Discussion Post: The Mill on the Floss
Our last LT Classics Challenge Discussion post — for now, as there’s always the possibility of us restarting it in the new year. Don’t forget to comment for your chance to win a Penguin Clothbound Classic :)
George Eliot is one of those rare authors who is widely known to be female, but who is still referred to by her male pseudonym. Do you believe knowing (or not knowing) her true gender affects your reading of this novel? How so? Should it have?
I am one of those people who firmly believes that gender should not affect a reader’s experience. That being said, knowing that George Eliot is, in fact, Marian Evans makes her sympathy for Maggie a lot more understandable. It’s not impossible for a man to write a sympathetic or even strong woman, as can be seen in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. But while Tess is almost overly good, Maggie is somehow more real, which is maybe where Eliot’s gender comes into play.
The Mill on the Floss is generally recognized as Eliot’s most autobiographical novel, as she and Maggie Tulliver share similarities in character, appearance, and life events. Does reading this work as autobiographical take away from the story at all, or merely enhance it? Would you prefer to read this book as just a novel, or as a reflection of the author’s own life?
This is sort of a trick question — really what it’s asking is if you believe in the New Critical theory, which focuses on the inherent characteristics of a text while rejecting outside influences such as biography or political aims. A New Critic would argue that we should forget that there is any such person as George Eliot and focus on The Mill on the Floss simply as The Mill on the Floss.
Personally, I find it fascinating that this novel is meant to be autobiographical! That reading adds another layer of meaning onto the whole experience, and I found myself wondering if Eliot was writing as some sort of catharsis for her childhood experiences, which were very much like Maggie’s. Though it’s certainly valid to read this novel as just a novel, I prefer to know a little bit more about the author and how he or she might connect personally to the text.
The ending has been described by some critics as a deus ex machina, or a contrived plot point the author used to work her way out of an impossible corner. Other critics, however, believe Eliot intended to end the novel that way all along. Did the ending feel contrived to you?
Yes, it did. But remember that this was not at all uncommon for the time! The ending of Oliver Twist is notorious for being impossibly contrived, and many of Dickens’ other works (Great Expectations always excluded) have the same minor flaw. I blame the time, rather than the author, for the ending’s artificiality.
See you in the New Year for our next round of LT Classics!