“The Mills of the Floss” a Tale by George Eliot Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Apr 9th, 2020


Fiction works are characterized by the presence of a teller and a tale. Moreover, within a tale is a message that aims to influence an audience in a certain way. “The Mill on the Floss” contains the message that comes from the teller, which is a reality of the teller. There is also the fictional message resting on the fictional tale. This essay examines deeper the portrayal of children in the “Mill of the Floss.”

Children in the context of power

In reviewing the Mill on the Floss, it is important also to bring out the element of symbolism in the text’s narrative and the author’s life situation. The author was reworking a fractured relationship with her brother at the time of writing the text. Mary Ann Evans, going by the pen name George Eliot, was seeking to regrow her relationship with her brother after breaking off three years earlier due to her action of cohabiting with a married person.

Just like in the text, where Tom and Maggie did not meet again, so did the author and her brother. In this case, the text can be seen as a reference to minor details in people’s relationships and how they act in the context of major details, such as the relationship between people. The few times that Eliot and her brother enjoyed their time together as children were not sufficient to rekindle their relationship once they were adults. One main reason for this is that with adulthood comes the power to decline and judge, which is missing in childhood. This is a clear message emerging from the text about how past observations and the actions of the children subject changes as the novel progresses.

In The Mill of the Floss, the tale of Lucy, Maggie, and Tom present reality about the author’s lifestyle. It also highlights the message that the author presents in a fictional way. The author compares the children to animals and goes on to make further elaborations about the comparison. The reader develops an understanding throughout the text that the difference between being minor and major in human life comes in the ability to direct one’s actions, plans, activities, and directing the actions of others. Animals like ducks, ponies, and dogs rely on domestication to cater to their needs. Otherwise, they are prone to manipulations by their environment, as they are naturally non-hunting animals.

According to Darwin, there is a struggle for existence among organisms, and humans make choices to increase their chances of survival (Otis 258). The powerful organisms eventually triumph. This can be equated to the growing up of children, such that they no longer have to live at the mercy of their guardians and restricted environments. Therefore, the power lies in the ability to select. For man, the selection is for the own benefit, and for nature, the selection is in support of everything within. A balance exists and cultivates itself from periodic chaos. Similarly, in the Mill of the Floss, there is chaos, but the characters settle for a stable relationship between those with power and those without power. Agreeing to be directed is one way of yielding power and restoring balance (McCall 134-135).

The description of children in the text reflects the struggles that Darwin would come up with when explaining the natural selection process. Each person is growing, and the aspect of growing is comparable to the manifestations of animal behavior. From the text, the reader learns of the behavior of Maggie, which includes tossing the head to maintain eye focus and remove heavy locks from her vision. The author refers to this behavior as a Shetland pony (Eliot 14). On the other hand, there is a description of Lucy as sitting down, displaying affectionate eyes, and behaving like a pretty spaniel (Eliot 366).

Another instance relating to the role of power in selection happens in a passage where Maggie and Tom are in the company of adults. Maggie receives harsh verbal sentences about her character (Eliot 67). Even though they are uttered as jokes, the sentences affect her considerably, such that she is overwhelmed by emotions and has to run to her father sobbing after trying to be defiant. This incident brings out the power dynamics and presents gender dynamics that bring out the message of the author beyond the fictional tale (Eliot 67). Just like animals, children are powerless and cannot dictate their relationships with adults. Women’s role emerges as very different compared to that of men due to the power arrangement that exists in the world. In the same way, animals of a different gender would behave differently and perform different duties as they fulfill Darwin’s theory of struggling to survive (Otis 259).

A historical significance and implication of the text

The incidence of Maggie sobbing and the rest of the references about helplessness about the situations facing the characters bring out another aspect of the society, where the powerless cannot do anything other than cry. Another author, Browning (1), talks about the weeping of children. Children are complaining of the sorrow that awaits them, and the crying that they have to do as they live until their eyes resemble those of older people who have pale faces and sunken eyes. The Victorian lifestyle is a struggle for the powerless. Even as they struggle, they see death as their only hope out of the suffering. However, when one is young, being able to die willingly is not an option, and struggling is not avoidable. The plight of being powerless is unavoidable, which is the message that the Mill on the Floss is representing.

The power relation is almost impossible to upset, even as the Darwin case claimed that eventually, nature has its way and the strong triumph (Otis 258). A question that one would ask based on this understanding is about the particular chance or method that a weak person can use to become stronger. The assumption here is that the strong will keep on increasing their strength at every opportunity. In the Browning (2) context, there is no way for adults who are growing old to reverse their aging process. In this regard, they cannot relinquish their power as children may want.

According to Burdett (32), the Victorian era provided the weak with enough stimuli to seek survival by working to fulfill the needs of the powerful in society as they explored avenues for escape. It was only nature’s changes in the balance of power that affected the lives of the weak in society against those of the powerful. In a way, it appears that children are getting a chance to grow up and enjoy the power of adults. In the animal sense, there is no longer domestication that affects behavior; instead, opportunities emerge to allow freedom of behavior, based on individual needs. According to Burdett, a nineteenth-century novel delved much on sexual selection. Even the Mill on the Floss had numerous references to Maggie and Tom in their gender context.

As the story follows the growth of Maggie, it shows how circumstances are changing. It portrays childhood, where there is no difference in pointing out Maggie and Tom, as well as teenage life when Maggie has a separate character that is developing independently from other characters in the story (McCall 131-137). The lives of the siblings revolve around each other when the siblings are young, but they experience arguments and incompatibilities in their character when they grow up. The rules of society in shaping the growth of an individual emerge as a highlight of the Mill on the Floss. Maggie, living in a world that sees women as inferior to men, becomes rebellious of this notion as she ages (Eliot 334).

Here, the author transforms the struggle of power from the growing up of children and the helplessness of animals to the concept of having a choice and standing up for one’s views. Therefore, the emancipation of Maggie is anticipated progress for the author’s life, where she hopes that society will shift from undermining women to recognizing them as equal to men in many aspects. Going back to the Darwinian conceptualization of power in the struggle for survival, Maggie seems to have realized the power of her own as she is embracing selection in a world that would expect women to sit back and wait to be selected (Burdett 32).

According to Browning (2-4), children have a difficult time coping with a world that gives them little choice, which is also the fate of animals. This is easily related to Darwin’s comparison of humans and animals, where the weak have to comply with the demands of the strong. Therefore, society appears to cater to the needs of the strong more than it does those of the weak. Contrary to the expectation of the 19th-century setting where the novel was set, there are exceptions to the norm, as witnessed in Maggie’s case. In this regard, the novel is a projection of the problems of heredity and the environment.

The novel brings out thoughts of a generation that looks at its ancestors and considers its contemporary society (Lesnik-Oberstein 77-78). It appears as a projection of the author’s life in her world through the use of the character Maggie. The author faces challenges relating to her brother and father as equal powers in an environment where the other two have no room to understand her character as equal to them. The novel concentrates on highlighting the limitations that the characters, compared to animals, faced in the Victorian period. It does not desire to offer a solution, but merely highlights the plight of the characters, which includes resignation and renunciation.


Just like the Origin of Specifies by Charles Darwin, The Mill on the Floss was a challenge to traditional Christian and social perception of the social structure and everyone’s role in society. This essay has concentrated on examining the portrayal of children in the text. It has highlighted other power dynamics contained in the fiction message and the significance of the text in the life of its author. It shows that power struggles arose because of the introduction of new ideas and behaviors that challenged the beliefs of people in the 19th-century setting. The struggles that the author faced were best captured by the challenges of the children’s characters as they made sense of their world.

Works Cited

Burdett, Carolyn. “Sexual Selection Automata and Ethics in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Olive Schreiner’s Undine and From Man to Man.” Journal of Victorian Culture 14.1 (2009): 26-52. Print.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. London: Sovereign, 2013. Print.

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin. “‘Holiday House’: Grist to ‘The Mill on the Floss’, or Childhood as Text.” The Yearbook of English Studies 32 (2002): 77-94. Print.

McCall, Ian. “The Portrayal of Childhood in Proust’s Jean Santeuil and Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss”.” Comparative Literature Studies 36.2 (1999): 131-145. Print.

Otis, Laura, ed. Literature and Science in the Nineteeth Century. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

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