Book cover for The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot (English classic)

“Brought up at Dorlcote Mill, Maggie Tulliver worships her brother Tom and is desperate to win the approval of her parents, but her passionate, wayward nature and her fierce intelligence bring her into constant conflict with her family. As she reaches adulthood, the clash between their expectations and her desires is painfully played out as she finds herself torn between her relationships with three very different men: her proud and stubborn brother; hunchbacked Tom Wakem, the son of her family’s worst enemy; and the charismatic but dangerous Stephen Guest.”

The Mill on the Floss used to be on my list of George Eliot novels not to read. I watched a movie version of the story years ago and thought that the ending was so random and awful that there was no way I was going to read that book! In the years that have passed, however, I’ve read and loved several novels by George Eliot and come to trust her as an author. I decided I was ready to give The Mill on the Floss a try.

Many descriptions of this book, including the one above, make Maggie sound like a rebel and perhaps even a revolutionary. The quality they miss is her simplicity and lack of sophistication. Maggie doesn’t want to be a rebel! What she lacks is the ability to suppress her natural authenticity in order to conform to the beliefs and behaviors demanded by her family and community. Her mistakes are rarely true sins against God, and yet they are regarded as unpardonable sins by many members of her family and, later in the book, by the community at large. No matter what Maggie does, it isn’t right.

The world of the novel, in fact, felt like Babylon to me, and I couldn’t help but believe that in a purer community, Maggie would have been happy and successful. I’m not used to reading about the concerns of Babylon being dramatized in such a rustic community, which is one of the things that makes the novel so interesting. The setting has its idyllic qualities, but the author makes it clear that in St. Ogg’s, “one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish, surely the most prosaic form of human life; proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build; worldliness without side-dishes.” (Book 4, Chapter 1) Even the title of the novel emphasizes the worldly demands on Maggie. The action of the novel revolves around the mill and what it represents about the family honor, respectability, and pride. As long as the mill exists at all, it’s going to dictate family concerns and define family relationships. When I became aware of that fact, I despaired of seeing any glimpse of Zion in the novel at all.

In the very last chapter of the book, however, there is a moment for Maggie and Tom when the world as they know it disappears in a flood. In that moment, they are able to come face to face and see each other as they really are, without “all the artificial vesture of [their] life.” Maggie realizes the river is flooding and is able to escape the house where she lives in a boat:

In the first moments Maggie felt nothing, thought of nothing, but that she had suddenly passed away from that life which she had been dreading; it was the transition of death, without its agony,—and she was alone in the darkness with God.

The whole thing had been so rapid, so dreamlike, that the threads of ordinary association were broken; she sank down on the seat clutching the oar mechanically, and for a long while had no distinct conception of her position. . . .

Along with the sense of danger and possible rescue for those long-remembered beings at the old home, there was an undefined sense of reconcilement with her brother; what quarrel, what harshness, what unbelief in each other can subsist in the presence of a great calamity, when all the artificial vesture of our life is gone, and we are all one with each other in primitive mortal needs? Vaguely Maggie felt this, in the strong resurgent love toward her brother that swept away all the later impressions of hard, cruel offence and misunderstanding, and left only the deep, underlying, unshakable memories of early union.

After Maggie rescues Tom in her little boat, he has an experience similar to hers:

It was not till Tom had pushed off and they were on the wide water,—he face to face with Maggie,—that the full meaning of what had happened rushed upon his mind. It came with so overpowering a force,—it was such a new revelation to his spirit, of the depths in life that had lain beyond his vision, which he had fancied so keen and clear,—that he was unable to ask a question. They sat mutely gazing at each other,—Maggie with eyes of intense life looking out from a weary, beaten face; Tom pale, with a certain awe and humiliation. Thought was busy though the lips were silent; and though he could ask no question, he guessed a story of almost miraculous, divinely protected effort. But at last a mist gathered over the blue-gray eyes, and the lips found a word they could utter,—the old childish “Magsie!”

Finally, in that moment when Babylon disappears and a speck of life more pure and authentic emerges, I saw a glimpse of Zion—not so much Zion as a community, but as a state of heart in line with God’s vision of us and compassion toward us. I’m reminded of several verses from the New Testament that describe the difference between our vision and God’s:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. . . .

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. . . .

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Corinthians 13:8,10,12

Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

Hebrews 4:13

Tom and Maggie couldn’t achieve that DIvine vision and compassion while they were bound to Babylon, and neither can we.

I know that last statement sounds simplistic, but it is, nonetheless, true, particularly in a spiritual sense. I don’t, however, want to minimize the difficultly human beings experience when working to throw off the shackles of Babylon, particularly in the physical sense. The novel, in fact, shows those shackles in vivid detail, with all of their mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical locks and chains. Several characters see Maggie with purer eyes, but their community prevents them from acting fully on their compassionate feelings. I finished reading The Mill on the Floss as I was gathering quotations for my posts on Democracy in America, and I couldn’t help but recognize that the situation in St. Ogg’s dramatizes Tocqueville’s vision of “the tyranny of the majority” to a tee.  Like it or not, our communities do place demands on us that can be difficult to overcome.

A conversation from Middlemarch, another novel by George Eliot, confronts this issue head-on. Mr. Lydgate, a new doctor in the community, asks a question to Mr. Farebrother, the Vicar:

“Don’t you think men overrate the necessity for humoring everybody’s nonsense, till they get despised by the very fools they humor? . . . The shortest way is to make your value felt, so that people must put up with you whether you flatter them or not.”

“With all my heart. But then you must be sure of having the value, and you must keep yourself independent. Very few men can do that. Either you slip out of service altogether, and become good for nothing, or you wear the harness and draw a good deal where your yoke-fellows pull you.”

Part 2, Chapter 17
Book cover for Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Mr. Farebrother’s response to Mr. Lydgate has long haunted me, particularly since I’ve seen the truth of his observation firsthand. How do we avoid wearing the harness of Babylon and remain independent enough to embrace the ideals of Zion when the influence of Babylon is so all-encompassing? Several years ago, a leader of my church gave a talk on this subject to college students that really resonates with me. Here is a piece of his advice:

My young friends, there is a wide variety of beliefs in this world, and there is moral agency for all, but no one is entitled to act as if God is mute on these subjects or as if commandments only matter if there is public agreement over them. In the 21st century we cannot flee any longer. We are going to have to fight for laws and circumstances and environments that allow the free exercise of religion and our franchise in it. That is one way we can tolerate being in Babylon but not of it.

I know of no more important ability and no greater integrity for us to demonstrate in a world from which we cannot flee than to walk that careful path—taking a moral stand according to what God has declared and the laws He has given, but doing it compassionately and with understanding and great charity. . . .

We aren’t going to solve every personal or social problem in the world here tonight. When we leave this evening, there will still be poverty, ignorance and transgression, unemployment and abuse, violence and heartache in our neighborhoods and cities and nations. No, we can’t do everything, but as the old saying goes, we can do something. And in answer to God’s call, the children of Israel are the ones to do it—not to flee Babylon this time but to attack it. Without being naive or Pollyannaish about it, we can live our religion so broadly and unfailingly that we find all kinds of opportunities to help families, bless neighbors, and protect others, including the rising generation.

Israel, Israel, God is Calling,” Jeffery R. Holland, CES Devotional Broadcasts.

The featured image came from Pixabay.