring to Dorlcote Mill as “the old mill,” Mr. Tulliver highlights the mill’s long history and importance to the family, as well as Tom’s role in continuing that legacy. Tom’s entire life and career after his father’s death centers on this single task; he even turns down a promotion at the shipping company where he works, Guest & Co, in order to move back to the mill. Perhaps the final testament of Tom and Maggie’s shared loyalty to their childhood home is her decision to return to the mill during a disastrous flood to try to rescue her brother, although she and Tom both drown in the attempted escape.
The past haunts the novel’s central protagonists. Memories of their childhood continue to influence their behavior and decisions far into their adulthood, from Tom’s obsession with buying back Dorlcote Mill to Maggie’s preoccupation with earning her brother’s affection and approval. As the narrator observes, “the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives.” For Tom and Maggie, this is both a blessing and a curse. In many ways, they are unable to free themselves from the family obligations, expectations, and grudges that shaped their childhoods. On the other hand, their bond with each other is a source of stability and continuity through the many changes in their lives and circumstances. The supportive power of deep history sustains them through their family’s bankruptcy and their father’s death, when Tom and Maggie cry together and promise that they will always love each other. Finally, Maggie’s sacrifice of her own life for Tom demonstrates her the continuing power of her childhood emotional attachments.
Memory and Childhood ThemeTracker
Memory and Childhood Quotes in The Mill on the Floss
Life did change for Tom and Maggie; and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it—if it were not the same earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers […].
When they did meet, she remembered her promise to kiss him, but, as a young lady who had been at a boarding-school, she knew now that such a greeting was out of the question, and that Philip would not expect it. This promise was void, like so many other sweet, illusory promises of our childhood; void as promises made in Eden […] impossible to be fulfilled when the golden gates had been passed.
I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we are to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie—how it has acted on young natures in many generations, that in the outward tendency of human things have risen above the mental level of the generation before them, to which they have been nevertheless tied by the strongest fibers of their hearts.
“We don't ask what a woman does—we ask whom she belongs to. It's altogether a degrading thing to you to think of marrying old Tulliver’s daughter.”