Maggie Tulliver, who is age seven when the story opens, lives at Dorlcote Mill on the River Ripple at its junction with the River Floss near the village of St. Ogg’s in England, with her father, who owns the mill, mother, and older brother Tom. The novel spans a period of ten to fifteen years, beginning with Tom’s and Maggie’s childhood and including her father’s ongoing battles with a lawyer named Wakem, the Tullivers’ consequent bankruptcy resulting in the loss of the mill, and Mr. Tulliver’s untimely death. Tom has been in school with Philip Wakem, the lawyer’s hunchbacked, sensitive, and intellectual son, and Maggie has grown fond of Philip, seeing him secretly. To help repay his father’s debts, Tom leaves his schooling to enter a life of business, but in his hatred of the Wakems, he forbids Maggie’s seeing Philip, and she languishes in the impoverished Tulliver home, renouncing the world after reading Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.
Some years later, Tom has been successful and able to restore the family’s former estate. Lucy has been away teaching school but returns to visit with her cousin, Lucy Deane. Her acquaintance with Philip is renewed and he still loves her, but Stephen Guest, a young socialite in St. Ogg's who is Lucy’s fiancé, is also attracted to her. Maggie enjoys the clandestine attentions of Stephen, but when he substitutes for the sick Philip in taking her on a boat ride and proposes that they stop in Mudport, and get married, she rejects him and makes her way back to St. Ogg's, where, rejected by her brother Tom and almost everyone else except her mother, Tom’s friend Bob Jakin and his family, in whose home she takes lodgings, and the minister, Dr. Kenn, who engages her as governess for his children, she lives for a brief period as an outcast, though she does reconcile with both Philip and Lucy. When the flood comes, Maggie sets out in one of Bob’s boats to rescue Tom, and together they head to rescue Lucy, but their boat capsizes and the two drown in an embrace, thus giving the book its Biblical subtitle, “In their death they were not divided.”
I have always liked Eliot’s Silas Marner because it is, in the final analysis, a tale of redemption. However, The Mill on the Floss is not primarily a tale of redemption. In fact, the book is somewhat autobiographical in that it reflects the disgrace that the author herself felt while involved in a lengthy relationship with a married man, George Henry Lewes, although there are differences. No actual immorality is portrayed in the book, and towards the end, Maggie does make the right choice. There are a little bad language and some references to drinking alcohol, using tobacco, and dancing. Biblical quotations and allusions abound throughout, but I am not sure that the book represents a truly Biblical worldview. A certain degree of fatalistic determinism is at play throughout the novel—in fact, on one occasion Maggie says, “Our life is determined for us”—although Maggie’s ultimate choice not to marry Stephen demonstrates a final triumph of free will. Some latent feminism also occurs in that the cultural norms of her community seem to deny Maggie her intellectual and spiritual growth. Many of Eliot’s observations about the nature of people and society are interesting, with some of which you may agree and others you may not, but occasionally her social commentary goes on and on to the point of becoming boring. Like The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the right hands The Mill on the Floss could be used to teach a good lesson on not being judgmental, but due to the “titillating” nature of the story I would recommend that it not be inflicted on anyone under age eighteen.